Since being declared a global pandemic in March 2020, COVID-19 has increased uncertainty around the world and sparked an explosion of conspiracy theories and misleading anti-government content online. These campaigns have ranged from speculations that the virus is actually a bioweapon originating from a Wuhan lab, to efforts at delegitimizing lock-downs on the grounds that they are implemented as a means of government control. Activism has also involved strong opposition to the COVID-19 vaccine, with a growth in the view that getting vaccinated is a major health risk. Dispersed widely on social media platforms, this material has created confusion and fueled distrust in government and other institutions.
Anti-government activism and misinformation spreading has been particularly prominent in Victoria, where the Chief Health Officer’s State of Emergency powers have been increasingly relied upon to combat the spread of COVID-19. Over the past 18 months, the Victorian Government has ordered lengthy lock-downs, limits on public gathering numbers, mandatory mask wearing, travel constraints and a curfew. Such strict measures have been met with both online opposition and in-person rallies, which have fed the promotion of conspiracies about the virus and the vaccine.
This hostility primarily emanates from the sovereign citizen movement, which comprises individuals and groups who reject the legitimacy of the state. These activists express concern regarding society’s legal framework, and believe that the natural rights people are born with are being limited by oppressive governments, which they view as artificial corporations. Therefore, in response to Victoria’s restrictions, these individuals rebelled against the government through online and in-person protest while disregarding lockdown and mask-wearing rules.
The rise of COVID-19 misinformation on social media also raises the question of the role played by technology giants like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Google, in allowing the spread of this potentially harmful content. There have been calls by several health experts and organisations, including the Doherty Institute, for these technology companies to be transparent about the misinformation present on their platforms and to remove inaccurate material. While both Facebook and Google emphasise their efforts to take down misleading COVID-19 information from their platforms, misinformation cannot be entirely eliminated from the online space. This is partially because the removal of content can encourage dissidents to take their campaigns and followers underground— onto unmoderated platforms such as the Twitter-alternative Gab, and the instant messaging forum Telegram.
So how else could these conspiracies be combated? Whereas other countries have taken legal action to prevent the rise of COVID-19 misinformation online, were Australia to follow suit, the Commonwealth Government would need to ensure any relevant laws do not limit our constitutionally implied freedom of political communication. Although protecting public health would appear to be a legitimate purpose for limiting misleading content, the legislation would have to be carefully written and considered to ensure it is not unnecessarily restrictive. This may prove both difficult and politically contentious, and perhaps needlessly so, given the significant action technology companies are already taking to prevent the prevalence of misleading content online.
The global pandemic has nonetheless emphasised the risks posed when individuals believe everything they consume online. With social media and technology becoming integral to our lives in recent years, it is inevitable that a range of misleading content will continue to enter our feeds. As a result, educating our young people about reading online content analytically is vital. Although the Victorian Department of Education and Training stipulates that schools are to deliver online safety education, these programs must be relevant to the current online environment and have an increased focus on teaching students how to think and read material critically. This measure could be the key to protecting future generations from the harms of misleading conspiracies— allowing us to leave the COVID-age of misinformation in the past.
Image: Eddie Jim, The Age
Sarah Hearn is a fourth year Law/Arts student majoring in politics. She recently completed an internship at the Parliament of Victoria where she produced a Policy Research Report on the rise of the far-right in Victoria, and explored the ‘sovereign citizen’ movement in response to COVID-19 as part of her research. Sarah is particularly interested in the role that social media plays in facilitating the spread of misinformation, and is passionate about finding solutions to preventing the potentially harmful consequences of these campaigns.