In the past weeks, Australian counter-terrorism officials have arrested and charged a man who encouraged anti-lockdown protesters to bring firearms to the State Parliament in order to shoot Premier Dan Andrews “…in the head with a .50 cal explosive tip! Just to make sure hes [sic] gone for life!”. The man also instructed protesters on how to manufacture Molotov cocktails. In other incidents, the daughter of a politician was hospitalised after being attacked on the streets, and death threats have been levelled at a pro-vaccination celebrity and a school student, among others.
Elise Thomas, a researcher with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, has recently pointed out that while there is ample of evidence of some far-right involvement in the COVID-19 conspiricist movement, it is largely unnecessary to make this connection before viewing the movement as a potential source of violent extremism. As the rhetoric and action of the movement escalates, it is prudent to consider the nature of ‘conspiracy extremism’ in its own right.
With its diverse range of actors, all with their own motivations and ideologies, an instructive way to look at COVID-19 conspiricism is as an environment of stochastic terrorism. According to the influential article that popularised this term, “Stochastic terrorism is the use of mass communications to stir up random lone wolves to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.” The stochastic terrorist may deliberately incite violence or simply be indifferent to its possibility. In either case, the danger posed is very real, if somewhat intangible (until it is too late).
Psychologist Valerie Tarico provides a succinct formula for stochastic terrorism. It refers to more traditional platforms such as airwaves and pulpits, so I have paraphrased it to apply to social media-enabled movements. I refer to this version as the ‘four Ds’:
- Demonisation – a figure with a platform targets a person or group to be blamed for real or imagined ills.
- Dehumanisation – with repetition of the demonisation, the target loses their personhood in the eyes of the audience, becoming a monster or symbol of evil and depravity.
- Desensitisation – violent language and imagery is used in discussion of the target, and while no direct calls to use violence are issued, violent speech becomes an accepted part of the discourse.
- Denial – when violence occurs, the stochastic terrorist denies any responsibility, pointing to their lack of direct involvement or instruction.
To demonstrate this formula with the COVID-19 conspiricist movement, I examined content from a sample of 100 COVID-19 conspiricist Twitter accounts, two Facebook groups with around 1,000 to 1,500 members, and three Telegram groups with memberships ranging from just over 100 to 65,000.
Demonisation and Dehumanisation
As the first steps in the formula, demonisation and dehumanisation of a range of figures, mostly political, was near constant. Three major themes emerged in this step. The first of these was the association of the figures with political groupings that are easily framed as evil or at least clearly ‘other’ – namely Communists, Nazis and war criminals. Examples include:
‘These spiteful virtue-signallers are a hop, skip and a jump from Pol Pot.”
“protocols of zion in operation.. #Bolsheviks gunna Bolshevik”
Relatedly, political figures and counter-protesters were likened to the most reviled of criminals or the mentally ill:
‘The anti-freedom pedo’s going to protest haha”
“What’s this psychopath Gunner doing to first Australians?”
Finally, a number of figures or groups were portrayed as literally not human. Examples of this included NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant being referred to as a demon, a meme depicting the Premier of Queensland as a snake, and vaccinated people being depicted as orcs from the Lord of the Rings.
The repeated use of violent rhetoric, and as such its normalisation, is the point at which a spotlight has been shone on the Australian COVID-19 conspiricist movement, following escalations that underlined the real threats posed. A prominent anti-lockdown protest organiser posted a picture of a home-made gallows online, intimating that it was meant for the Victorian Premier. A great deal of media coverage followed the appearance of a similar device at a protest. Execution by hanging is a recurrent theme of discourse within the movement, an example of such a post is:
“Psychological, biological, treason, crimes against humanity, we have it all. When this goes to REAL courts, we will see quite a number of the elite swing!”
Researchers have speculated about the choice of hanging as the execution method in such posts. One possibility is its association with the Nuremberg Trials, after which twelve defendants were hanged. The Nuremberg Trials and Nuremberg Code are commonly discussed within the sample. Seemingly giving credence to this interpretation, another post links to a Wikipedia page on the trial and execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu (who were shot, not hanged) with the commentary:
“When is this going to happen to the politicians and others forcing this genocide on countries [sic]”
Other violent rhetoric is less sophisticated:
“It [Kerry Chant] needs a bullet.”
Strictly speaking, the denial step as included in the formula refers to after a terrorist attack or other violent event. As of the moment, nobody has been killed in relation to Australian anti-lockdown protests or the Australian COVID-19 conspiricist movement. However, as authorities and commentators alike have reacted with dismay to recent escalations, denials that the movement is extreme or violent have likewise surfaced. These have included characterisations of reporting on the movement as ‘smears’ or ‘information warfare’, as well as content citing the presence of non-white people at protests as proof that the movement is not politically far-right, and statements of non-violence from movement leaders.
As political organisation, including violent extremism, tends increasingly towards decentralisation, official movement statements and plots are no longer sufficient as predictors of extremist violence. After the heyday of Islamic State, this much should be an obvious truism. And a popular awareness of the way stochastic terrorism works is only going to get more important.