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How Covid-19 united conspiracy theorists

May 19, 2020 • 16m 24s

Conspiracy theorists have been energised by Covid-19, with misinformation on everything from 5G to vaccinations spreading online. Today, Rick Morton on where these theories really begin and the groups actively encouraging them.

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How Covid-19 united conspiracy theorists

226 • May 19, 2020

How Covid-19 united conspiracy theorists

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

Covid-19 has energised conspiracy theorists, with misinformation on everything from 5G to vaccinations spreading online… and featuring in real world protests.

Today, senior reporter at The Saturday Paper Rick Morton on where these theories really begin and the groups actively encouraging them.

**

RUBY:

Rick, tell me about the anti-lockdown protests that we saw a couple of weeks ago.

RICK:

Well, there were two. The one in Melbourne on the 10th of May with about 100 people, and there was one in Sydney on the 9th with just a few dozen.

Archival tape -- protest:

No consent! No consent! No consent!

RICK:

The protesters were...I mean, if there's one unifying thing about them is that they're all very angry about something.

Archival tape -- protest:

We’re born with freedoms, and you will not take them off us!

RICK:

At first glance they had little in common apart from being there to protest lockdowns.

Archival tape -- protest:

I do not want anybody watching and tracking and listening to me breathe...

Archival tape -- protest:

We want to know why 5G towers that haven't had safety studies done properly in our industry studies have been going up without the people's consent.

RICK:

Their purported concerns ranged from vaccination, to 5G telecommunications towers, child sacrifice...

Archival tape -- protest:

Why hasn’t the news reported the Zimbabwe president finding out that the test kits have the Covid-19 already on them before they actually test the people.

Archival tape -- protest:

He tested kiwi fruit, he tested… kiwi fruits tested positive...

RICK:

... Signs proclaiming that we were now living in a fascist state…

Archival tape -- protest:

There are doctors all over the Internet who are being censored for talking out about the lies that the media and the government is telling us about this.

RICK:

... To assertions that the pathogen was a pandemic or a Covid hoax, quote-unquote, brought to you by Satan, which is, you know, a bit of a stretch.

RUBY:

And so, Rick, how do people come to believe these things?

RICK:

I spoke to one woman, Paula Lukic Critelli, who was you know, she's one of eight siblings in her family and to them, conspiracy theorists, while the rest of them in this family group chat are constantly trying to debunk them.

Archival tape -- Paula:

I mean, to me, it's like, you know, they think we're in The Truman Show or something. You know, nothing is real. And we're all just kind of following orders and we’re, you know, walking into a trap.

RICK:

And, you know, she told me that her brother, when he sent her something such as the fake edited Obama video.

Archival tape -- Paula:

So it was made to look as though he was saying that basically the world's population is too small-minded to not have some sort of new world order or governance.

RICK:

Which was a speech that never existed - she will find the facts to kind of present to him.

Archival tape -- Paula:

But I since I found the full clip and sent that to him to prove to him that it was heavy, heavy, edited material to prove their point.

RICK:

And most of the time, she says that he will accept that particular piece of content is not necessarily correct, but it doesn't change his underlying belief system.

Archival tape -- Paula:

I think it's a lot of it is fear-driven. So I think that you already had, you know, a lot of fears or distrust or paranoia evenI think that you are going to be triggered by a lot of the material that's being circulated enough that you don't look any further.

RICK:

She joined one of these Facebook groups, conspiracy Facebook groups, to try and rebut the many disparate theories and views, but it was just so overwhelming because she said there were so many contradictions in their thought patterns.
You know, 5G causes coronavirus, but at the same time that I believe coronavirus is real. They believe there's a new world order and that, you know, this is a vehicle for tracking the population by microchip or depopulating via vaccine.

Archival tape -- Paula:

It is terrifying for me to know that somebody is actually believing a lot of it because a lot of the allegations and theories are quite frightening. So it is quite frightening to have those sort of beliefs, I guess, because they’re extreme.

RUBY:

And on the face of it, they are all fairly disconnected and sometimes contradictory ideas. So how do they fit together?

RICK:

Well, coronavirus actually holds all of all of this together in this current moment. In this version, the chaos of the virus brings control to the population. You know, it becomes a smoke screen. So, you know, in their telling of things, vaccines and restrictions are precursors to a one-world government where, you know, a few, a cabal of the global elite control the plebs in the rest of the population.

