It started with an anonymous post on an encrypted messaging app favored by far-right activists and conspiracy theorists and moved to a fringe website promoting misinformation about the QAnon and Port Arthur massacre.
How a conspiracy theory about the March fall of Victorian Prime Minister Dan Andrews at a vacation home on the Mornington Peninsula made its way from the backwaters of social media to the mainstream has been the subject of intense speculation. this week.
On Monday, Victorian opposition Treasury spokeswoman Louise Staley gave new impetus to a complicated web of conspiracy theories about Andrews’ downfall by publishing a list of questions about the crash.
Staley has continued to insist that he had simply been urging Andrews to “clear up” the rumors when he posted a list of 12 questions, which included whether Andrews had been interviewed by police after the accident and who had called the ambulance.
But his statement, which also asked the prime minister to answer questions “if there is no cover-up,” followed a long-running conspiracy narrative that emerged almost immediately after Andrews announced his accident on March 9.
In the hours after his statement, the encrypted messaging app Telegram, home to Australia’s largest anti-lock, anti-vaccination and far-right groups, was full of theories about the crash.
The timing of the downfall – it happened on the same day that federal health minister Greg Hunt was hospitalized with cellulite and shortly after Christian Porter and Linda Reynolds took indefinite leave from the cabinet – fueled a series of conspiracy narratives to those given oxygen by a number of prominent actors in Australia’s complicated conspiracy space.
A March 9 post from the prominent anti-blockade group Reignite Democracy Australia, led by former reality TV contestant Monica Smit, noted a “strange trend” and fueled an unfounded rumor that all MPs had suffered adverse reactions to the Covid-19 vaccine. . So did a post by far-right actor Blair Cottrell on the same day.
The next day, the first mentions of truck mogul Lindsay Fox in connection with the crash were made by a user of an anti-lockdown group known as the Melbourne Freedom Rally. The Guardian has previously revealed links between the group’s leader and several far-right organizations. The post, which claimed that Andrews had been at Fox’s home when he fell, was followed by a series of users submitting QAnon-flavored claims that they had “kicked him” and “taught him a lesson.”
Since then, conspiracy rumors have centered on truck mogul Lindsay Fox and a former PricewaterhouseCoopers executive, Luke Sayers. Different iterations of the theories have focused on the false beliefs that Andrews had with Fox at the time of the accident or that he was involved in an altercation with Sayers.
Andrews is friends with Lindsay Fox’s son, Andrew Fox, and some of the early posts on Telegram are linked to a February article in The Age that examined the ties between the prime minister and the family. The relationship was also questioned by Staley in the Victorian Parliament earlier this year.
However, rumors that Andrews was with Fox at the time of the accident have been flatly debunked. This week, The Age reported that Fox was considering taking legal action over the rumors, which he strongly denies, while the Australian Financial Review reported that Sayers was in a completely different place having dinner with his wife on the night in question.
Staley’s questions also prompted Victoria Ambulance to release a statement this week confirming the timeline Andrews had previously given for the accident. State Police Commissioner Shane Patton also confirmed that police did not attend the home where Andrews fell or interview him.
Outside of Telegram, however, unsubstantiated claims that Andrews’ fall was the subject of a cover-up were first broadcast by an obscure Queensland blog that also promotes the Port Arthur massacre conspiracies, QAnon theories and the unsubstantiated claims that Covid-19 is a “psyop.”
On March 11, the day after Telegram’s first posts, the website published an article with the title “Who criticized Dan Andrews?” He claimed, again without foundation, that the injuries sustained by the prime minister were “consistent with being kicked while lying on the ground.”
The website hosts a dizzying array of conspiracy material. A series of articles on the site claims, for example, that the deadly Port Arthur massacre was a “government-sanctioned terrorist event”; pushes QAnon’s theory that “Hollywood celebrities” have been “arrested” for “child pornography and satanic and ritual abuse of young children”; or claims that Covid-19 is a “psyop”.
The Guardian has not been able to reach the two men listed as editors of the site.
The website followed his first Andrews article with a series of similar posts furthering theories that Andrews’ hospital photos had been “tampered with” as well as linking both Fox and Sayers to the incident.
These articles, which are wrong, lay down the basic infrastructure of the conspiracy theories that have dominated social media since then: one pushes the idea that Andrews was with Fox at the time of the accident, the other suggests that he had been assaulted.
Since their publication, they have been widely circulated in the same Telegram conspiratorial groups that fueled the initial rumors about the Andrews crash, as well as on a number of Facebook pages associated with protests against the blockade and far-right ecosystems in Australia.
An analysis of Facebook posts by Queensland University of Technology professor Timothy Graham showed that while they were not widely shared outside of online communities linked to conspiracy content, it appeared that the Queensland website was ” to a great extent the original vectors of this narrative and its sub-narratives ”.
However, it is less clear how these theories spread from the backwaters of social media, but Graham said that examining the spread of articles on social media was likely to show only “the shadow” of how it had spread. The conspiracy.
“It’s operating in this strange space in the information ecology where you have these fringe actors mingling with the political elite,” he said.
“And it is very common for this false or misleading information to spread when it reaches that middle ground. There’s this connective tissue between the marginals, who are talking about these things online, and then someone who has the power to take these ideas and bring them up in a cafe, a bar, or a meeting and obviously we can’t see what it’s like. . it moves at that point. “
Even though Staley’s list of questions has been widely condemned as “nonsense” and “QAnon insanity,” both she and the Victorian opposition have remained on the side of the list.
Earlier this week, he denied selling conspiracy theories.
“The easiest way to stop any of these conspiracy theories, which I’m not playing on, is for these questions to be answered,” he said.
In response to questions from The Guardian, a Staley spokesman said the MP “was not alleging any wrongdoing, just asking some simple questions that a lot of Victorians are asking.”
She also said the questions were not in response to “something she read” on the Queensland website, but she did not answer questions about whether the questions were reported by others, including her staff, when reading the site.
What is clear is that the articles published by the conspiracy site circulated widely among Victorian media and politics. The Guardian understands that most of the questions posed by Staley had previously been posed to Andrews staff, and that at least one outlet pointed directly to the claims made by the Queensland website.
Graham said the political “weaponry” of conspiracy theories had been deemed “insidiously effective”, particularly in cases like Andrews’, where the relationship with the Fox family provided “seeds of truth.”
“If there are real, factually verified facts included in this narrative and they are part of the conspiracy theory premise, that’s where the damage can be greatest.”