Anti-lockdown protest organisers are warning their supporters against attending demonstrations this weekend, claiming they are “honeypot” traps secretly set by police.
Dozens of arrests were made and charges laid following the huge anti-lockdown march in Sydney on the weekend, in which officers on foot and horseback were assaulted and pelted with projectiles.
The events, organised in Australia via Facebook and Telegram, were the local arms of a so-called “Worldwide Rally for Freedom”, with dozens of co-ordinated events happening globally on Saturday.
As The New Daily revealed on Sunday, groups involved in mobilising attendees immediately began plotting their next move.
In-fighting over planned anti-lockdown protests
Despite some pages owned by the groups being shut down by Facebook and Instagram, “back-up” pages have rapidly sprung up, under slightly different names.
The interconnected nature of many of these groups means they have been able to share links to the new pages and quickly regain thousands of followers.
Posters advertising a second rally in Sydney this weekend – bearing the same branding as last week, albeit crudely edited to show a new date – are being shared widely in the same groups across multiple social media platforms.
But organisers of some of the larger groups have disowned such plans, claiming they are not “endorsed”.
“Regarding the protest flyer circulating for this Saturday in Sydney … I have no idea who announced it and also do not know whom or what is the source,” said the admin of one highly energised conspiracy group, with 13,000 followers on Telegram and thousands more on other platforms.
Members of the page have warned each other “it’s a police set up” or a “honeypot” trap.
Some had suggested massing on the steps of Parliament buildings nationwide in August, while others wanted to march again this weekend, in protest of the inevitable extension of Sydney’s COVID lockdown on Friday.
Some have called for protests every week, while others want to build to a small number of very large protests.
It is generating heated discussion in such groups. Others have been peeved by media attention and requests from reporters for comment.
“Heads up to media trying to get interviews out of us. It’s a big fat F–K OFF,” one wrote.
Despite calls for protests this weekend being publicly disowned by some key groups, the wide reach of the posters may see supporters attend anyway.
TND contacted NSW Police for comment.
Ariel Bogle, disinformation researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Cyber Policy Centre, said the organisation for last week’s event “wasn’t undercover or secret” – instead, planned out in the open, through public Facebook events and splashed across Instagram.
Anti-lockdown crowd an unlikely coalition
Police claimed just 3000 people attended the protest in Sydney’s CBD, but footage of the event suggested numbers were far higher.
Organisers claimed attendance was closer to 30,000 in Sydney and 8000 in Melbourne.
Although some branded it a “far-right” rally, the reality is more nuanced.
Attendees drew from a wide range of loosely aligned cohorts that have merged under a broad umbrella of opposition to lockdowns, including anti-vaxxer groups, COVID sceptics, conspiracy theorists, QAnon supporters, wellness and fitness groups, libertarian groups and multicultural backgrounds, as well as far-right extremists.
Many of the groups were involved in similar anti-lockdown protests in Victoria during Melbourne’s 2020 lockdowns.
However, academics studying extremism and conspiracy theories noted many attendees in Sydney were likely not veteran protesters, and many may have been attending their first rally of this kind.
“I was struck that it seemed a bit less conspiratorial than other ones. I wondered if this was a lot more people who were not usually anti-lockdown protesters having their first time out, dipping their toes into the protest pool,” Elise Thomas, a researcher studying conspiracy theories, told The New Daily.
“There were some sovereign citizen signs, some QAnon, but less than I expected.”
Ms Bogle noted there was “something for everybody in the way the events were promoted”, with different and unrelated groups latching their specific concerns onto the broad “anti-lockdown” sentiment.
“It was such a grab bag,” she told TND.
“There was talk of lockdowns hurting business, economic and poverty arguments, sprinklings of global conspiracy theories, anti-vaxxer ideas.
“But also we can’t discount the role of real frustration and the effects of a politicised public health approach as well. I’m curious about the role of boredom in this. If you’re bored and a little sceptical, maybe it was a little appealing.”
Ms Thomas called Saturday’s rallies a “huge propaganda victory” for the groups, saying they “would be very happy with the coverage they got” in media.
She noted that some groups had developed better “tactics” than initial lockdown protests, noting how some rallies kept their locations secret until shortly before the event began, in attempts to thwart police attention.
Police warn ‘don’t come’
NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller said police had prepared for last week’s protests, deploying some 300 officers, and promised “big numbers” would be in the city on Saturday.
He said there would be a “firm response” in anticipation of any potential protest, including police “working the railway stations” and “out on the rims of metropolitan Sydney”.
“We are receiving information and reports that similar groups are thinking about coming back in Saturday … my advice to you is, don’t come,” he told Channel Nine.
“We will start arresting people early. We’ll be pushing people on very early … don’t come in thinking it’s going to be a peaceful protest.”
Commissioner Fuller said police were taken aback at last weekend’s thuggery, claiming “we haven’t seen violence like that since probably the Cronulla riots”.
Police received more than 10,000 public tip-offs with video and photo evidence about rally attendees, and pressed upwards of 60 charges.