According to a statement of claim seen by Guardian Australia, posts made about the federal MP in April claimed, without any factual basis, that she was “a member of a secretive pedophile network” who had been “parachuted into parliament to protect a past generation of pedophiles”.
Within weeks of the case being filed, Justice Michael Wheelahan made urgent orders for the defendant to remove the posts, labelling them “vile” and describing the legal action as “one of those exceptional cases” where the court could order the removal of the allegedly defamatory material before a trial.
“Given the potency of the allegations [in the] online posts, the scandal created may well reach quarters that cannot be known … this is one of those rare cases where damages may not be an adequate remedy,” Wheelahan said.
Webster’s case was filed against a woman named Karen Brewer, an Australian who the court believes may now live in New Zealand. Though she is basically unknown outside of the online communities in which she spends much of her time, Brewer – which may not be her real name – is one of Australia’s leading conspiracy agitators.
Brewer’s personal Facebook page, which has thousands of followers, is a petri dish of beguiling theories and vicious abuse. In the steady stream of live videos and posts she feeds to her thousands of followers each day, Brewer rails against vaccinations, fluoride, and the cabal of Freemasons she believes controls Australia’s parliament, judiciary, media and bureaucracy as part of an extensive paedophile protection racket.
Though Webster declined to speak to the Guardian this week, her defamation case marks an important flashpoint in the burgeoning world of conspiracy theorists in Australia.
This week, Brewer spent much of her time spurring her followers to attend the so-called “Day of Freedom” protests scheduled for 5 September. The event, which has been repeatedly removed and reposted to Facebook, has, at various stages, had more than 10,000 people mark their intention to attend.
Dreamed up by a coalition of online groups broadly linked around a mish-mash of conspiracy theories, the organisers plan to march in cities across Australia in defiance of lockdown restrictions, mandates on mask-wearing in Victoria, 5G, vaccinations, and “child trafficking and pedophilia”.
“There is no excuse for non-participation,” Brewer said of the planned demonstration.
She is far from alone, of course. On encrypted messaging apps this week, members of the 99%, the loosely defined conspiracy group responsible for organising an anti-lockdown protest that led to 10 arrests in Melbourne earlier this year, made their own plans for the demonstration.
“Does anyone have laser pointers?” someone using the handle M4551m0 asked on Wednesday. “They will come in handy on the 5th.”
Another, who went by the name Germ, mentioned they’d ordered “shields” online in preparation.
“Full body size shields. I’ve seen how the police cannot deal with them when protestors have them.”
As conspiracy theorists feed on the impact of Covid-19 on our day-to-day lives, governments and tech companies are struggling to keep up. Both Webster’s defamation case and the planned rally highlight how the implications of life in the age of misinformation are increasingly spilling into the real world.
With that realisation comes the question of whether, and how, governments should respond, something the University of Tasmania academic Kaz Ross says has confounded legislators to date.
“What can governments do? I honestly don’t know the answer. I do know that what they’re doing now isn’t helping,” Ross told Guardian Australia this week.
Though Australia’s conspiracy landscape is complex, increasingly the thread that unites these groups is a messy Antipodean adaption of QAnon, a sprawling and baseless internet conspiracy theory born in the online messaging board 4chan in 2017.
Wide-ranging and preternaturally bewildering, QAnon adherents are loosely tied to the belief that, as the Guardian put it this week, “a cabal of Satan-worshipping Democrats, Hollywood celebrities and billionaires run the world while engaging in pedophilia, human trafficking and the harvesting of a supposedly life-extending chemical from the blood of abused children”.
Evangelical in its zeal, adherents believe a multitude of spin-off theories, including that Bill Gates is using Covid-19 to implant microchips in people and that the ongoing lockdown in Victoria is a cover for the premier, Daniel Andrews, to install 5G technology throughout the state.
Though Brewer is not outwardly affiliated with QAnon, many of her beliefs line up with the conspiracy. Webster’s defamation claim, which also includes her husband and a not-for-profit women’s organisation called Zoe Support Australia that they founded together in Mildura, alleges the posts falsely accused the couple of founding the women’s organisation to “access young children on behalf of a secretive pedophilia network”.
‘Like that game of whack-a-mole’
To date, social media companies have had little success controlling the growth of QAnon on their platforms.
Last week, Facebook announced it had taken down or restricted 790 groups, 1,500 ads and 100 pages tied to QAnon, and blocked more than 300 hashtags used by its followers on Facebook and Instagram. It followed Twitter’s announcement of a broad crackdown on about 150,000 accounts linked to the conspiracy in July.
But those steps have had little effect. On Twitter, QAnon followers successfully hijacked a save the children hashtag after the purge and in Australia the Guardian noticed little if any impact on local QAnon groups after Facebook’s crackdown.
In fact, a recent report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue found QAnon’s following was growing considerably in Australia.