And they suspect technologies such as 5G, which have never really been fully explained to the population are avenues to suppress dissent against that one world rule. And, you know, atop all of this sits a coterie of those global elites who will profit from a new world order in some way, whether it's, you know, financially or ideologically.

At the Melbourne rally, the protesters chanted for the arrest of Bill Gates. And he's got a philanthropic foundation with his wife, Melinda, which funds vaccine research and delivery programs, particularly in developing nations. So he's kind of the sort of figure that binds these disparate elements together.

Archival tape -- protest:

Arrest bill gates! He’s a goddamn criminal!

RICK:

He sits at the apex of the conspiracy pyramid linked by those two interests, the public health stuff and his status as one of the elite.

RUBY:

Right. So where does a theory like this start?

RICK:

These theories aren't spraying by accident. There's actually deliberate misinformation campaigns at work here. And far right networks are actively encouraging these kinds of theories because it destabilizes the current order.

RUBY:

Tell me more about that - what role is the far right playing in spreading these kinds of conspiracy theories?

RICK:

I mean, they love an opportunity, right? And they've got the perfect one in coronavirus. So, you know, last week, a far-right Australian group posted on GAB, which if you don't already know, it's a social network known for hosting extremist groups from the right of the political spectrum. And you know, this post said “men like Gates operate a shadow government that decides what the agenda for the world is going to be.”

And the post, you know, it checks off a list of grievances that have their provenance in anti-globalist and particularly anti-Semitic tropes, including, again, quoting global warming agenda, atmospheric geoengineering, the war on men. One element of this group is encouraging direct action to spread the virus. So, you know, they’re saying that if you get the virus, it is your duty to spread it to target groups by coughing on them.

And the other part of the group are simply trying to amplify these conspiracy theories. And, you know, lots of them in order to encourage the chaos that we're now seeing and accelerate the downfall of liberal democracy.
They're using another species of conspiracy theory that they might not necessarily even believe in to foster and grow their own kind of malcontent.

And, you know, as all of this is happening, the world's largest social media platform, Facebook, stood down thousands of its content moderators. These are the people who are meant to check this stuff and remove it from public view because it's fake. And in doing so, they allowed the algorithm to take charge. And the algorithm has no sensibilities when it comes to what is harmful information. It just promotes what is popular and what people are reacting to.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Rick - Both the level of panic during the pandemic and also the lack of oversight from social media companies like Facebook are turbocharging conspiracy theories. But we have seen conspiracy theories spread and influence decision making in this country before. So can you talk to me a bit about that?

RICK:

Yeah. I mean, they're not new by any stretch of the imagination. But we have almost sown the seeds of our own destruction here, because let's just take wind turbines as an example, because we saw all of this during the climate change debates. So when Tony Abbott was in power just a few years ago, there were a lot of conspiracy theories about how wind turbines could harm human health.

Archival tape -- reporter:

First tonight, if your chooks began to lay yolkless eggs, if you had to abandon your home because you couldn’t sleep in it, you’d want to know why. These are some of the stories from South Australians who believe wind power and people just don’t mix.

RICK:

You know, they're called “wind turbine syndrome”.

Archival tape -- unknown:

I call wind farms ‘bat chomping bird slicing eco-crucifixes’.

RICK:

But, you know, a little over a year after he became prime minister, Tony Abbott's coalition government began a parliamentary inquiry into wind turbines, which among other issues, would assess, quote-unquote, the impact of wind turbines on human health. You know, this is a parliamentary inquiry. And, you know, at the same time, they appointed a wind farm commissioner who, you know, was meant to oversee complaints about wind farms.

And although there was never any evidence about any of these conspiracies and that commissioner is still there, his term was extended by three years. So we still have a wind farm commissioner in this country. And, you know, I spoke to climate communication specialist and writer Ketan Joshi, who has been following these sorts of things for well over a decade.

Archival tape -- Ketan Joshi:

People particularly don’t like technology being forced on them. And it is precisely the same thing about wind farms.

RICK:

And the similarities, he said, between the 5G debate and the conspiracy over wind farms are so striking, and Joshi’s actually writing a book on the subject of wind farms, and he just said it's almost exactly a carbon copy in terms of the spurious health debate.

