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Australian 'myth-busting' unit established to take on Covid misinformation

Michael McGowan
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

The federal government has established a “myth busting unit” to address what health minister Greg Hunt has called “plainly ridiculous” misinformation surrounding the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine in Australia, amid increasing concerns about the spread of false information and conspiracy theories during the pandemic.

Announcing the arrival of the first 300,00 doses of the new AstraZeneca vaccine to Australia on Sunday, Hunt revealed the departments of Home Affairs and Health had “quietly” established the unit last year amid concerns about misinformation.

“Some of these anti-vaxxers are peddling, frankly, false and clearly irresponsible views. Whether it is about 5G and Bill Gates and mind control – ludicrous, ludicrous things,” he said.

Related: Australia's Department of Home Affairs made most requests for Covid misinformation takedowns

“We don’t want to give too much air to some of the silliest ideas but we do want to provide public reassurance [we are] combatting the misinformation on those ideas which would in any way falsely have some impact on public confidence.”

Authorities are increasingly grappling with the growth and impact of conspiratorial thinking during the pandemic as vaccines which depend on widespread take-up to stop the spread of the virus are rolled out.

On Saturday the New York Times reported that roughly one-third of US troops on active duty or in the National Guard have declined to take the vaccine, a warning of the spread of large segments of vaccine-hesitant populations in that country.

In Australia, research released by the government earlier this month found only 64% of people said they would “definitely” get the vaccine, though authorities remained confident that figure would rise significantly as the rollout progressed.

But law enforcement agencies in particular are becoming more vocal in expressing their concerns about the rise of Covid-inspired misinformation.

Last week the Guardian reported that Victorian police had warned, in a submission to a new parliamentary inquiry into far-right and left radicalism, that extremist groups had “exploited” anger at Covid-19 lockdowns in order to recruit new followers during the pandemic.

“For example, online commentary on Covid-19 has provided a recruiting tool for [right-wing extremist] groups, linking those interested in alternative wellness, anti-vaccination and anti-authority conspiracy theories with white supremacist ideologies,” the submission stated.

“Locally, Victoria police has identified an increase in anti-establishment views and the expression of negative sentiment toward politicians and law enforcement, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic where reduced public freedoms fed into the narrative of those with an anti-government or anti-authority agenda.”

That sentiment – and its increasing links to far-right groups including the Proud Boys – has been on public display throughout the pandemic. But the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine has sparked a new wave of public protest.

On Saturday, a protest held outside Hunt’s Victorian electorate office saw a series of groups and individuals linked to the wider conspiracy movement again link together.

Related: How Australia became fertile ground for misinformation and QAnon

Among the speakers was Monica Smit, the head of the rightwing group Reignite Democracy Australia. Guardian Australia has previously reported that the group, which has links to the Liberal party, had helped spur parts of the anti-lockdown movement in Melbourne during the city’s long Covid-19 pandemic.

It has now shifted to anti-vaccination misinformation, and, as Gizmodo reported last week, has been urging its tens of thousands of followers on social media to inundate politicians with pseudo-legal emails in an attempt to stop public health measures.

Another attendee was Matt Lawson, a prominent member of the conspiracy clique who has spent much of the pandemic pushing fringe theories about 5G and vaccines. The Guardian previously reported Lawson had spent time handing out misinformation about vaccines to aged care homes in Melbourne.

On Sunday Hunt did not spell out how the “myth-busting unit” had been operating – and the Department of Home Affairs did not respond to questions before deadline – but law enforcement agencies are taking steps to ensure the vaccine supply is not interrupted.

On Sunday, the Australian Federal Police confirmed that along with a series of other agencies it had established a new joint intelligence network to ensure the security of the country’s vaccine supply.

Though reports in other media suggested the AFP were preparing to target specific anti-vaccination protesters, the Guardian understands the taskforce is only designed to share intelligence relating to the security of vaccination supplies.

“The Australian Federal Police will work closely with commonwealth and state and territory authorities to share relevant information and intelligence to support and maintain the integrity of the Covid-19 vaccine rollout in Australia,” a spokesman for the AFP said.

“If a report is made to the AFP, it will review the matter in accordance with relevant commonwealth offences for which it has jurisdiction.”