[Editor’s note: This article refers to the months of June-August as “summer,” even though in Australia itself, they comprise the winter.]
As Australia endured a spike in COVID-19 infections late summer of 2021, another trend had become apparent — a rise in the spread of online disinformation and conspiracy theory content emerging from the country, and seized upon by COVID-19 skeptics and vaccine opponents thousands of miles away, primarily in the U.S. and U.K.
In August, a make-up artist in the city of Melbourne posted a video clip recorded at a police station, which was falsely presented to millions around the world as proof of Australia’s rapid descent into brutal COVID-era authoritarianism. Her apparent journey “down the rabbithole” of online conspiracy theories, and the way in which the video spread throughout the world in a matter of hours, could be a warning of what’s to come, as Australia’s federal and state officials push to maximize vaccine uptake, and ensure compliance with yet more restrictions, with many Australians already experiencing lockdown fatigue.
Throughout 2020, Australia seemed — to the outside world at least — immune from the very worst ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Border closures and strict lockdowns kept infections and fatalities low, to the extent that by December, the city of Melbourne, with a population of just over 5 million — around the same as the state of South Carolina — saw no new cases for a month.
In November, the world-famous Sydney Opera House reopened its doors, and in the whole of 2020, the virus claimed 909 lives in a population of 26 million — just one death for every 28,000 people — as opposed to nearly 372,000 in the United States — a death for every 891 people.
However, 2021 brought changing fortunes to Australia. The emergence of the delta variant caused several spikes in infections across various states, and significant outbreaks in New South Wales and Victoria — home to the country’s two major population centers, Sydney and Melbourne, respectively.
The summer of 2021 saw stringent new lockdowns, stay-at-home orders and curfews in and around those two cities, along with anti-lockdown protests, increasing social tensions, and a slow distribution of vaccines.
Australia’s COVID-19 strategy, widely acclaimed as a model of common sense and scientific rigor, appeared on the brink of unravelling, and the rest of the world stood up and took notice — including anti-vaccine and anti-lockdown activists and conspiracy theorists, keen to latch on to any stray fragments of evidence that would undermine their own governments’ travel restrictions and vaccine rollouts.
A spike in online misinformation has followed.
In August, for example, the New South Wales (NSW) government announced plans for a vaccination drive targeting 16- to 18-year-old high school students in several neighborhoods, in and around Sydney, which had the most worrying recent COVID-19 infection data. The Qudos Arena (also known as the Super Dome) would be opened up and 24,000 students invited and encouraged to get their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine over the week of Aug. 9-14.
Conspiracy theorists in the U.S. and the U.K. jumped into action, falsely claiming officials in NSW were planning to kidnap thousands of children and forcibly inject them en masse in the stadium:
“Anecdotally, we have seen and heard from our networks of an increase in Covid-related misinformation since the beginning of the NSW outbreak,” said Chris Cooper, executive director of Reset Australia, a group that advocates for enhanced regulation of online threats to democracy.
Michael Jensen, associate professor at the University of Canberra’s Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, said his anecdotal observation was also that such misinformation “has surged again with the emergence of the delta variant,” and was now being primarily driven by the increased emphasis on vaccination. He added:
Vaccine misinformation is a defense mechanism for those who wish to not get vaccinated. Some people likely never outgrow their anxieties about vaccinations. This makes the issue more problematic than the general factors that incline people to believe conspiracies.
Peter Bodkin, FactCheck editor at the Australian Associated Press, told Snopes he had observed a “significant increase in Covid-related [misinformation], particularly relating to vaccines, following outbreaks of the Delta variant.” He pointed to one especially glaring example of how misleading content can be wrested from its original context, on the ground in Australia, and then distorted and embellished in the hands of unscrupulous actors outside the country.
When pictures and short video clips emerged earlier in the summer of young people fainting in Australian vaccination centers — a common and well-known minor side effect of any vaccination — American conspiracy theorist Stew Peters falsely claimed the images were proof that three students had died as a result of the vaccination drive. As Bodkin said:
That started out with people sharing unverified videos in Australia of people passed out, supposedly in vaccination centres; next it made its way to US conspiracy shows, by which time the claim was that the students had died, and then that misinformation about deaths started being picked up on social media in Australia as fact and fed back through the misinformation ecosystem here.
Later in August, yet another fragment of evidence emerged online, and its rapid promulgation throughout the world illustrated a now familiar pattern: a video recorded “on the ground” in Australia, wrenched from its original context and shared by a local woman left frustrated and radicalized by the pandemic, and then seized upon by unscrupulous actors thousands of miles away.
The Werribee Incident
Beginning on Aug. 19, a 58-second video clip was viewed millions of times on Twitter alone and presented as evidence that authorities in Australia were brutally separating children from their parents, in order to forcibly vaccinate them against COVID-19, or to place them in quarantine after testing positive for the virus.
“Australian gestapo kidnaps daughter from her father’s arms to forcibly inject her with an experimental drug,” read one widely shared tweet.
“Reports [that] children testing positive for Covid are now being separated from their parents,” read another. The next day, the retired England cricket captain Kevin Pietersen promoted the video to his 3.7 million Twitter followers, adding, “This is absolutely disgusting!”
