Former Palmer United and One Nation candidate Teresa van Lieshout (Image: YouTube)

What started with a callout for “true patriots” to join a Zoom call with a former One Nation candidate has resulted in someone being arrested on charges of impersonating a government official, raids happening across the country, and a viral video promising a police coup of the Australian government. 

These turn of events show how conspiracy theories and pipe dreams shared in small, fringe communities festering in unmoderated parts of the internet can lead to people planning — and allegedly attempting — to take real-world action. 

On Monday, Australian Federal Police (AFP) assistant commissioner counter terrorism Scott Lee announced a police operation run by teams from Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia had targeted a group of anti-government Australians. A Perth man was charged, with police claiming he pretended to be a police officer while trying to buy ID badges and stamps from a business. 

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The seeds for this movement were planned in various messages passed around Telegram, a messaging platform that is home to conspiracy theorists and extremists because of its lax moderation policy.

In Australia, there’s a constellation of fringe Telegram channels loosely arranged around anti-government ideas — motivated by fears of vaccination, COVID-19 health restrictions or general government overreach — with between a couple of hundred to tens of thousands of members. These groups are independent, but messages move quickly between groups because of crossovers in membership and the ability to easily forward messages between groups. 

These groups are usually very active, with engaged members constantly sharing out-of-context news articles and/or fake news, along with hyperbolic messages about their conspiracy theories of choice. 

That’s why it wasn’t out of place to see a message forwarded through multiple groups on June 30 calling on people “concerned about the Status Quo (sic)” to join a Zoom call with someone calling themselves “Commissioner Shane Murphy”.

“Very important if you can get on this private call…. High level intel,” it said. “Time to take our country back.” 

During the meeting, Murphy was joined by another person calling themselves “Commissioner Jamie Mcbain”, and Teresa van Lieshout. 

Van Lieshout is a perennial political candidate who has unsuccessfully stood for election with the Palmer United Party and One Nation at various points. Shot to fame after appearing in a bikini for a 2014 election video with AC/DC blaring in the background, she’s also been subject to an arrest warrant for defying a court order in 2015.

Van Lieshout has embraced increasingly fringe and extreme ideas since then. In recent years, she’s used YouTube to share speeches of herself at anti-lockdown protests and announce arrest warrants for Australian politicians — signed off by her as the self-appointed “true” governor-general of Australia. 

On this Zoom meeting, and numerous meetings carried out over the next few weeks, Murphy and Mcbain claimed to be police commissioners of a new, separate Australian Federal Police force and pledge to carry out van Lieshout’s arrest warrants. They spoke with attendees and began asking people to volunteer to take part in an attempt to dissolve the government. The group called themselves “Equity of the People’s Nation”.

The Zoom link was reused multiple times, allowing Crikey to track the group’s meetings as they were shared between different conspiratorial Telegram channels. Different users shared them to new groups with glee.

“Jump on if you’re free guys,” one member said in a Perth-based group. “A police commissioner in Australia talking some…. AMAZING stuff”.

Another user with a QAnon display picture told people to come “for the good of humanity”.

It’s from one of these meetings that an audio recording was taken and published on alt-tech YouTube competitor Brighteon in late July as “LEAKED AUDIO FROM A POLICE BRIEFING IN AUSTRALIA – PREPARATIONS TO TAKE DOWN THE GOVERNMENT LEADERS” by “Truth or Consequences”, an account that publishes conspiracy content from all around the world. 

The video was of Murphy talking from an early meeting promising peaceful arrests — noting that they did not want to be mistaken for terrorists — and to install themselves as new leaders.

It went viral. The video garnered nearly 100,000 views, a large number for the obscure website, and was shared on Facebook, Twitter, 4Chan and other alt-tech platforms by conspiracy theorists around the world. 

However, the audio was attributed not to Murphy but instead to actual AFP commissioner Reece Kershaw: “Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw literally spelling out the crimes of how our ‘leaders’ have hijacked our government & how they will be taken down under common law and the constitution,” the video’s caption says.

Curiously, this repurposed recording appears to have nothing to do with the original group. Among excited comments, a comment from an account “Equity of the Peoples Nation” two days after the video said that it wasn’t Kershaw speaking.

“This group has been disbanded and the person speaking is not Police. This video is now apparently being used as a disinformation campaign by someone,” it said.

As is common with conspiracy groups, Equity of the People’s Nation had rapidly splintered following a July 9 meeting of the group and its supporters, which met Zoom’s 1000-participant limit. 

Between speeches, including one from Lawrie Carr, a candidate from former senator Rod Culleton’s Great Australian Party, an enraged van Lieshout took over the call and threatened violence towards Australia’s political leaders. People watching described it afterwards as “unhinged” or “too extreme”.

Shortly after, the now-defunct website for Equity of the People’s Nation posted a message distancing themselves from van Lieshout.

“Mr Murphy, Mr McBaine (sic) and all other parties that spoke or assisted on the zoom meetings have effective immediately resigned from anything to do with Teresa Van Lieshout after hearing her speak on Friday the 9th July,” it said.

Meanwhile, other members of conspiracy groups were turning on Murphy and Mcbain, accusing them of being liars or a “honey pot”, a police-run operation that lures in people under false pretences to find out their identities. 

Seeking a reset, Murphy and Mcbain rebranded their group “the Australian Project”. They said they were working with lawyers, sovereign citizen groups and people from other minor parties to launch a new movement. 

The AFP said they became aware of the groups only after the video began to go viral. Less than a week later, they pounced. 

The identity of the man arrested in Perth is not known. He faces court on August 16.

Police also found other evidence that one of the searches carried out in Cairns — the listed location of a Facebook account consistent with details provided by Murphy — found 470 replica AFP badges that had been sent to a group member’s house dumped in a local creek.  

Assistant commissioner Lee sought to downplay the risk from the group on Monday, but didn’t rule out further arrests.

“We have found no evidence this group has the ability — or has actually attempted — to carry out specific violent acts in support of statements made by members of this group,” he said.

“We will not hesitate to lay further charges if more criminal offences are identified.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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