Active during last year's devastating Northern Rivers floods, conspiracist influencer David Oneeglio has been found guilty by the Office of Fair Trading of requesting donations without approval, writes Tom Tanuki.
DAVID ONEEGLIO (known on social media as Dave Oneegs) was offered many opportunities by organised conspiracy as a "freedom" movement figurehead who stepped up at the start of the pandemic. He built a platform for ongoing merchandise sales, received overseas trips and built his conspiracist influencer brand during the height of the movement.
But he likely raised his largest pile of money in one fell swoop by collecting donations for another crisis: the devastating Northern Rivers floods of 2022.
Oneeglio helped raise over $320,000 intended for supporting Northern Rivers locals and paying for expenses associated with the 2022 floods. The unregistered collection front he created to do this was named "Aussie Helping Hands", which he ran with fellow conspiracist Dorothy Greatorex (also known as Dotti Janssen) and Hayley Birtles-Eades.
Oneeglio even went to the Northern Rivers at the time, posting up at Coraki and filming lots of media of himself "on the scene." He got some film of himself on his mate Pete Evans’ jet ski, zooming around, suggesting he was going around saving people.
The point of Aussie Helping Hands, at the time, was to provide a flood relief alternative to the "establishment" charities for anti-vaxxers and conspiracists.
The group has fundraised off the back of allegations that charities such as the Red Cross are corrupt or incompetent. Rooted in real criticism about the Red Cross being slow to act and high-profile legal issues around Celeste Barber’s bushfire fundraiser, posts that cite old or inaccurate statistics about these charities accompanied by a call-to-action to donate have gone viral in online conspiracy groups.
Conspiracists were also hostile to the Red Cross’ position on vaccines, of course.
It had all the effective building blocks of a good "freedom" movement campaign: capitalising on hesitation and mistrust of the establishment and providing a grassroots and self-sourced alternative method of chipping in.
But like all "freedom" movement campaigns, it fundamentally proved to be about phony populism.
The OFT commenced an investigation in 2022 into Aussie Helping Hands and, at that time, froze the $320,000. On 13 June, Oneeglio pled guilty to two counts of breaching the Collections Act 1966. The OFT fined him $750 and will be redistributing the monies – frozen last year – to relevant charities via the Public Trustee.
The Fair Trading Commissioner observed:
“We know there are often opportunistic scammers following natural disasters such as flooding, cyclones and bushfires. And we know that when communities are in need, Australians dig deep. However, you need to know where your money is going before you donate.”
The Northern Rivers floods were an outlier moment in the days of the "freedom" movement’s peak. They occurred during a moment when the movement enjoyed great exposure in Australia, offering its influencers the opportunity to expand from its key focus of coronavirus denialism into other subject matter.
Like another opportunist who capitalised on the floods — Avi Yemini.
You might recall I wrote in this column about the time Yemini went to a lightly flooded town, far removed from the Northern Rivers, to make a video about SES volunteers being stood down due to vaccination status.
The entire point of this wildly tangential video was for Yemini to stand in gumboots in a NSW Central Coast puddle and ask for "donations" for his hyperpartisan media outlet.
It played great for the camera, I’m sure — self-starting independent media fearlessly treading where the mainstream dares not! But Yemini’s video directed people to pay Rebel News, while Northern Rivers residents lost everything. It was deeply reprehensible behaviour.
Oneegs was one of the first waves of anti-lockdown figureheads – a Gold Coast multi-level marketer from way before the pandemic, primed by the predatory skill set taught by multi-level marketing (MLM) – to jump immediately into opportunist conspiracist influencing.
And he likely made a significant amount of money for himself from a leading influencer role through the height of the "freedom" movement, selling conspiracist-slogan t-shirt runs at a significant markup for several years to the large audience of cookers he successfully cultivated.
But Oneegs is extremely loose with the truth and, like a lot of conspiracist influencers, experiences a profound sense of "main character syndrome".
From bushfire clean-up to flood rescue, I’ve been watching conspiracist influencers insert themselves as everyman hero figures (who just happen to be constantly on camera) into the periphery of disaster recoveries for several years. They get a lot of video. They look great, even compelling. But rarely do they seem to do a lot.
What the OFT finding demonstrates is that for all its theatrical cynicism about "the establishment", the phony populism of the "freedom" movement offers people little better or more moral as an alternative.
I am also often suspicious of governments, establishment media and big corporate charities. But the alternative being offered appears to be a raft of self-starting con artists who barrel in on jet skis without being held to account by any of the regulatory checks and balances that apply to establishment bodies. Does that kind of phony populism help any more needy people than a broken establishment?
It's a good result, the Office of Fair Trading seizing and redistributing Oneeg’s "fundraising". At least – now – we can trust it is going somewhere it's needed.
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