Organisation ideas to counter the far-right alliance with anti-vax, anti-mask and pandemic disinformation.
An adapted guide and my opinion of a presentation by Campaign Against Racism and Fascism Australia.
Inspired by ideas from Tom Tanuki, Zane Alcorn and Jess Lenehan and over 600 online activist attendees.
Notes organised and researched by Keeara.
Written 21 September 2021.
Featured image by Karolina Grabowska of pexels.com.
Content warning: Pandemic discussion, far-right violence.
From the 17th and the 21st of September, major Australian cities have become witness to anti-lockdown marches with hundreds of participants. What was dismissed as wingnut stickers and lifted restrictions favouring economy then set the heartbeat for what may be the biggest co-opted movement for Australia’s far-right, with onlookers likening the furore to the ‘Reclaim Australia’ protests or the far-right factions of the Yellow Vest movement. The shooting of a young gas station worker in Germany by an anti-masker was a wakeup call as to how radicalised and dangerous conspiracy crowds can become, and that they are willing to kill.
Anti-lockdown protests are a modern form of protest which have been difficult to grapple with, in that they cannot be easily or readily countered in person without the risk of contracting COVID-19. Anti-lockdown movements are often infiltrated and supported by far-right groups, for the far-right relies on several common ideological hooks to attract sympathisers, namely; anger and disgust towards Asians, anti-Semitic and anti-intellectual conspiracies, ableism and treating workers and the immunocompromised as collateral damage or ‘degenerates’ and, distrust of the world, which can encourage violence and reliance on information from their internal group only. This is a movement which is testing the flexibility of counter protests, requiring a more strategic look into how these groups are operating in order to dismantle their supporter base.
The good news, is that by far and large, the COVID denier crowd seems to be a minority, and many people are supportive towards community health and correct scientific information. This gives us an immense advantage; with more people, who have a wider range of skills, who are united in a focused view, we are more likely to be adaptive and thus, able to determine the terms of war.
As always, these tips are likely not able to convince conspiracy theorists, but can plant seeds for those who may otherwise be recruited or for many a witness just like you, who wants to stand up for others.
Victory is Success Prior to the Battlefield: Determining Public Discourse to Influence What We Share and How We Talk
1) Strengthen the idea that disinformation is a minority view which is violent.
Opposing groups lose morale if it is clear they are outnumbered by a skilled movement. There is a valid fear that many do not want to counterprotest out of fear of giving the far-right and/or COVID deniers publicity. This can solved if your group does not actively name these groups or share the propaganda of these groups and if your group has a key goal in being a counter presence. This concern may also be outweighted in that the COVID-denier and far-right crowd is becoming increasingly violent and emboldened by a seeming lack of opposition. We want to point out the moral line that these groups are crossing, that they advocate for essential workers to be disposable and that they agree that others should die for their misconstrued view of ‘freedom’.
2) Reframe vaccination as an act of love and solidarity.
Disinformation crowds are fuelled by the idea that they refuse to be ‘controlled by fear’, and so they very angrily shun any inclination towards what they perceive as fear, even if this goes as far as rejecting scientific information. They may perceive vaccinations as a sign of unquestioning obedience and desperation. Instead, when we talk about vaccines, instead of a rush or a decision made out of panic, we will want to talk about vaccines as an expression of love to protect vulnerable people in our community and as a sign of solidarity with each other. If people we know are on the fence about getting a vaccine, reassure them that we can talk to them to alleviate worries about needles or side effects for instance. Kate Hannah of Te Pūhana Matatini writing for the Spinoff for example, presents a guide which places patience and respect as a key way to erode vaccine hesitancy. We want to be pro-health as opposed to pro-state control.
Joseph Nye is known for his views on ‘soft power’, a power defined by persuasion through positive feelings, attraction and a sense of benefit as opposed to the coersion of ‘hard power’.
This action, distinguishes a loving and committed pro-science crowd against the irate and reactionary COVID denier crowd. This is a subtle psychological trick to discredit the deniers and expose their actions as not freedom from fear but the angry denial of their fear.
3) Show working class solidarity against the pandemic’s spread!
Similar to how we believe racism is not to be tolerated, do not let disinformation to go by unchallenged. This means spreading our supportive, pro-community views to drown out disinformation and to support our community’s silent heroes.