Archival tape -- Ketan Joshi:

They really don’t like the idea that there is some centralised control, some centralised decision making process that they have no part in.

RICK:

In fact, if you go back far enough to 1995 as it happens.

Archival tape -- Ketan Joshi:

A Sydney kindergarten is becoming the national focus of a mobile phone row. As mothers of the kindergarten continue to protest a local Telstra base station, experts in Melbourne have tried to prove there’s no need for concern.

RICK:

There is actual news footage of the then MP Tony Abbott telling concerned parents at a protest about a Telstra mobile base tower.

Archival tape -- Tony Abbott:

... change the rules to take away the exemptions and the immunities which Telstra currently enjoys to put these things virtually where it likes.

RICK:

Now, Tony Abbott was basically implicitly endorsing the health concerns about a mobile base station back then. And so in many ways, we've now come full circle. So, you know, this is where this stuff kind of foments and it has its origin story many years ago.

RUBY:

So some of these conspiracies have actually been around for a while, but we’re seeing them take hold in what looks like a much more concrete way. What’s changed?

RICK:

A lot has changed. You know, most notably, it's the fracturing of the media landscape and the ascension of a president in the United States, praised by both conservative commentators and far right groups alike, for allegedly upending the supposed cabal of elites. You know, the post that was posted on GAB last week praised him for being the only billionaire that refused to play by the game of this kind of shadow world order. And you get that same kind of commentary among ordinary conservative commentators in the mainstream media.

For some people it is about, you know, having the special knowledge and feeling like they do have that information that no one else has. And for other people, it's just this sense of belonging to a group who shares their views, no matter how far fetched those views might be. And the other element here is that people specifically don't like invisible stuff.
They don't like electromagnetic radiation. They don't like the coronavirus because they can't see it. It's the core feature behind so many different theories that really dominates it. And you combine that. The pandemic where the overriding emotion that people are feeling is terror and uncertainty and anxiety and sometimes it's just nice to have an enemy.

RUBY:

Rick - what are the consequences of all this? What effect is it having on the way we conduct public debate and just... relate to each other?

RICK:

Well, I mean, yes. And the trust in institutions, particularly in politics, in the media, has just been obliterated. The reason these things are flourishing in large part is due to a breakdown in kind of political discourse. It's the systematic undermining of scientific advice and expert opinion...opinion is the wrong word there, because expert advice is based on evidence and the scientific method, and people just don't trust this anymore.

And more to the point, they don't trust journalists like myself to tell them. So we are now stuck in this orbit of uncertainty. And that's a dangerous place to be from public policy. We saw it with climate change. And we could have been the leaders in that and we forfeited. So that's just one example of how this kind of irrational hatred of facts and the people who want to tell us about those facts can undermine not just policy, but the way we live. And, you know, I find that incredibly worrying.

RUBY:

Rick, thanks so much for your time today and for your reporting on this.

RICK:

Thanks, Ruby. Appreciate it.

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RUBY:

Also in the news…

The Victorian government has announced the biggest spend on social housing since the global financial crisis, as part of a $500 million dollar construction package to lift the state’s economy.

The state government will construct 168 new units and upgrade 23,000 as part of a broader building program to create thousands of jobs.

Public housing advocates have welcomed the announcement but called on the government to go further, noting that the state has the lowest proportion of social housing in the country.

**

Several hundred McDonald’s employees have been asked not to return to work for 14 days after 12 restaurants were closed for deep cleaning on Sunday.

The restaurants, located in Victoria, were closed after a delivery driver tested positive to Covid-19.

**

And the federal government has announced that Australia has now passed a telehealth milestone with more than 10 million consultations carried out since the pandemic began.

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said it was a "remarkable change" from a base of "virtually zero".

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

Conspiracy theorists have been energised by Covid-19, with misinformation on everything from 5G to vaccinations spreading online and featuring in real-world protests. Today, Rick Morton on where these theories really begin and the groups actively encouraging them.

Guest: Senior Reporter at The Saturday Paper Rick Morton.

Background reading:

How Covid-19 energised conspiracy theorists in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem. Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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226: How Covid-19 united conspiracy theorists