Covid-19 restrictions have seen a rise in those viewing any measures e.g. wearing face masks, lock downs etc. as unnecessary, not supported by their view of ‘science’ and constraining their democratic rights. However, while many of those who support this view have no expertise in medical science, nor data, they seem to be inadvertently suggesting a deep seated radical right libertarian movement, masquerading as ‘common sense’ or scepticism that favours the business or the economy over society or humanity.
Whether they are anti-maskers, sovereign citizens, conspiracy theorists, climate science denialists, QAnon or white nationalist alt right, the common underlying denominator and outcome is both promotion of libertarian views or actions, disrupting the status quo (upturning the sensible centre consensus giving way to radical right ideas aka Brexit and Trump), denigration of both science and education, and dismissal of duty of care, especially of vulnerable people.
In the Anglo world, parts of Europe, Asia and the Americas there seems to have been a quiet push to benefit radical right libertarians and their conservative political partners (or PR sock puppets) to not just promote religion or white nationalism for citizens to worship or follow, but now conspiracy theories to confuse issues and disrupt any logical policy making e.g. climate change.
‘Sovereign citizens’, anti-vaxxers, mask refuseniks and far-right extremists see all their wildly disparate beliefs confirmed by coronavirus restrictions
Michael McGowan Sat 1 Aug 2020 21.00 BST
In the remote border town of Texas, Queensland last month, a police officer pulled over a truck driver after he allegedly crossed into the state without providing identification.
In footage posted online, the 33-year-old can be heard asking the officer whether he worked “for the corporation known as the Queensland police in all capital letters?”
He then asks: “Am I a man?”
The officer’s deadpan response – “It’s 2020 mate. What do you identify as?” – got him his own thread on Reddit, but the bizarre interaction is not unique.
Viral footage of people defying restrictions on borders, large gatherings and, in Victoria, the use of face masks, have increasingly peppered Australian news as the Covid-19 pandemic stretches into its eighth month.
This past week a woman who refused to wear a face mask in a Bunnings hardware store in Melbourne became the latest fodder for the news cycle after she described herself as “a living woman” to a bemused employee. A few days earlier, footage of a woman reading from a script as she asked an officer “have I disturbed the peace today?” while refusing to answer questions at a border stop in Victoria also made headlines.
Footage of these encounters and others like them share a similar characteristic: in them, the people challenging police appear to be reading from the same script, a pdf file that has been shared widely across various Facebook groups loosely affiliated with the so-called “sovereign citizen” conspiracy movement.
Described by the Southern Poverty Law Centre in the US as an extremist group, the sovereign citizen movement is a haphazard collection of pseudo-legal beliefs broadly coalesced around the notion that modern government is illegitimate.
“Sovereign citizens believe that they get to decide which laws to obey and which to ignore, and they don’t think they should have to pay taxes,” the SPLC says.
In extreme cases, sovereign citizens in the US have been linked to violence. In 2010 a father and son linked to the movement shot to death two police officers in West Memphis, Arkansas, who had pulled them over in a routine traffic stop. The two men were later killed in a shootout with police.
The movement is rooted in racism and antisemitism, though, as the SPLC acknowledges, many followers are unaware of its origins. Acts of deadly violence have usually directed against government officials.
The Australian wing of the bizarre movement, transplanted here with a few tweaks, is not new. One of its most well-known proponents, a Western Australian, Wayne Glew, had his property and assets seized in 2018 after refusing to pay $300,000 in council rates and legal fees because of a belief local government was unconstitutional.
But in the time of Covid-19 its adherents have found themselves a niche. As governments impose unprecedented restrictions on civil liberties in an effort to control the spread of the virus, sovereign citizens appear to be attempting to take advantage of broad community uncertainty to push their confused agenda.
They are far from alone. Experts say the pandemic has offered an umbrella under which a bevy of fringe conspiracy groups and far-right actors have found common cause. Cam Smith, an independent researcher who focuses on conspiracy theorists and the far right, says links between previously discrete groups including the sovereign citizens, anti-vaxxers, QAnon and anti-5G groups have increasingly blurred during the pandemic.
“It’s a weird moment where all of these groups who usually have their own thing have come together with Covid,” he says. “It doesn’t even really seem to matter if they don’t necessarily meld – they find ways to smooth it over.”
…..Prof Axel Bruns, a leading internet researcher from the Queensland University of Technology, has been researching misinformation related to the planned 5G network during the Covid-19 pandemic. He agrees that under the umbrella of the pandemic, the borders between different corners of internet conspiracy have begun to vanish……
….For the most part these online groupings have negligible impact on the real word. But the new outbreak of a pushback against Covid-19 restrictions poses a new challenge for authorities grappling with the consequences of people indifferent to the potency of the virus……
….The public health academic Prof Julie Leask from the University of Sydney is one of Australia’s leading experts on vaccination uptake. She says she has lost count of the number of interviews she’s done on the anti-vaxx movement, and is frustrated by what she see’s as the media’s outsized focus on its hardcore proponents.
“Even the fact you’re doing this story is part of the game,” she says. “It feels like society is obsessed with conspiracy theorists and I still haven’t figured out why. I almost wonder if we’re all attracted to these neat attributions for problems in the same way conspiracy theorists are. If you have a conspiracy theorist who doesn’t want to lock down or wear a mask, you don’t have to acknowledge more complex problems like gaps in our healthcare system.”……
When fringe beliefs become destructive
The challenge for media organisation lies somewhere in the tipping point: that is, when fringe beliefs and their proponents begin to slip into the mainstream. In the US, opposition to face masks has found its way into mainstream discourse as an issue of individual freedom in some cases peddled by Republican figures including Donald Trump.
In Australia that rhetoric has so far been confined to the fringes of the debate, with some notable exceptions: when Victoria mandated face masks in public, the Herald Sun columnist, Sky News host and rightwing pundit Andrew Bolt labelled it “virus hysteria”…..
…..While it’s hard to know the extent to which anti-mask sentiment has crept into Australia, Leask said the danger was when an issue became divided along “ideological gradients”.
“In the same way that climate change in the 1970s and 80s started to become an issue of, not just do we believe in global warming but ‘by the way this is a lefty idea so if you’re conservative you’re not going to agree with it’,” she said.
“You start to see those leading commentators influencing a larger group of people. If part of belonging to whichever tribe is to also believe ‘it is my right to not wear a mask’ then you might see a greater amount of non-compliance”.
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