While it may be tempting to consider the mix of wellness, anti-vax and extremist communities in protests at home and abroad as unusual, it is instead a worrying manifestation of a long-developing confluence
Opinion: Those participating in the “freedom convoys” occupations in Canada and here in Aotearoa New Zealand have repeatedly argued they are simply against government vaccine mandates which, they say, infringe on their personal choice and freedom.
Even a cursory look at protesters’ messaging, however, reveals a wide range of beliefs, including extremist ideologies, particularly on online channels. For example, Stuff‘s Charlie Mitchell details violent, anti-government rhetoric on Counterspin Media, an online streaming site that has become a home for conspiracy theories and extremist discourse, while Newsroom’s Marc Daalder documents many examples from Counterspin as well as messaging apps Telegram and Zello to show how the original organisers of the convoy have lost control to far-right extremists.
As Byron C Clark argued on RNZ’s Mediawatch: “If you want a full picture, you need to be engaging with people on the ground but also be in the social media channels and watch their own media.” Those social media channels are used to share not just anti-mandate rhetoric, but also significant anti-vax discourse from wellness and homeopathic circles, far-right conspiracy theories infused with racism, and anti-media and anti-government views including violent threats against MPs and journalists.
That mix of perspectives led Colin Peacock of Mediawatch to note that reports have framed the protest at Parliament as “a leaderless mass of harmless hippies, Hare Krishnas and homeopathy believers on one side and angry anti-vax and maybe incipient assassins on the other”.
While it may be tempting to consider this mix unusual, it is instead a manifestation of a long-developing confluence between wellness, anti-vax, and extremist communities.
Over the past couple of years, for example, journalists have reported on yoga teachers in California protesting against lockdowns and encouraging people to burn their masks and on wellness influencers who were “promoting a video that claimed a ‘shadowy cabal’ of scientists and companies were linked to the rise of the virus”.
Another example is Pete Evans, an Australian former My Kitchen Rules celebrity chef and wellness figure who claimed in his cookbook Healthy Every Day to be “a qualified health coach with the authority to speak on the topic of healthy eating”.
By 2017, however, Evans veered into pseudoscience and misinformation. In the Netflix documentary The Magic Pill, for example, Evans claimed without evidence that a keto diet could “treat a range of chronic health issues, including cancer, autism and asthma”.
By 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic was wreaking havoc globally, Evans had developed anti-vax views and began to promote fake Covid cures such as a light-emitting machine called the BioCharger, which he was selling for A$14,900 on his website. Evans also repeatedly claimed that Covid-19 was a scam and said lockdowns were part of “a sinister plan”.
Evans also crossed over with extremist communities by posting a link on his Instagram account to an interview with the Holocaust denier and “Plandemic” believer David Icke, by sharing anti-vax and Covid-conspiracy theory content from QAnon adherents, and by posting a cartoon on Instagram featuring a caterpillar in a “Make America Great Again” hat talking to a butterfly with a neo-Nazi symbol on its wings. That symbol, the Sonnenrad, was featured in the manifesto of the white extremist who committed the 2019 terrorist attack against mosques in Christchurch.
It may be tempting to dismiss Evans as a charlatan or simply disturbed, but the language Evans used to promote his BioCharger and other wellness products, and his anti-vax posts and speeches, exhibit pseudoscientific discourse meant to capitalise on his status as a chef and wellness “expert”.
That pseudoscientific language is a key component of conspiracy theories that underpin anti-vax views and extremist ideologies. The overlap of wellness-based anti-vax discourse, conspiracy theories, and extremist content propagates and naturalises extremist themes while addressing a highly receptive and emotionally charged audience.
In an opinion piece for Stuff, Jehan Casinader says most of the protesters are probably good people, but many are also “desperate and scared”, which leads them to identify with others who also “feel betrayed by authority and rejected by society”. As we are seeing now, that includes groups who promote conspiracy theories, such as the idea that governments are being infiltrated by the World Economic Forum, or the white extremist conspiracy theory The Great Replacement — the idea that white people of European descent are being “replaced” by non-white immigrants, resulting in the “extinction” of the white race.
In an article for The Conversation, Madi Day and Bronwyn Carlson provide ample evidence that far-right and white extremist groups are indeed “capitalising on vaccine hesitancy to distribute conservative ideologies to new audiences via protests and social media”, and Kelly Weill of The Daily Beast argues that extremists are “seizing on the sympathy from the anti-vax movement, pushing even more extreme conspiracy theories under the guise of vaccine skepticism”.
The mix of wellness and self-help discourse with extremist ideas on display in the “freedom convoy” protests show two key issues. First, that extremist ideologies are not necessarily as marginal or fringe as they are sometimes framed, but are instead present in mainstream discourse. And, second, as Becca Lewis explains, how networking “makes it easy for audience members to be incrementally exposed to, and come to trust, ever more extremist political positions”.
The interaction of communities – online and offline – prompts Cindy Ma to suggest that downplaying extremist influences or “alt-lite” figures is a mistake, because they “sometimes serve as people’s introductions to far-right talking points”.
As Jehan Casinader argues, indoctrination to extremist ideologies “doesn’t just happen to angry young men who spend too much time on the dark web. Here, radicalisation is taking place in broad daylight – on the front lawn of Parliament. No amount of guitar-strumming or bubble-blowing can mask that”.