An examination of the growing influence of far-right and conspiracy-driven ideologies, including interventions in left-wing and progressive movements. The article outlines eight ways activists and organisers can respond.
The first two years of the pandemic have seen anti-lockdown/anti-vaccination mobilisations gain momentum across the continent. As this disparate movement has grown it has provided a huge platform for far-right, libertarian, sovereign-citizen ideas and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, which have mapped quite neatly onto COVID fears and anti-vaccination sentiments.
Through this convergence the influence and the power of the far-right has grown well beyond their formerly limited circles. The anti-lockdown movement has combined Trump-style populism with the language and tactics of progressive, social justice and human rights movements. This strategic positioning has led to many left-wing and progressive activists, Indigenous activists, unionists and those concerned more generally about human rights being drawn into ‘freedom’ movement protest events. Some have even become active organisers.
Entering into our movements
This in turn, has led to ‘freedom’ movement groups and activists moving into or latching onto a range of other social justice or progressive causes and campaigns, bringing their far-right, sovereign-citizen or conspiratorial influences along with them. Despite how ludicrous some of these individuals sound, many are becoming experienced organisers, with significant resources and networks, and can mobilise large numbers quickly.
Why is this dangerous? Outward displays of shared allegiance hide a political program that opposes progressive values and human rights. The greatly expanded suburban and regional support base of far-right groups and their strong links with far-right political parties, MPs and Senators, has the potential of shifting electoral outcomes to the right, undermining gains on climate, environment, Indigenous sovereignty, women’s rights, industrial rights, anti-discrimination and social justice. Hate speech and violence against First Nations people, people of colour, women, the LGBTQI+ community, and disabled people has grown as these groups are emboldened.
It is vital that we deny further opportunities for the far-right to recruit and grow their influence within our own movements and campaigns. Diversity is a strength, and encouraging a wide spectrum of political thought in our movements is wise. But we must draw the line at allowing far-right and conspiracy-driven ideologies to take hold within them.
The anti-lockdown/anti-vax movement has a history of opportunistically entering into existing networks and asserting influence upon campaigns. In 2021, attempts were made to mobilise within national truck driver networks. The violent attacks on the Melbourne CFMEU offices in September 2021 shook the union movement. Anti-lockdown/anti-vax activists have also attempted to mobilise within permaculture networks, amongst health workers, and within social justice campaigns.
A small group of sovereign-citizen/anti-vax activists with strong links to the far-right have caused a huge amount of stress and damage at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra. In late December 2021 destructive fires were lit at the Old Parliament House against the wishes of Traditional Owners, and senior activists of the Tent Embassy, drawing international condemnation. This sovereign-citizen group established their own camp adjacent to the Tent Embassy, and are planning further protests.
In each of these cases, it has been difficult to distinguish between ‘far-right’ activists and those who were just adopting language and ideas unaware of any white supremacist connotations. White-supremacist and anti-Semitic ideas are often hidden beneath coded terms and language.
Far-right activists won’t necessarily disclose their political leanings straight away, if at all. Others may be evangelistic. Whether people identify themselves as far-right or are unknowingly influenced by far-right ideas the effect can be equally harmful.
This ‘infiltrate and disrupt’ strategy is extraordinarily hard to respond to. However, it is very likely we will all have to deal with many more attempts to influence our movements, campaigns and mobilisations in the months and years ahead.
Eight ways activists and organisers can respond
So what can we do to prevent our campaigns being infiltrated or co-opted by far-right influenced activists? Here are a few ideas drawn from recent movement experiences.
1. Monitor and act as early as possible
Monitor (or designate a team to monitor in shifts) far-right and anti-vax Telegram and social media channels to provide as much warning as possible that they are organising within your space. Early warning allows you to prepare and be proactive. Anti-fascist researchers such as the White Rose Society, Slack Bastard and Tom Tanuki provide regular updates and insights into far-right organising.