In reality, of course, the incident shown in the video had nothing whatsoever to do with COVID-19 restrictions. On Twitter, police in the state of Victoria directly addressed Pietersen’s exclamations, explaining “This is inaccurate,” and insisting that the clip “was in no way related to Covid/vaccinations or testing.” A police spokesperson later told Snopes the incident took place on Aug. 14, at a police station in Werribee, a suburb of Melbourne. The separation of the man and child was no more or less than a “family incident,” the spokesperson added.
(Snopes contacted representatives for Pietersen, asking for his response to Victoria Police Department’s refutation of the conspiracy theory around the video, but we did not receive a reply of any kind. As of Sept. 1, Pietersen’s tweet remained online).
The earliest posts containing the footage that we could find were published on Aug. 19 by Hava Buday — a 30-year-old beauty therapist and entrepreneur who lives in Melbourne. On TikTok, Instagram and Facebook, she shared the minute-long clip, along with the hashtag #lockdown — a clear signal to viewers that the scene playing out before them was undoubtedly connected to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In an introduction to the footage, Buday tells the camera:
I watched a video today where a child was ripped off his father. Then the father got assaulted. They were separating them … Do you know how you have traumatized that child now, Australian government?
… This is where compliance will lead us… So if you want to keep seeing more of this shit, you keep complying with every mandate they fucking tell you to.
Snopes sent several questions to Buday about the original source of the Werribee video, her response to Victoria Police Department’s explanation of the incident, and her own emergence as an anti-lockdown online activist and commentator. We did not receive any response, despite repeated attempts to contact her.
In her public social media profiles, at least, Buday presents an interesting case study in how the COVID-19 pandemic has served to radicalize people who, by all appearances, seemed to have little interest in politics previously.
For the past eight years, her Instagram profile contained no hint of politics, apart from a few Black Lives Matter-themed photos in June 2020, and no inkling of any belief in conspiracy theories. It suggested a well-adjusted and sociable woman with an interest in travel, fashion, animals and Turkish culture.
Even during the lockdowns and stresses of 2020, she posted selfies from various beauty spots, along with videos containing homemade recipes for iced coffee, Turkish rice, and sucuk and eggs — a traditional Turkish breakfast dish.
In the summer of 2021, amid a fresh wave of lockdowns, that appeared to have changed. In June, Buday posted videos that hinted at a shift in focus, advising followers about the health benefits of dandelions and nettles, and warning that “the water we drink that contains fluoride actually has no minerals for our body.”
In July, she posted a seven-minute informal lecture on “systematic conditioning and differences between conspiracy theorists and truth seekers,” using hashtags like #theawakening and #truthseeker — known QAnon and conspiracy theorist signifiers.
By August, her anger and frustration were on full display, and her adoption of the language of conspiracy theories and New Age spirituality appeared complete. In a video posted to Instagram on Aug. 16, she began, “Listen here, Australian government, I’m fucking sick of your shit,” and went on to accuse the government of conservative Liberal Party Prime Minister Scott Morrison of “killing people with injections.”
A week later, she smiled into the camera while pronouncing: “All these low-vibrational people — the ones that are in deep slumber, constantly trying to shut down the neurodivergence and my beautiful woke souls — they’re not coming to the new world.”
“You can’t even go outside and scream ‘Fuck!'” she complained, in another video on Aug. 16.
Three days later, she posted footage of the Werribee police station incident, along with the hashtag #savethekids — yet another nod to QAnon and conspiracy theorist terminology.
The kind of frustration and cabin fever expressed by Buday in her more recent videos is hardly unique, especially in Australia, whose national COVID-19 policy was built on the successful use of relatively strict lockdowns and restrictions, back in 2020.
Now, the prospect of yet more lockdowns, among a population that could have been forgiven for thinking they had nearly defeated the virus for good, could provide fertile ground for the spread of non-compliance, conspiracy theories, and vaccine hesitancy.
Cooper, from Reset Australia, told Snopes he thought the new wave of restrictions in 2021 was playing a role in the rise of misinformation:
The prolonged lockdowns are obviously causing many Australians hardship, stress and frustration. And we know that these lockdowns create the perfect environmental factors that pull people down rabbit holes.
We’re all online more, we’re worried and looking for answers, and we’re all trying to find engaging content to alleviate a bit of the boredom. Facebook algorithms are designed to pull us in and keep us online — but they don’t discriminate on what they’re engaging us with. If we want to stop the spread of misinformation online we actually need transparency about how these algorithms are operating and how we can moderate or disrupt their rabbit hole tendencies.
However, several of the experts with whom we spoke pointed to at least one significant point of encouragement: whatever disinformation they might encounter online, Australians can expect virtual consensus from political leaders — with a few notable exceptions — about the importance of vaccination and lockdowns, especially by comparison with other countries — the U.S., in particular.
“Every major political party is pro-vaccination,” said Tauel Harper, a media and communication lecturer at the University of Western Australia. He added:
Anti-lockdown rhetoric is engaged in sparingly by our conservative party – the Liberal National Party (LNP), which holds power federally and also in the state of NSW. Generally, though, the lockdowns have been held to be very effective at limiting the spread of COVID and most states are relatively untouched by COVID as a result, so speaking against lockdowns is politically problematic.
Public health officials, especially in the major population centers of NSW and Victoria, will no doubt be hoping that that consensus on vaccination holds strong in the face of weaponized disinformation and a potentially increased proliferation of online “rabbit holes” in locked-down homes across Australia.