“We found that the US was consistently the largest QAnon content-producing country, followed by the UK, Canada and Australia,” the report stated.
Though most of QAnon’s lore is specifically catered to a US audience (QAnon’s followers believe the US president, Donald Trump, is secretly working to thwart the network of paedophiles and their “deep state” collaborators), its inherent adaptability means it’s capable of hoovering up pre-existing conspiracy theories into its swirling illogic.
In Australia, its adherents have had no trouble retrofitting the theory to suit our politics. When news came out this week that the former prime minister John Howard had been hospitalised after surgery for appendicitis it sparked a flurry of messages on social media in groups linked to the QAnon conspiracy movement in Australia.
The timing of the 81-year-old’s hospitalisation, the general consensus seemed to be, was suspicious. Exactly why wasn’t immediately clear, even, it seemed, to those suggesting it, but many assumed the former PM was “finally facing justice”.
Howard, one person said incorrectly, was “the Port Arthur murderer”. Another called him a “traitor and clintons bestie” who “took our guns” and, they falsely claimed, “brought in a 90 yr supression (sic) order for all his pedo mates”.
“Covid = death,” a third person reasoned. “No cover-up needed if executed under covid.”
Part of the challenge in reaching QAnon adherents is that one of the basic tenets of the belief system is the notion that institutions – including the media, government and judiciary – are inherently corrupt. It means that, as with many conspiracy theories, government institutions have little success in combating misinformation simply by seeking to correct it.
In October last year, Karen Brewer’s name popped up in a Senate estimates hearing when the Australian Electoral Commissioner, Tom Rogers, expressed his frustration at a “no candidate to match my will” misinformation campaign she orchestrated.
The campaign encouraged people to vote informally during the federal election, based on the incorrect belief that if enough people did it the parliament would be sacked.
“That video became like that game of whack-a-mole when you were a kid – as soon as it was dealt with, it popped up again,” a clearly exasperated Rogers said.
“We were asked questions about this. We were very explicit about the fact that it is complete and utter nonsense [but] the more we said it was complete and utter nonsense, the particular demographic that want to believe that believed it even more.
“I personally did see votes like that that had been so marked. So for anyone listening: it’s complete and utter nonsense. An intelligent person would not believe it; I don’t know why they do.”
‘Humour is a really excellent way to counter this’
That capacity to inflame conspiratorial thinking was evident when the prime minister, Scott Morrison, indicated last week that a Covid-19 vaccine could be “mandatory”. Though he quickly walked it back, the comment sparked an outpouring of anger not just among anti-vaxxers but a broader population of people who believe governments are using the virus to impose greater control over citizens.
So too did Andrews’ decision to extend Victoria’s state of emergency for another 12 months.
“Messaging is important, and those things just inflame these people,” University of Tasmania’s Ross said.
But it is perhaps QAnon’s ability to adapt and grow organically through social networks that makes it so difficult for governments to combat. In June, the Morrison government announced a new taskforce to counter online disinformation under the control of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
But the taskforce was specifically aimed at deliberate misinformation campaigns by state actors, something the foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, referred to in a recent speech as an “infodemic” of online misinformation pushed by countries “using the pandemic to undermine liberal democracy and promote their own, more authoritarian models”.
That, says Clare Murphy, a national security policy researcher, fails to consider the impact of more “grassroots” forms of misinformation online.
“The federal government’s efforts tend to concentrate on the state-sponsored level, but so much of the danger is in disinformation that is spread locally,” she said.
Murphy, whose expertise is in online Islamic radicalisation, said measures taken to counter extremism were not easily transplanted across communities. “There’s no silver bullet,” she said.
The researcher pointed to a recent advertising campaign by telecommunications company Telstra, which hired the ABC comedian Mark Humphries to help debunk misinformation around 5G technology, as an example of potentially effective ways to reach unwilling audiences.
“Humour is a really excellent way to counter this sort of thing because it relaxes people and makes them more willing to engage with you,” she said. “I actually commend Telstra for just trying something.”
Ross, a humanities lecturer who has devoted much of her research to understanding online communities including the far right in Australia, says much of QAnon’s appeal comes from its welcoming and evangelical nature.
“It gives people an explanatory framework for what’s going on in the world, but more importantly it gives them hope,” she said.
“The idea of the great awakening in QAnon is the same as the evangelical thing of good versus evil, and that they’re in this fight to save the children. It’s different from the alt-right in that they embrace not knowing everything. The neo-Nazi types pride themselves on this encyclopaedic knowledge of having read all the right books and if you haven’t then you aren’t one of them.”
QAnon types, on the other hand, believe you have to do your research but “we don’t know everything and that’s OK”. They have a plan and support each other, Ross explains. “They welcome each other. You see them talking about their friends and family not understanding them or thinking they’re crazy and the response is ‘It’s OK, we get you’.”