A dozen Victorian politicians are at the centre of an “unprecedented” social media pile-on, each being flooded with thousands of abusive emails, calls and messages from anti-lockdown conspiracy theorists opposed to the state government’s COVID response.
Violent and aggressive messages have been referred to police, as the state parliament votes on Tuesday on the extension of Victoria’s state of emergency.
“We’ve seen big email campaigns before, but I’ve never seen such viciousness or aggression in the messages,” Legislative Council member Fiona Patten told The New Daily.
“This is really something new. The vitriol, the threatening language is something I haven’t seen.”
Ms Patten and 11 other crossbench politicians in Victoria’s Parliament have had their private phone numbers and emails exposed in countless posts on anti-lockdown Facebook groups this week.
The groups, opposed to Premier Daniel Andrews’ plan to extend Victoria’s state of emergency arrangements for 12 months, were trying to get the crossbench MPs to vote against the legislation.
The New Daily has seen an Excel spreadsheet list of crossbench MPs, with their personal phone numbers and email addresses, plastered in many Facebook groups for anti-vaxxers, critics of 5G technology and Australian followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory.
The messages appear to be spreading in a decentralised way, posted by numerous individuals rather than a single person.
However, the colour-coded list is common across all posts, appearing to be copied and pasted around the internet.
Some group administrators instruct their fellow members to spam the politicians, many falsely claiming the extension of the state of emergency would automatically extend the lockdowns – something Premier Daniel Andrews has said is not true.
“SHARE THE CRAP OUT OF THE EMAIL,” said one post in a notorious Australian conspiracy theory group with more than 120,000 followers, alongside a template letter that members were asked to send to politicians.
Such concerted public campaigns to pressure politicians are not new.
However, the targeted politicians say they’ve never before experienced such vicious personal attacks, with some callers linking the politicians to unfounded conspiracy theories about secret pedophile networks and Satanic worship – core planks of the baseless QAnon belief system.
Late on Monday, it was confirmed that Mr Andrews would seek a six-month extension instead of 12, agreeing to give month-by-month updates in an attempt to get the required parliamentary support.
Ms Patten, leader of the Reason Party, said her office had been swamped with at least 5000 emails in recent days alone, with countless phone calls and social media messages.
She had to instruct her staff to stop answering office phones, such was the level of abuse. She has now referred some of the more violent communications to police.
“In other campaigns which are organised by groups like this, they all had a target and a specific message to give us,” Ms Patten said.
“In this one, the messages are just all over the place, and many of them are conspiracy theorists who have the facts just plain wrong.
“Ordinary people are ringing my office at their wit’s end, unemployed, needing to know how to access services.
“But when our phones are just bombarded by people who want to yell, they’re blocking calls from people who actually need help. It’s wearing my staff down and upsetting them.”
In some messages received by Ms Patten, seen by The New Daily, critics call her a “f—ing corrupt c–t”, accuse her of “treason”, and being “evil”.
“May you rot in hell,” one message said.
“You’ve got blood on your hands,” read another.
“Stop supporting pedos.”
Many messages cite discredited and baseless claims including that the coronavirus is a hoax, while others say they plan to protest at large anti-lockdown demonstrations this weekend.
“Please do what you can to get this bill defeated,” one person wrote next to the list of MPs in one large Facebook group.
“Let them know your view on this State of Emergency matter,” read another such post.
“You can thank her for the extension,” said another post, alongside contact details for Ms Patten.
The New Daily has spoken to several of the other MPs on the list, some of whom asked not to be named, who also confirmed they had been flooded with thousands of calls and emails.
A spokesperson for Stuart Grimley, of Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party, said the office had received at least 5000 “vile, really awful” messages across social media, including some who had promised to “riot in the streets” if the state of emergency was extended.
Mr Grimley’s staff said they had been trying to reply to all messages, but that some were “crazy”. They too had never seen such a bombardment of messages from the public.
Animal Justice Party member Andy Meddick has received messages targeting his wife and children, and blaming him personally for Victorians committing suicide.
His office said it was receiving a call every three minutes from people spouting abuse.
Independent MP Catherine Cumming’s Facebook page has been swamped with thousands of negative comments from anti-lockdown groups, with floods of messages being posted on many of her recent photos and videos.
Even Greens MP Samantha Ratnam, currently on maternity leave, has not been spared. A post in one of Australia’s largest anti-lockdown groups told supports to “beg her to turn up to Parliament”.
Ms Patten says she’s received thousands of emails, social media comments and calls, some she’s referred to the police. “This isn't how we do politics in Australia I have never experienced this type of aggression against me in such a personal sometimes, sexual way,” she says.
— Benita Kolovos 🐯 (@benitakolovos) August 31, 2020
“This is not healthy for our society,” Ms Patten said of the onslaught.
“What we need now is unity, calmness, and a level of compassion and kindness.
“We should be working together, but they are creating an ‘us and them’ now.”