(Images: Supplied)

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During the Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd’s murder last year, every time I looked at Twitter I’d see see another shocking video of someone — almost always a person of colour — on the receiving end of excessive force from police.

Traditionally, police have been the loudest voice in media coverage, but the emergence of camera phones and mobile-first social media changed the balance by elevating the voices and perspectives of others.

According to the University of Newcastle’s Dr Justin Ellis, who’s researched the topic, there’s a link between the trend of amateur videos of police brutality shared on social media and the Black Lives Matter movement. “It’s not a coincidence both emerged in 2013,” he said.

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Towards the end of last year, I started seeing videos that echoed this — shaky eyewitness-perspective footage of clashes between police and individuals shared to social media with a call-to-action — but which were coming from people refusing to wear masks or social distance. These would circulate in anti-vaccine, anti-lockdown groups before often bubbling up to my normal feeds. These videos are engaging and prone to being widely shared. They’ve got conflict, power dynamics and intrigue — a perfect recipe for going viral.

This is another example of anti-vaxxers co-opting the rhetoric and symbols of successful social-justice movements, to piggyback off success and normalise baseless claims.

Queensland LNP MP George Christensen sharing a video of anti-lockdown protests in Mackay. (Image: Supplied)

Since the mid-2010s, anti-vaxxers have lifted from successful reproductive rights movements by co-opting bodily autonomy slogans like “my body my choice”. (Friend of the newsletter Gina Rushton points out that these same campaigners and politicians simultaneously oppose abortion.) Similarly, anti-government messaging popular on the right is used too. Drawing from both sides of politics’ messaging reflects the movement’s composition of people from all parts of the political spectrum, and might explain why, frankly, a lot of what they say doesn’t make sense.

But these different users aren’t at all the same. Videos of police brutality depict people being hurt by a system that’s supposed to protect them. Anti-lockdown advocates are putting others at risk by refusing to follow rules, but hoping to frame their struggle as that of a victim.

Sometimes, there is a blending of the two issues when police respond violently to people breaking public health measures. Police brutality, no matter how fringe someone’s beliefs are, is still brutality. Even in the face of a hostile individual, law enforcement has a responsibility to respond in a proportionate way.

But it’s a greyer area when you consider how these interactions are baited: people intentionally and proudly eschewing public health orders, often intentionally inciting such an interaction with police with the hope of gaining public sympathy for their cause.

Being arrested makes for great content. Plus, you look like a martyr! When Monica Smit, leader of Australia’s new major anti-vaxxer group Reignite Democracy Australia, was arrested for incitement recently, her first instinct was to tell her livestream audience: “Please share this video as much as possible”.

Reignite Democracy Australia’s Monica Smit when she found out she was under arrest for incitement. (Image: Facebook)

Even arrests where police do everything by-the-book can appear brutal, particularly if you sympathise with the person being arrested.

(These anti-lockdown groups have inconsistent relationships with police. Members of these movements often sympathise with law enforcement, and claim police are being forced to enforce rules they don’t actually believe. Others threaten to doxx or even kill police as retaliation for enforcing the state’s whims.)

Initially, I thought that these tactics are politically agnostic, but Ellis frames it a different way.

“We’re seeing a broadening of these tactics across the political spectrum,” he said.

The subtle difference is that amateur video of police arrests shared to social media still has a political slant: it’s anti-police and, by extension, anti-state. But this perspective doesn’t belong to just one side of politics, and it certainly doesn’t belong to people fighting against real struggles and not confected conspiracies.

A few weeks ago, I saw something that illustrated just how far COVID-19 denialists would go to co-opt the success of other movements: users in online conspiracy groups sharing footage of what they claimed was a man who attended the August anti-lockdown protests having his head stomped on by police.

A screenshot of a message sent in an Australian conspiracy group. (Image: supplied)

Except, it wasn’t. The footage was from 2020, and it depicted a man who had nothing to do with anti-lockdown protests.

A user found the video and decided to reappropriate someone’s worst day on earth to try and score points for their own campaign. After all, why put yourself in harm’s way for a few retweets when you can just re-share someone else’s pain for your own cause?

Hyperlinks

Crowdfunded lawyers and the rise of anti-vax, COVID denialist sentiment
How are people making money from hyper-engaged anti-vaccine movements? I did a big look into how hundreds of thousands of dollars are going to crowdfund legal challenges. So far, none have been successful but the donations keep rolling in. (Crikey)

Patrick McGorry withdraws from event run by ‘shadow pandemic’ mums’ group with links to Liberals
A nice look at how a slickly organised campaign can gather a lot of attention quickly using social media, which in this case almost snagged prominent mental health campaigner Patrick McGorry. (The Age)

Pauline Hanson is profiting off a meme created by a 23 year old Asian woman from western Sydney
Usually the people who make money off popular internet memes aren’t the original creator, but it’s particularly galling that Hanson is profiting off a young woman of colour. (Pedestrian)

Google, Facebook to bankroll Australian digital publishers alliance
Fascinating that digital publishers would create a lobby group funded by Big Tech when the platforms are probably one of the main people they need to interface with. (Sydney Morning Herald)

Kerry Chant’s ‘new world order’: how a throwaway comment went viral with conspiracy theorists
There’s two lessons in this one. Firstly, there’s a whole ecosystem of bad actors on the internet who search for content to share to feed and grow their audiences. Secondly, if you’re a public figure: please don’t use the phrase “new world order”.(Crikey)

Content Corner

Now, here at WebCam we’re unashamedly pro-science, pro-vaccine, and pro-anything that encourages people to get a jab.

But the latest vaccination trend started by Jim Penman — the Jim from Jim’s Group and other Jim-related franchises — could be putting people at risk.

A TikTok from @jimsgroup of Jim Penman. (Image: TikTok)

In a TikTok video that’s been viewed almost 700,000 times since being posted almost a week ago, Penman promises to give a “Jim’s Jabs” t-shirt and hat to anyone who posts a picture of their vaccination certificate on social media.

And people have been doing just that: posting videos of their vaccination certificate, posing with it, even doing a dance in front of it.

TikTok user @kateschmid94 showing her vaccine certificate. (Image: TikTok)

Unfortunately, as The Guardian’s Josh Taylor noted, people are not doing a lot to protect their privacy. I saw dozens of people sharing their full names, dates of birth, and vaccine certificate numbers… just for a free hat and shirt

Even worse, anti-vaxxers began using the hashtag to find vaccinated people to harass. One poor TikTok user @heyitsb2000 made a video where she spoke about being harassed.

TikTok user @heyitsb2000 speaking about how she faced abuse from anti-vaxxers after she posted a video of her vaccination proof for #jimsjabs
TikTok user @heyitsb200 (Image: TikTok)

“All I wanted was some merch,” she pleaded. “Leave me alone, okay?”

It appears as though Jim (who’s previously expressed anti-lockdown views and has had his thoughts on race science challenged) didn’t think through every wrinkle of this campaign.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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