(Image: Private Media)

This is part two in a series. For part one, go here.

Speaking to the late-night show of Australia’s anti-vaccine movement, Pearse Casey outlines his philosophy about making change.

“We need to build it from the community up and not just this top-down messaging from their Telegram feeds, thinking someone else is doing this,” he says in his thick Irish accent.

Casey’s approach contrasts with the show’s other guest, Christian Marchegiani, who organises the “Reclaim the Line” rallies for teachers and other workers against vaccination mandates. Together they show the spectrum of tactics being used to erode confidence in the children’s COVID-19 vaccination rollout in Australia.

New and existing Australian groups have seized on the rollout of children’s vaccinations as the new frontier in anti-vaccine organising. Rallies like the Reclaim the Line have functioned like real-world analogues for the group’s growing online followings on mainstream platforms like Facebook and “alt-tech” alternatives like Telegram. Both serve as recruiting grounds and an opportunity to develop a sense of community and identity among their audience.

One anti-vaxxer rallygoer at the Reclaim the Line protests (Image: Supplied)

Now these movements are trying to build this support into sustainable and organised groups. Reflecting similar changes to strategies used by extremist and conspiracy movements, in the United States, activists and organisations are increasingly focusing their efforts at the local level: targeting individual parents, school staff and councils.

Anti-vaccine influencers and groups peddle misinformation about injuries and deaths from COVID vaccines as a way of convincing parents. In January, anti-misinformation group First Draft News documented a series of unproven claims on social media about children dying after receiving their dose, these claims racking up thousands of shares despite no evidence the stories were true or that the children even exist. Groups use online and offline communications like flyers and a mobile billboard truck.

After propagating false, unproven or misleading information, these groups offer to guide parents on how to prevent their children from being vaccinated. Anti-vaccine group Reignite Democracy Australia has prepared a pseudo-legal series of letters authored by fertility awareness educator Hannah Fenner to be sent to schools that forbid their children from receiving a vaccine, COVID testing or any discussion of medical procedures relating to the virus. (It is legal for “mature minors” to consent to procedures such as a COVID vaccine without their parents’ permission). 

Once parents are convinced, anti-vaccine groups hope to turn them into evangelists. Organisation Parents With Questions provides a series of videos showing psychologist and motivational speaker Lindsay Spencer-Matthews promising to help them navigate “these polarised times”. The videos teach techniques for how to speak to other parents or doctors to raise doubts about whether vaccines are necessary or safe for children.

For example, if someone asks about the risk of COVID-19 to children, Matthews recommends redirecting the question by asking: “How many children do you know who have died from COVID-19?”

In recent days, Parents With Questions has sought to formalise this role by creating a network of “local activators” who receive regular directions from the group to carry out in their area. Founder Adam Gibson claims they chose to move this model after the group’s purchase of $100,000 in billboard advertisements was rejected.

 “We’re going to make activators our key strategy,” he said late last week.

A Facebook group for Parents With Questions activators has grown to more than 1300 members since halfway through December. Members from around the country post photographs of them carrying out requests like letterboxing their local area with flyers or writing letters to their personal GPs requesting that they join anonymous anti-vaxxer briefings for doctors. 

An Instagram story posted by a Parents With Questions local activator letterboxing their neighbourhood with anti-vaccine flyers (Image: Instagram)

Casey’s group, Safe Kids Informed Partners (SKIP Australia), teaches parents to pressure institutions like local schools and councils as a way of stopping children’s vaccinations. 

In one Instagram post, Casey tells an anecdote about how attended his son’s end-of-year play despite a vaccine requirement for visitors.

“You do not get to take my memories away,” he said. “So I’m going to go to that play. That’s my choice. And the school is going to have to make their choice.”

Operating under the mistaken assumption that vaccine mandates are legally discriminatory, the organisation’s website encourages parents to submit freedom of information requests, lodge complaints to the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission or through the organisation’s internal complaints structure. In one document titled “Council Pressure Guidelines”, it even includes more than a dozen questions to ask at council meetings.  According to its social media posts, members have begun using the techniques on 17 councils in NSW, Victoria and South Australia. 

One of many Facebook posts of parents showing written invitations for their personal GPs to a seminar meant to teach them to doubt the safety and efficacy of vaccines for children (Facebook).

While running on a lot of volunteer labour and using free resources, these groups frequently call for tens of thousands of dollars in donations from their groups. 

According to research by First Draft News, Christian Marchegiani’s organisation, National Education United, has raised more than $105,000 for its activities, including the Reclaim the Line rallies. (After someone who said they were a founder of the group claimed there had been “mismanagement” of the funds, the group put up a page defending its spending and listing some receipts.) 

Australia’s longest-running anti-vaccine group, Australian Vaccination-Choice Network, has raised more than $300,000 for an unfiled legal challenge to the medical regulator’s approval of vaccines for 5-to-11-year-olds. SKIP Australia has fundraised nearly $14,000 of a $29,000 goal to print and send an information pack to 2300 Victorian schools. Parents With Questions requests donations starting at $5000.

Cashed up and with volunteers across the country primed for action, anti-vaccine groups are using every tactic and approach at their disposal to undermine Australia’s COVID vaccination rollout for children. 

Next: the children fighting back against vaccinations...