Politics Opinion

Anti-lockdown movement feeding on the gullible

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Anti-vaxx campaigner Monica Smit has been using donations to further spread her message (Screenshot via YouTube)

Anti-lockdown dupes are being siphoned off for cash and social media reach before being cast aside, writes Tom Tanuki.

MAYBE I MONITOR the anti-lockdown movement too much. I recently saw some conspiracists commenting under an anti-vaxx livestream, complaining about QR codes. Then the livestreamer announced they loved the movement only because it made them popular, but nobody watching complained about that part and I was suddenly very sad for these people. 

Those two things alone tipped me over. A sign I urgently needed to turn off my computer for a bit? Yes. Always. But also, I’ve dwelled on this and realised there’s more to it. Let me explain.

I said I “monitor” the anti-lockdown movement. I do, but I admit that people like me tend to say words like that a lot. Like I’m trying to inflate my obsession with fringe movements into a sort of important spy mission. In my defence, I believe there’s merit to this obsession: they are a latent political force to be taken seriously. 

Latent, I say, because all they currently seem to do is line the bank accounts of popular scammers and make your aunty share low-res memes about Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews all day. But they needn’t necessarily remain latent forever. Even if we’re all sick of them, they can still recruit huge numbers for rallies and accumulate huge donations.

I have noticed how uninspired they are, though, despite their traction. The plaintive expressions of confusion from the average anti-lockdown dupe seem more open to me than ever; the little social media spectacles created by the grifters at the top more lacklustre than ever. I think they’re mailing it in. It’s a wonder they continue to draw people in unless you remember the function that the movement has in reaping existing anxieties and harvesting them for the organisers’ personal goals.

Monica Smit was in Warragul recently. She was outside Liberal MP Russell Broadbent’s office holding a little conspiracist, anti-vaxx rally. Monica runs Reignite Democracy Australia, which is now set to become “RDA Party”, a “political party”. (Honestly, it isn’t even a registered political party. Reignite Democracy Australia is registered as a company, for some reason. None of her followers seems to mind.)

In her speech, she said an oddly frank thing:

“The vaccine thing has really... hit a wall, for me. It was kind of exciting [at first], growing this new platform, seeing it grow, getting popular and stuff. It was like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is fun!’, you know?”

Monica has a tendency to air her motivations in a sloppy cards-on-the-table way, but I did think: why don’t they care that she’s telling them that?

Then she got on to her real business, plugging her “political party” (company). She said: “Trust me, if you like me, you’ll like our policies”. That’s what she actually said to a bunch of anti-lockdown conspiracy theorists at an anti-lockdown conspiracy rally. No reaction, again. I’m not sure they were actually listening to a word she said.

Afterwards, she began livestreaming herself driving around accompanying a digital banner-displaying “Truth Truck” she’d hired to flash conspiracist messages about COVID-19 at the public.

In the video, she revealed that the truck cost an eye-watering $1,200 a day. Where had the money come from? Donations. Whose donations? Another oddly frank reveal — at one point in the livestream, the truck driver parks to talk to Monica. He told her they should target the “middle-class” areas where their donations are all coming in and helpfully, names them:  Caulfield, Brighton and Toorak.

Far from “middle class”, those suburbs include the first and third richest suburbs in Victoria. That’s where they get their money from, then. They thought fit to just reveal that on a livestream. Nobody in the comments batted an eyelid.

Well over a million dollars in donations has been raised by this movement. Consider the half a million dollars Serene Teffaha raised and the hundreds of thousands raised by Avi Yemini and others, purportedly for fighting coronavirus fines or launching “constitutional challenges”. Then there are the many other satellite GoFundMes and such created by anti-lockdown small business owners and spectacle-creators.

What has it all been in aid of? Not much. Avi’s announced a couple of summary revocations of coronavirus fines that happened through the efforts of lawyers they appointed, which can’t have cost much. Someone had their bail paid. Some money sits dormant in a trust fund for a now-disbarred lawyer to spend on legal action she can no longer lead herself. Most of the money has either disappeared or done nothing.

It’s unlikely your aunty, for instance, has been a major contributor to lining the coffers of the movement, but she’s serviced it by sharing conspiracist content all day — low-res Dan Andrews CCP memes and such. Have you noticed that she’s lost all her real-world engagement on Facebook? Nobody except for other conspiracist ring-ins will engage. People like your aunty end up very online and yet, seemingly, very alone.

The anti-lockdown scene lent them some agency over their fears, even if that agency came from denialism. But the dupes of the anti-lockdown spectacle, like aunty, have had their usefulness to the movement co-opted by a caste of capable grifters who came to dominate the movement. They raised over a million from the anxieties of the wealthy ones and tried to mould the broke ones into a fringe “political party” voting bloc.

I was watching the comments on Monica’s livestream. Instead of asking why they were being told to blindly trust some fringe party that didn’t exist, or why their appointed leaders were telling them they just wanted to be popular, people were more concerned about QR codes.

One said:

‘Has anyone heard of the QR code shit to be used at peoples homes? Or are people talking crap?’

Another stressed:

‘Announcement on the train: “when you see a QR code don’t forget to scan” QR code? What QR code?’

Not the virus anymore. Not the vaccine, or masks, or lockdown restrictions. Nope, just scared and confused about the little barcoded image hyperlinks that came out in 1994.

I was suddenly overwhelmingly sad for these people. Not for the first time.

What the old chooks need is a sit-down, a cuppa and a chat. God bless their patience, whoever that hypothetical person is, but if only somebody could be there in person to sit down with aunty and explain all of this stuff. “No, aunty, the little QR code pictures aren’t going to hack your phone or make communism. They’re little pictures.”

Since I began regular videos on the anti-lockdown movement, I’ve heard many exhausted tales from people constantly checking in with their aunty, again and again, gently dispelling the latest conspiracist garbage. So it does happen. In communities.

But how are we, broadly speaking, a strong community? Consider us in 2021. We’re a highly casualised workforce, scrambling to keep up. We’re constantly scrambling for new rental properties, too, having to shuffle about the cheapest suburbs as our leases expire. We’re broke. COVID-19 made many of us broker.

Lockdowns undermine the unemployed even further, with people forced to apply for jobs they cannot attend. The welfare system has basically reset to woefully inadequate pre-pandemic levels. Rental protections have ceased. We’re cast adrift in late-stage capitalism and lockdowns sever what little remains of communal ties we do have. We’re deeply atomised individuals in something far less than a community.

So the anti-lockdown movement, with its promises of “the truth” or an alternate community, or merely freedom from the pandemic, is so appealing to very confused people who feel cast adrift and in need of a sense of agency. Their movement has so much traction. If they ever get pointed in any real direction, they could become a daunting force. 

But ultimately, right now, they’re just having their anxieties milked for every drop of money or effort they have to give. I think it’s unbearably sad.

Tom Tanuki is an online satirist, social justice commentator, writer and comedian. He has worked in anti-racist political comedy, most notably through his satirical group the Million Flag Patriots and anti-racist group Yelling At Racist Dogs (Y.A.R.D.). You can follow Tom on Twitter @tom_tanuki.

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