2. Education and training
We all need to educate ourselves about how to spot the indicators of far-right influence. Educate and inform yourself and other members about what these groups are, their political links and their ideologies. It is important to identify the ideas and arguments the far-right use to appeal to different audiences. Some of the common far-right and conspiracy terms such as ‘tyranny’, ‘New World Order (NWO)’ have particular meanings within far-right circles as do flags, slogans, signs and symbols. It can be confusing and incredibly hard to unpack. Share this article within your group and the list of further reading below.
3. Public statements
Craft a formal public statement about where your group stands on vaccinations, public health responses and the far-right. Make it clear and simple and publish it prominently. Make sure it is broadly supported by your groups’ members. This will help build a consensus within your group on these issues, and project your values to new and potential members. Consider joint statements with other groups. This powerful anti-fascist statement from the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance is a great example. This detailed position statement from Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) is also worth reading.
4. Calling-in: friends don’t let friends hang out with Nazis
If your friends, comrades or colleagues are being influenced by far-right, sovereign-citizen, or conspiratorial ideas, spend time with them to talk through your concerns. Plan ahead, and preference face-to-face conversations, rather than online. Matthew Sharpe from Deakin University asserts that we should recognise that many who are drawn into the orbit of the far-right, especially in times of crises, are not mindless fanatics. This expands the possibilities for drawing more people back from their influence. Many people do not realise they are aligning themselves with white supremacist or racist values and ideas when they start to get involved in these movements.
These conversations can be incredibly hard, and in many cases fruitless, but are most effective when you have an existing relationship with someone. You may find guides to deep canvassing, strategic questioning and persuasive conversations helpful.
5. Calling them out
If you know that far-right or conspiracy-influenced activists are working within your movement or campaign, then you can call them out, either within your group or publicly. This serves to alert the wider movement to their presence and limit their influence. Elders and respected activists have been doing this at the Tent Embassy in Canberra over January 2022. Similarly, when anti-vax activists, masquerading as ‘human rights activists’, started hassling health workers and residents at the Flemington public housing high-rises in early 2021, residents, local journalists and community legal centres put out alerts within local networks and on social media. Any public calling out should be evidence based, clear and non-abusive. Some groups have used humour, ridicule and shaming effectively.
This public call-out by Widjabul Wia-bul organiser Larissa Baldwin is an example. This opinion piece by Associate Professor Hannah McGlade is another.
6. Know their tactics
Become familiar with the tactics that they employ. For example, opportunistic far-right video bloggers often attend left-wing actions in order to provoke responses and gather footage that supports their narratives. Some have enormous numbers of followers, and wield significant influence within right-wing networks. Groups have responded in a number of ways, including ignoring them, escorting them away from events or using humour and ridicule to undermine their content. An array of methods have been developed by YARD (Yelling at Racist Dogs).
Anti-lockdown/anti-vax groups have organised their own protests separate from, but physically close to or directly after or before existing protest events. This sets up a dynamic that confuses the public, the media and onlookers. It draws attention from and disrupts existing campaign work. They are not averse to direct attacks upon those who challenge them.
Anti-lockdown/anti-vax groups have been adopting tactics from the United States far-right, such as attacking ‘mainstream’ journalists and media outlets, casting doubt on the electoral process and denouncing MPs, activists and anyone who challenges them as ‘authoritarian’, ‘intolerant’ ‘communist’, or ‘leftist’.
It is worth planning well in advance to respond to these tactics. There are links to further readings on these tactics below.
7. Have a plan ready
Develop responses to a range of situations in which far-right or conspiracy-theory influenced activists turn up at your meeting, public event, or protest. Agree upon a spectrum of responses. You can choose to engage, educate, call-out, confront or expel, according to the situation and according to your group’s stance.
The Reclaim The Radical Spirit of the Eureka Rebellion had a clear plan prepared when anti-vax elements showed up at their annual commemoration: when they attempted to take the limelight, the attendees turned their backs, and walked away. It was simple and effective. Trade Unions targeted by anti-vax elements have taken a range of measures, including expelling members for using violence or taking part in far-right influenced demonstrations. Larger events, such as the annual Invasion Day marches in Melbourne, have used well-trained and coordinated marshal teams to protect attendees from aggressive incursions by far-right agitators and provocateurs.