Tactical Tips to Think About
4) Take advantage of the fact that that conspiracy groups have NO clear goals.
Inside and outside COVID-denier protests, there is no clear aim of what they want, only to resist masks, vaccines and movement restrictions for ‘freedom’. Their only power is people showing up at protests with no objective of their presence and no way to help their many supporters.
A reader of my anti-disinformation resource piece ‘A Vaccine Against Disinformation’ shared an insightful point with me, if there is an ill-defined enemy and an ill-defined goal, conspiracy proponents believe in a distant ‘elite’ boogeyman and as such, cannot recognise how they are being harmed and exploited by people around them.
No goal means no sense of legitimacy. No legitimacy means no propelled interests. No propelled interests means no future. This means, at the core, these groups are built on disorganisation and reaction only. When supporters realise there is nothing to gain, the groups only have lies to back themselves up.
5) Emphasise that conspiracy groups do not have a defined version of ‘freedom’.
The right to expose others to a deadly virus is hardly an enjoyable exercise of free movement if you can emphasise that vulnerable people will be endangered. Most families have loved ones who are children, grandparents, those with medical conditions. A vision of freedom which excludes loved ones is no freedom at all.
Understanding COVID-Denier Groups
6) Connect with and provide for marginalised groups.
The COVID-denier crowd relies on community division and blame in order to attract supporters. They may also seek to attract those in the working class who have lost their jobs or feel a sense of anger, as well as ethnic communities who have a justified distrust of state actors. When we include the working class in our struggle against the pandemic, we give a sense of belonging and support for those who may otherwise be recruited. We also break the wall of anger towards the pandemic and minority groups if we can show that people are managing and helping each other.
Māori and Pasifika communities in Aotearoa (New Zealand) have done a superb job of this in mobilising community leaders. I also believe a reason as to why the Filipino and Punjabi communities here were not susceptible to pandemic conspiracies is because there was ready language information provided and translated by youth activists and an organised programme of grocery deliveries respectively.
7) Understand how disenfranchised people get caught in conspiracy movements (And learn to utilise internal group divisions).
Eyewitnesses to the Melbourne anti-lockdown protests noticed that the crowds were diverse. There was a mix of White working class communities, indigenous people and parts of the Middle Eastern diaspora. All of these groups have had their frustrations and fears co-opted into this movement.
Conversely, many of these same groups are worried about fascism and the far-right–yes, the same far-right who they may not realise they marched alongside. We need to amplify the message to friends and everyday communities outside activist circles that the COVID-denier groups and conspiracies go hand in hand with the far-right, and as such, COVID denier groups are not their friends. We will want to show the presence of violent groups at these protests and the radicalised nature of many members.
8) Show the message that the far-right and conspiracy crowds have nothing to gain, and everything to lose.
I have covered cults and extreme movements extensively in my time as a student journalist. The very nature of such groups includes unquestioning loyalty, ideology used as a marker of identity to contrast one’s self with outsiders, a conviction that they are part of a greater battle, as well as a constant culture of extreme anger or fear. For these components to work and effectively -brainwash-, the individual in question needs to be relatively isolated.
What may have a potential target of disinformation brought back to critical thinking may be surrounding them with supportive people and showing them what might be at stake, including employment and healthy relationships with their peers and loved ones.
For now, in Aotearoa, the COVID-denier crowd seems relegated to flyer drops, stickers and anti-lockdown marches outside lockdown times and the tiny and swiftly disbanded protest during lockdown. But I have no doubt that they are already infiltrated by the far-right and may be looking abroad to feel emboldened. As such, we cannot rest on our laurels, especially when mainstream radio hosts for Magic have shared conspiracies openly, when Aotearoa based media personalities equate masks to slavery, and when most of us have come across misinformation.
In university, I remember sharing with a member of teaching staff that sometimes my studies made me sad and uncomfortable because of the seemingly relentless threats to safety and peace everywhere. She shared with me a message I will never forget. “There is a lot happening in the world that we might not necessarily predict or change. But it’s not a matter of being in denial of our fear. Our studies are about learning as much as we can so we can rise to the challenges the world faces.”
For more like this, my resource to help support your community against disinformation can be found here: ‘A Vaccine Against Disinformation’. Take care and stay safe!