A screenshot showing videos and photos from the Telegram page for organisers of the weekend's anti-lockdown protests (Image: Supplied)

Thousands of Australians took to the streets in protests at the weekend, many flouting COVID-19 public health restrictions during a spiralling outbreak, all in the vague pursuit of “freedom”.

Hundreds were fined and dozens were arrested during the demonstrations, which turned violent at times. 

What the diverse crowd of protesters — united under the banner of a “worldwide rally for freedom” — specifically wanted was unclear other than a chance to show dissent to restrictions and to gain attention. 

The lack of clear purpose and demands reveals the decentralised nature of the rallies, organised by a constellation of groups and individuals ranging from full-on conspiracy theorists to frustrated citizens. They used social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, as well as forwarded messages through apps like WhatsApp and Telegram. 

Since the start of Australia’s first lockdown in March last year, various groups and personalities have organised anti-lockdown rallies at least every month with varying levels of attendance. 

An investigation by online publication Logically found that the “worldwide rally for freedom”, a consistent branding that’s been used for many of these anti-lockdown rallies, were seeded across the world by one German cell of anti-vaxxers. 

A surprisingly small group of individuals created dozens of Facebook events and other online spaces dedicated to organising protests in different countries. Then existing personalities and groups adopted the events and their branding, organising around them. These for the most part tended to be the hardcore anti-lockdown people with conspiracy or extremist views.

What made this weekend different was the sheer scale and diversity of people who came with that scale. As Josh Butler reported in the New Daily the protests were attended by “anti-vaxxer groups, COVID sceptics, conspiracy theorists, QAnon supporters, wellness and fitness groups, libertarian groups and multicultural backgrounds, as well as far-right extremists”. Certainly these protests had a core of those with extreme views but they were joined by large numbers of ordinary Australians who wanted to make their displeasure known. 

The size of protests since the start of the pandemic have correlated with the introduction of stricter public health measures. The first major rallies happened during the start of Victoria’s second wave last year, then died down. Anti-lockdown groups from Victoria grew on the back of longer lockdowns last year. Then COVID-19 vaccines produced a new burst of energy. But largely interest dwindled as Australians’ lives went back to normal through much of 2020. Until now.

It’s reasonable to expect that this interest, too, will die down when lockdowns ease. But in Sydney’s case that may not be for a while as the NSW government is reportedly modelling how lockdowns will affect the state if they continue on into September. 

There are long-term impacts from these events. Extreme organisations, including organised anti-vaxxer and far-right groups, are trying to harness this outrage and frustration by bringing people into the fold. One example is anti-lockdown/anti-vaccination group Reignite Democracy Australia that has been trying to build a sustainable organisation, raise money and has registered as a political party.

As they have before, protesters have promised to rally again soon. Whether they’ll draw the same number — or more! — depends on whether many disaffected Australians exhausted from months of harsh lockdown measures still feel they aren’t being heard or helped.