Viral videos of militarised and aggressive police, misleading live streams and conspiracy theories have come together to form an online narrative of a dystopian Australia that’s fuelled protests in front of the Consulate-General in New York.
Last week Florida governor Ron DeSantis expressed this view and raised the idea of breaking off diplomatic ties with Australia.
“That’s not a free country. It’s not a free country at all. In fact, I mean, I wonder why we would still have the same diplomatic relations when they’re doing that,” he said at a conference in his state, which has had nearly 50 times as many COVID-19 deaths as Australia despite its smaller population.
“Is Australia freer than China, communist China, right now? I don’t know. The fact that that’s even a question tells you something has gone dramatically off the rails with some of this stuff.”
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Fox News and other international right-wing media have targeted Australia since the middle of the year. Tucker Carlson, Dan Bongino and Joe Rogan have criticised Australia’s strict public health measures that kept the death count far below the United States’ 700,000.
But online spectators who observed last week’s protests in Melbourne only through broadcasts from sympathetic live streamers and viral clips shared online have coalesced around #AustraliaHasFallen, a hashtag with thousands of people tweeting about a narrative claiming Australia has become a police state.
Many focused on the militarised police response. Sharing a clip of a large phalanx of riot police moving to a small, loosely organised group of protesters outside a Melbourne shopping centre, one user tweeted: “Grocery shoppers under attack. Suburban Melbourne. #Australia has fallen.”
Others used it to make bad faith attacks on Australia’s COVID response. “Look at the gun to make sure you are safe from a virus,” conservative speaker and author Melissa Tate tweeted to her nearly 500,000 followers.
Acts of what appear to be police brutality also fuelled concerns. One viral TikTok shows a man violently slammed to the ground in Flinders Street police station with the caption: “Victorian Police slamming people UNCONSCIOUS for ‘public health’………. Stop this Draconian Tyranny!”
Victoria Police has suspended the arresting officer while it investigates the conduct.
Conspiracy theories have fed the anxiety behind this campaign. A popular US Republican Facebook page claimed that Australia had cut off its internet to limit coverage of the protests. (USAToday published a fact check saying: “No evidence Australian government is limiting access.”)
Other theories claimed police weren’t actually police, but people working for a private security company. Others attempted to co-opt the #AustraliaHasFallen hashtag into something more innocuous by posting that Australia had fallen.
The #AustraliaHasFallen hashtag seized on a legitimate fear — were Victorian police officers using appropriate force and tactics? — and amplified it to paint Victoria as a dystopia. Addressing real concerns about police militarisation, police brutality and the proportionality of COVID public health measures is harmed, not helped, by distortions about what is really happening on the ground.