“It’s all about rights … Stay together, arm yourself with the truth, become aware of what the law says, and record everything.”
This message was beamed out in a Facebook live video this month by Melbourne gym owner Nick Patterson, conspiracy theorist and anti-mask proponent.
Patterson has built a following on Facebook, passionately sharing conspiracy theories — from the “hoax” coronavirus pandemic to mandatory face masks being an unlawful “restriction on your right to breathe”.
The video, in which Patterson appeared to offer followers casual “legal advice” against COVID-related fines, came shortly after another live-streamed video in which a Victoria Police officer confronts Patterson about needing to wear a mask.
“If you arrest me it will be a false arrest and I’ll be taking you for deprivation of liberty,” Patterson tells officers. He refuses to give his name.
In July, he shared a photo of an indoor gathering which he described as people who refused to “bow down to … oppressors”. He claimed the group was also addressed by Eve Black, a Melbourne woman whose video went viral in July for refusing to comply with an officer at a Victorian checkpoint. She was later arrested.
Patterson’s videos discuss the idea of rights — human rights, lawful rights, constitutional rights and what he describes as “our human rights charter” — as being a way out of restrictions imposed during the lockdown.
He’s not the only one.
An August 9 “freedom march” in Melbourne led to several arrests. One man, Solihin Millin, who’s understood to be an anti-vaxxer, live streamed himself arriving before police ordered him to move on. He can be heard saying that he couldn’t be arrested because of a “very powerful document” he was holding.
And last month, in a now-viral altercation at a Victorian Bunnings store, a woman berated an employee about the need to wear a mask.
Authorities say these are examples of the so-called sovereign citizen movement: individuals who believe laws don’t apply to them.
“In the last week we’ve seen a trend … of groups of people, small groups, but nonetheless concerning groups, who classify themselves as sovereign citizens,” Victoria Police chief commissioner Shane Patton said at a press conference earlier this month.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison told Seven’s Sunrise that people who believed they were above the law needed to “get real”.
Government-imposed restrictions during the pandemic have brought all sorts of long-running conspiracy groups back into the spotlight, from anti-vaxxers, 5G conspiracy theorists, QAnon believers and now anti-maskers.
Who are they?
Much like these other groups, self-proclaimed sovereign citizens (or SovCits) have been around for much longer than the COVID-19 crisis.
John Wilson, a New South Wales man, was identified by police as an “extremist member” of the movement in Australia in 2015. One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts has been accused of previously spouting sovereign citizen rhetoric, a claim he has repeatedly denied.
The movement found its roots in the United States during anti-tax and anti-government protests in the 1960s and ’70s. Members are considered domestic terrorists by the FBI.
University of Tasmania lecturer Kaz Ross said the movement has been “bubbling away” in Australia but has “exploded” due to COVID-19.
Other conspiracy groups had been drawn to the movement because of its pre-prepared “legal framework”, created over years of plugging at courts and poring over cases.
“These sorts of people are saying, ‘this is an example of authoritarian government, there isn’t a pandemic, there’s no virus, this is all about the government gaining control’ … and that plays right into the sovereign citizens’ playbook,” Ross tells Crikey.
“The sovereign citizens themselves say: ‘The government is a corrupt corporation, we refuse to contract with that government, we refuse to give up our rights.’ And that’s about the rights to travel freely, the rights to buy and sell property without paying taxes and to not get fined. I’d say no court in the land is going to let them do that.”
SovCits and social media
Unsurprisingly social media has allowed sovereign citizens to spread their reach. Ross said Facebook Live was where conspiracy groups and sovereign citizens found their “home turf”.
“Without social media you’ve just got these lone figures who just come across as cranks,” Ross says. “Now you’ve got people jumping on there three or four times a day doing Facebook live and encouraging people and building a following.”
She said the “clunky” reporting mechanisms on Facebook and the reduced number of content moderators helped spread the message wider.
But others believed conspiracy groups were being allowed to form more organised campaigns and evade moderation online by changing their language and dynamic.
QUT school of communication lecturer Ariadna Matamoros Fernández, who has researched hate groups and disinformation campaigns, said content moderation was a “really difficult process” as groups can rapidly change how and where they operate.
“There’s a lot of cross-pollination with platforms — it’s not only happening on Facebook or Reddit,” Matamoros Fernández says, adding that much of the coordination normally happens on encrypted services like WhatsApp.
The rising interest in these groups highlights the need for urgent changes in social media moderation rules and processes, and a need for media to reflect on when and how to give these movements a platform.
“There’s frustration about what’s happening and there’s curiosity to know more and there’s distrust in mainstream institutions, the media, the government,” Matamoros Fernández says.
Will the movement survive the pandemic?
Ross believes the overlap between conspiracy groups makes it impossible to know how many sovereign citizens Australia will end up with, but doubts it will become a mass movement.
But she also warns sovereign citizens’ core belief makes it unlikely they’ll ever trust what government says: “Because they don’t accept the government’s legitimacy at all, even reducing back to stage two or stage one restrictions … [is] just not going to be enough for them.”