A German-based conspiracy group helped to drive a series of anti-lockdown protests across Australia which saw dozens of people arrested and hundreds fined after violent clashes with police.
Police arrested more than 60 people and fined 107 more after a crowd of about 3,000 gathered in Sydney on Saturday to protest against the city’s lockdown.
Coordinated by a loose network of conspiracy-laced groups, including some with links to the far right, rallies took place in cities across Australia and the globe, with violent clashes between demonstrators and police in Sydney.
Protests against Covid restrictions have become common throughout the pandemic. While billed as peaceful protests, police said they were surprised by “the level of violence that people were prepared to use”.
Prior to Saturday, word of the protests was spread through a collection of Telegram, Instagram and Facebook posts, often amplified by large anti-vaccination and conspiracy pages that have amassed followings in the tens of thousands during the pandemic.
The latest rallies have highlighted the role of a German-based group, named Worldwide Demonstration, which has helped to coordinate protests across the globe, including in various Australian cities.
The group has 45,000 Facebook followers and 70,000 Telegram subscribers on its main accounts alone, and even more on dedicated accounts set up for individual countries.
The group appears to be run out of Germany by individuals calling themselves “Freie Bürger Kassel”, or the Free Citizens of Kassel. Its main Facebook page is administered by two Germans and a third individual in the United Kingdom.
Posts about Saturday’s rallies in Australian cities began on its main Telegram account last month, on 26 June, when it announced the time and location for the Melbourne march. That post was seen by more than 20,000 people.
There were similar posts for marches in Townsville, Cairns, Gympie, Perth, Brisbane and Darwin on 10 July, and then Hobart, Sydney and Adelaide on 21 July, three days before the rally.
The group’s various Facebook and Telegram pages are awash with anti-vaccine and Covid-19 conspiracy theories, as well as other conspiratorial content such as QAnon and Islamophobia.
An investigation by Logically earlier this year revealed that Worldwide Demonstration was behind a wave of 129 coordinated events and protests in March. It also planned similar rallies in May.
The graphics it created for the July marches were shared and adapted into more localised Telegram channels under the banner of “Australia Freedom Rally”.
Messaging about the rallies was amplified by existing local groups and influencers.
In Australia, a Melbourne-based group has helped promote protests throughout the pandemic. The Guardian has previously revealed Harrison McLean, a 24-year-old IT programmer from Wantirna South, had become a key organiser of the protests in that city.
Like many of the organisers, those groups have a significant rightwing bent. In March the Guardian revealed McLean had outlined his plans to introduce his “freedom” group to more radical political views, while expressing deeply antisemitic opinions.
McLean has previously denied being involved in the far-right.
“I am not Far-Right. I am a Libertarian Populist, and I support Freedom of Speech,” McLean posted under an online username, Dominic, in one forum.
On Telegram, Saturday’s anti-lockdown rallies were also being promoted by Australians vs The Agenda channel, which has more than 12,000 members and was involved in the organisation of protests in Melbourne last year.
For more than a week, the Australians vs The Agenda Telegram channel was sharing graphics promoting the “Australia Freedom Rally” and asking for help distributing thousands of paper flyers for the “Worldwide Rally for Freedom”. Those flyers gave a hyperlink to the “Australian Freedom Rally” Telegram channel associated with the Free Citizens of Kassel.
Both groups promoted the protests through its Telegram and Instagram account, which together have more than 30,000 followers. RDA said it was being censored by Facebook in the week leading up to Saturday.
On Friday, Reignite posted locations and dates for the rallies to its 14,000 Telegram subscribers. The post received 19,400 views.
Details of the rally were also being shared by anti-vaccination groups, which do not necessarily have links to the far right.
The Australian Vaccination-risks Network Inc (AVN) was promoting the rally to its 39,533 followers on Facebook, while the Informed Medical Options party shared details of the event with its more than 30,000 followers.
Protesters wave an Australian flag during an anti-lockdown rally in Melbourne on Saturday. Photograph: Luis Ascui/AAP
Ariel Bogle, an analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre, is investigating social media activity in the lead-up to Saturday’s protests. Her preliminary work suggests accounts affiliated with Worldwide Demonstration continue to spread information about the rallies internationally across a range of platforms.
Bogle said questions remained about the links Worldwide Demonstration has in Australia and the manner in which its content and message was adapted and shared by local groups to suit the Australian context.
“I’d say broadly we need to look more into it, but it has spread through the Australian context via a lot of the groups that were involved in previous demonstrations,” she said. “But it has moved into a broader community via a range of mechanisms, but in particular through niche influencers who speak to a specific community.”
While some of the organisers behind the protests have links to far-right elements, the protests were by no means a gathering of the far-right actors. Josh Roose, a senior research fellow specialising in extremism at Deakin University, said while there were elements of far-right rhetoric among the protestors, what they actually shared was a level of marginalisation and distrust in authority.
“There are some similarities and commonalities to the far right in terms of content but these protests are not driven by far right per se,” he said.
“What immediately distinguishes these sorts of protest groups from the far right is that they’re highly multicultural and they’re made up not just of angry men at a patriot rally but also women.
“In both Melbourne and Sydney the people and areas being represented are the areas that have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. There’s also issues here with the cultures and communities often have a deep-seated distrust of government, often for good reason.”