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The QAnon threat to Australia’s vaccine rollout

Posted By on February 2, 2021 @ 06:00

What began as a post on anonymous message board 4chan—home to trolls, internet shock-jocks and excursionists—has morphed into an international conspiracy theory posing a threat to Australia’s vaccination rollout against Covid-19. The QAnon movement has spread worldwide since 2017, beyond the control of those who originally dropped the cryptic posts into anonymous online threads.

QAnon conspiracists promote an endless, evolving slew of unfounded and disproven claims, ranging from various government officials having been arrested in the dead of night to bombshell political revelations that are ‘just around the corner’ and ‘only a week away’, never to eventuate. The continual goalpost-shifting allows the group to mould and shape the movement to whatever current events grab their attention.

The conspiracy spread like wildfire after the original posts, gaining traction in online far-right circles and eventually receiving mainstream promotion through prominent conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who was recently required to pay US$100,000 in defamation costs [1] for falsely claiming that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax. QAnon merchandise then appeared at a 2018 Donald Trump rally, entangling the movement with the president’s base in a symbiotic relationship. QAnon adherents found a crowd with which to spread and monetise the theory, while Trump supporters found a (somewhat) coherent explanation for the obvious chaos and disorder of the administration.

The disrupted and turbulent year that was 2020 provided fertile ground for conspiracy theorists and extremists—a chance to connect dots and internalise a narrative that simplifies the complex and fear-inducing nature of a global pandemic. Australian QAnon followers have blended the original claims relating to satanic government cannibals and their imminent arrest with other discredited conspiracy theories, such as that 5G technology spreads coronavirus and that the global pandemic has been an orchestrated event. Q merchandise makes regular appearances at Australian anti-5G and anti-lockdown marches.

Perhaps the most notable and prominent Australian in the clutches of the theory is ex-celebrity chef Pete Evans. The disgraced reality TV star continuously references the child trafficking and paedophilia accusations levelled by QAnon enthusiasts, and recently shared neo-Nazi iconography [2] to hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers. This high-profile addition to the movement signals a danger to Australian health officials not because of who Evans is but because of what he represents—the Q cult is no longer solely within the domain of the far right. His position as a notable bellwether within the ‘alternative’ (discredited) health community indicates that Australia isn’t immune to the spread of dangerous misinformation transcending ideological lines.

Despite the seeming absurdity of their claims, members of the QAnon cult have been linked to crimes as serious as kidnapping and murder [3] in the US, as well as the attempted insurrection at the Capitol building in Washington last month. Supporters are evidently not afraid to engage in acts they see to be furthering the cause of the group based on flimsy evidence and debunked theories.

QAnon’s drawing in of the anti-vaccination and ‘plandemic’ crowd presents a clear threat to the success of the Australian government’s vaccination program, expected to commence later this month. It isn’t a stretch for someone who already accepts that a satanic cabal of paedophiles plays puppeteer behind the scenes to then believe inoculations are done for nefarious purposes. While outlandish, the prominence of the theory suggests more are susceptible to it than we may have thought. This risk underscores the importance of the messaging strategy the government employs as our national vaccine rollout begins.

The latest information on the AstraZeneca vaccine (of which we’ve secured [4] 53 million doses for use pending approval by the Therapeutic Goods Administration) appears to place the efficacy rate at 62% [5]—a rate certain to save lives but still behind both the Moderna [6] and Pfizer [7] jabs. That lower efficacy rate positions the percentage among us who are highly sceptical of or hostile to a vaccine as a priority to the government. An Australian National University study found that up to 13% [8] of people are either somewhat unwilling or completely unwilling to receive the vaccine, of which the majority are likely to raise both safety and efficacy concerns. This is a battle that information, transparency and trust can win.

Australia’s continued success in combating the pandemic has resulted in a highly favourable view [9] of our government. While Covid-19 deaths are tragic, our comparatively low number of deaths and successful lockdowns despite localised outbreaks provide the government with a significant reservoir of goodwill and trust among Australians. Together with our historically high [10] levels of vaccination, it will prove our best weapon in combating the conspiracy theories and misinformation we’re set to encounter in the coming months.

Confusion and fear surrounding the vaccination process will provide perfect fodder for extremists and conspiracists. A wall-to-wall campaign informing citizens of the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines we’re set to receive, accompanied with transparency on the consequences of lower-than-expected efficacy rates, is essential to ensure that the public is well informed of both the benefits and limitations of the vaccine.

Those who may be concerned about expedited approval processes must be reassured that corners weren’t cut, but that timeline improvements are instead due to [11] unlimited volunteers being available for trials and a blank cheque financing the operations, before conspiracy theories about the vaccines spread like wildfire. ‘Pre-bunking [12]’ the conspiracy theories that are bound to circulate will minimise the threat they pose to our best attempt at herd immunity. A focus on information and transparency will patch cracks that conspiracists will attempt to exploit when the vaccine rollout commences.

The ever-evolving nature of the QAnon conspiracy theories and the amalgamation of the movement with antivaxx activists will no doubt result in the spreading of misinformation about vaccination, and the Australian government must be ready to counter that not with rhetoric but with facts and clarity. The success of our vaccination program relies on both the government’s faith in the people and the people’s faith in the government.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/the-qanon-threat-to-australias-vaccine-rollout/

URLs in this post:

[1] US$100,000 in defamation costs: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-50960730

[2] neo-Nazi iconography: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/nov/24/the-neo-nazi-symbol-posted-by-pete-evans-has-a-strange-and-dark-history

[3] kidnapping and murder: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/oct/15/qanon-violence-crimes-timeline

[4] secured: https://www.health.gov.au/initiatives-and-programs/covid-19-vaccines/about-covid-19-vaccines/australias-vaccine-agreements

[5] efficacy rate at 62%: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)32661-1/fulltext

[6] Moderna: https://investors.modernatx.com/news-releases/news-release-details/moderna-announces-primary-efficacy-analysis-phase-3-cove-study

[7] Pfizer: https://www.pfizer.com/news/press-release/press-release-detail/pfizer-and-biontech-conclude-phase-3-study-covid-19-vaccine

[8] 13%: https://www.anu.edu.au/news/all-news/study-finds-high-level-of-covid-vaccine-resistance

[9] highly favourable view: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/dec/17/australians-trust-in-governments-surges-to-extraordinary-high-amid-covid

[10] historically high: https://www.health.gov.au/health-topics/immunisation/childhood-immunisation-coverage/immunisation-coverage-rates-for-all-children

[11] due to: https://theconversation.com/covid-19-vaccines-were-developed-in-record-time-but-are-these-game-changers-safe-150249

[12] Pre-bunking: https://blogs.biomedcentral.com/on-society/2019/10/07/the-new-science-of-prebunking-how-to-inoculate-against-the-spread-of-misinformation/

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