News The coronavirus ‘hoax’: Conspiracy peddlers infecting Australians at alarming rate
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The coronavirus ‘hoax’: Conspiracy peddlers infecting Australians at alarming rate

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Australians are turning to conspiracy boards at an alarming speed, with thousands joining QAnon, the Twitter-banned fringe group that believes the coronavirus is a hoax designed to take away our freedoms.

The number of Australians who believe in QAnon has been growing for months, experts who monitor the groups say.

And it’s not just the one group.

The conspiracy theory is taking hold in Australia

Australia is developing a unique melting pot of different conspiracy theories that feed into each other.

Generally, they’re anti-lockdown, anti-mask and anti-vaccine while many don’t believe coronavirus is real.

In many of these groups, quasi spiritualists who believe in aliens mix with staunch anti-vaxxers, extremist expert Tom Tanuki said.

“The QAnon core has spread beyond MAGA fans,” Mr Tanuki said.

“They’re like wine mums, hippies, neo-spiritual charlatans. QAnon has broad appeal now because the neo-spiritual stuff has risen within it.

“It changed from Hillary Clinton is child sex trafficking, to Hillary Clinton is child sex trafficking on Mars. There’s inter-planet trafficking now.

“The anti-vaxxers were probably one of the most well established, and well funded (before lockdown). But there’s a fusion of these people under one movement, and we’ve seen a lot of cross-pollination of conspiracy theories.

“There’s a variety of different camps of people.”

The fringe group has infiltrated the lives of many Australians and Americans. Photo: Getty

The fringe movement was born after an anonymous figure called “Q”, who claims to have insider knowledge of powerful pedophiles and sex traffickers, dropped his first message on message board 4Chan in 2017.

Q claims to have a level of US security approval known as “Q Clearance” and since the first drop, has written hundreds of cryptic messages peppered with slogans and pro-Trump themes.

Over Facebook, the theory runs rampant, with several Australian-specific groups set up for believers to discuss and dissect Q’s posts.

One of the groups, which The New Daily has chosen not to name, shares posts about Mr Trump being the messiah with videos about political enemies and homosexuals being pedophiles, and misinformation about Australia’s hospitals being completely empty.

Elise Thomas, a researcher working with the International Cyber Policy Centre, said the theory had spread exponentially in the past few months.

“There’s a lot of Facebook groups. Some of them are explicitly Australian but even in the global ones, there are plenty of Australians in those,” Ms Thomas said.

“I think we should be extremely concerned about these groups, just the speed of the increase … there’s definitely a growing contingent, relative to other places in the world. We’re behind Germany, but we’re up there.”

Across different platforms, the typical QAnon believer changes, she said.

“There are different sub-communities. The hard thing about explaining conspiracies is there’s never one version. It doesn’t have to make sense. It doesn’t have to be logical.”

“QAnon users on 8chan, they tend to be younger. Those that are looking at explicitly using information warfare to support the re-election of Trump are operating mostly on Twitter because the goal is to influence journalists.

“Whereas on Facebook, it’s different. It’s where the majority of them are, but the Facebook users tend to be older, less tech savvy.”

Although it could just be brushed aside as insane, these conspiracy theories have real-life implications.

In 2016, a 28-year-old man walked into a Washington DC Pizzeria and fired a gun into the air.

He was there because QAnon theories suggested leaked emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign revealed she was running a pedophile ring from the basement.

The restaurant did not even have a basement.

Although this is one extreme case, Mr Trump has re-tweeted QAnon theories.

Conservative politicians are leaning into it and there’s mounting concern Australia is importing the conspiracy into its political sphere.

In the recent Eden-Monaro by-election independent candidate Riccardo Bosi openly espoused a belief in QAnon.

“There is potential for some of this online activity to have a real-world effect,” La Trobe University cybersecurity expert Dr Stanley Shanapinda said.

“We’ve seen how the coronavirus conspiracy in the US lead to cellphone towers being damaged. That’s the one thing we’ve got to look out for.

“I think we should be worried, given the porous nature of the internet. It doesn’t have borders.”