8. Respond early and assertively to disinformation
This is very time consuming, but necessary. Far-right and conspiracy-theory disinformation is prolific and can be enormously harmful. It undermines campaigning and advocacy work as well as public health messaging. Publish short, clarifying announcements within your networks that rebut or debunk any and all disinformation as early as possible.
Repeat accurate information and avoid repeating the disinformation. Make it clear, simple and easy to understand. Formal statements may be appropriate at times, and statements from respected or trusted allies, Elders or activists may be useful. Using mainstream or movement media may be appropriate. Share quickly and widely to reduce the damage. Make sure all of your key allies, supporters, and members have accurate information available for them to refute the disinformation.
The Australian Electoral Commission have been doing an impressive job on Twitter, confronting a raft of Trump-style disinformation from the ‘freedom’ movement that seeks to undermine trust in Australia’s electoral processes.
The new landscape
We operate within a new and changing landscape. In 2022 we have an exhausted left, and a resurgent and highly mobilised right. Most movement groups are not used to, or comfortable with this form of ‘horizontal’ conflict, which requires counteracting not institutional power, but opposing activists. Confronting this new element draws our focus and energy from our campaign goals and other priorities. But the consequences of not doing so are potentially far worse. As Larissa Baldwin has said:
Our justice movements and protests are too important to us and our communities to walk away and just let them take over. – Larissa Baldwin
Our strength lies in solidarity, trust and the vast reservoir of experience we have within our movements. As we learn to confront these new threats, we can build a more unified strategy. Together we can draw the line against the far-right and all its insidious ideologies.
Further reading on far-right tactics, language and influence in Australia
‘Blackfishing’: Alt-right pushes to co-opt Aboriginal Tent Embassy to cause (Jack Latimore, The Age, 8 January 2021)
Anti-vaxxers and the far right (Daniel Lopex, Overland Magazine, 14 December 2021)
White supremacist and far right ideology underpin anti-vax movements (Madi Day and Bronwyn Carlson, The Conversation, 22 November 2021)
Far-Right and Fascist Organizations Are Leading Australia’s Anti-Vax Movement (Marty Hirst, Jacobin, November 2021)
Understanding the appeal of the extreme right is key to preventing its resurgence (Matthew Sharpe, ABC Opinion, 21 October 2021)
The Co-opting of Human Rights Language (Police Accountability Project, 30 September 2021)
The antisemitic underbelly of Australia’s anti-lockdown groups (Plus61J Media, September 2021)
Political ambitions and anti-lockdown protests: How neo-Nazis seek to spread influence, (Nick McKenzie and Joel Tozer, The Age, 17 August 2021)
Australia’s lockdown demonstrations show how quickly local protests can go global, (Australian Strategic Policy Institute , ASPI August 2021)
Who’s behind Australia’s anti-lockdown protests? The German conspiracy group driving marches (The Guardian, July 2021)
Disinformation Overdose: A study of the Crisis of Trust among Vaccine Sceptics and Anti-Vaxxers (Hannah Winter, Lea Gerster, Joschua Helmer & Till Baaken Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) 6 July 2021)
Worldwide Anti-Lockdown Protests Organized by German Cell (Logically, May 2021)
Where ‘freedom’ meets the far right: the hate messages infiltrating Australian anti-lockdown protests (The Guardian, March 2021)
Australia’s Security Environment and Outlook (Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, ASIO 2021) Note: website no longer available 27/2/2023. See https://www.asio.gov.au/
A Safe Space to Hate: White Supremacist Mobilisation on Telegram, (Jakob Guhl and Jacob Davey, Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) June 2020)
‘Reopen’ protest movement created, boosted by fake grassroots tactics (The Conversation, April 2020)
Written by Anthony Kelly with enormous thanks to those who have contributed ideas or assisted.
- Coronavirus infections_COVID 19 (Disease)
- Movements_Campaigns – Racism_Racial justice