The anti-vaccine community has been misunderstood and “underestimated” in Australia, and those involved are becoming harder to reach.
Dr Kaz Ross, an independent academic who researches online racism, conspiracies and neo-Nazis, told news.com.au she thinks the weekend’s anti-COVID vaccine protests were likely a positive, and unifying experience for those who attended.
The Millions March Against Mandatory Covid Vaccinations rallies were attended by hundreds in Melbourne, Perth, Canberra and Brisbane. Prominent anti-vaxxer Pete Evans spoke at the rally in Sydney, where hundreds also marched through the city.
The Sydney rally felt at times more like a community festival than a fight against injustice, with heartfelt speeches, and lots of children and dogs present.
During one speech, from a father, who blamed his son’s non-verbal autism on vaccines, a woman standing next to me was moved to tears, as other mothers cheered on.
Dr Ross said she believes anti-vaccine communities in Australia have “definitely been underestimated”.
“If you look online it’s quite a few thousand people online, commenting and getting involved, but a lot of people don’t say much, and don’t get involved (online).”
She said looking at the online engagement is not a true indicator of the size or passion of the movement.
She said the pandemic has destroyed many community events, including going to the footy or music festivals. It means rallies now serve as way for the community to come together.
“That’s the one thing those people have in common — they’re marching for ‘freedom’,” Dr Ross explained. “Turning up to these various rallies throughout the pandemic is like saying no to ‘fear’ about COVID and it’s like saying ‘no’ to a pandemic.
“Coming out in big groups is to say, we are resilient, we do support each other and we’re about love.”
Dr Ross pointed out that anti-lockdown protests in Queensland have often taken on a “Bluesfest-vibe” and have been integrated with issues about Aboriginal sovereignty.
She said in Melbourne protesters have faced “disproportionate police responses”.
‘EVERYBODY HAS GOT THEIR OWN TRUTH’
“If you listen to someone like Pete Evans and what he said, he didn’t actually say anything. He said, ‘Everybody has got their own truth, and I’m going to speak my truth.’
“Well, what is the truth Pete?
“(They say they’re) standing up for freedom and we’re standing up for truth, but what are they actually standing up for?”
Dr Ross said she believes the majority of the group are fearful of mandatory vaccinations.
In Australia, nobody is required to have a “mandatory” vaccine — including frontline workers and people who work in aged care.
Vaccinating against COVID-19 is the easiest way for Australians to get their normal lives back, but millions are hesitant to get the jab.
News.com.au’s Our Best Shot campaign answers your questions about the COVID-19 vaccine roll out.
We’ll debunk myths about vaccines, answer your concerns about the jab and tell you when you can get the COVID-19 vaccine.
ANTI-VAX COMMUNITY HAS DIVERSE VIEWPOINTS
Dr Ross also pointed out that not everyone involved in the rallies would be happy to be described as being “anti-vax” — despite protesting against the COVID-19 vaccine.
“Not everyone there believes COVID is a hoax,” she said. “Some people believe (it is). And many people are concerned and cautious about new vaccines.
“And some people are very anti-vaccine.”
ANTI-VAX INFORMATION IS A ‘WELL-OILED MACHINE’
“The anti-vaccine movement in America is a well-funded, well-established, well-oiled machine,” Dr Ross said. But she added these groups aren’t the only source of misinformation circulating in Australia.
She said the Telegram app is “flooded” with anti-vax misinformation, about tests being inaccurate, big pharmaceutical companies being out to “kill you”, and coronavirus being fake.
“Underneath it all is a message of ‘we need to go back to natural health’.
She said people consuming these messages ultimately see this as a “good” thing.
Dr Ross added the social media landscape has helped feed misinformation, and social media platforms took action “way, way too late”.
“Now that feeds into the narrative of, oh they’re trying to shut down alternative views,” she said.
“Most of the crowds are having a cheery day out, and they’re cheering for love and openness.
“Perhaps that’s where the government strategy has gone a bit wrong.”
She added the government’s messaging can only break through to people “who trust and believe in the government”.