COVID-19 conspiracy theorists have launched an orchestrated online attack, dubbed “digital warfare”, aimed at shutting down aspects of the mainstream media's reporting of the coronavirus crisis.
A co-ordinated spam attack on The Age’s Facebook page on Thursday forced the removal of an article, about suicide rates during the pandemic, after the page was flooded with thousands of comments including threats, abuse, defamation and conspiracy theory material.
The article reported on information from the Victorian Coroner that showed there had been no increase in suicides in 2020 compared with the previous year, despite the mental health challenges of the pandemic.
The attacks prompted a senior editor at Nine, owner of The Age, to accuse Facebook of "providing a safe space for nutters".
Participants in the campaigns, who describe themselves as "digital soldiers", are also targeting politicians with one online activist encouraging followers to spam the social media pages of Premier Daniel Andrews in an attempt to shut down his "propaganda".
One of the key players behind the group Millions Rise for Australia, the platform from which the attack on The Age was launched, encourages his followers to refrain from swearing and using threats.
But police had to be called on Thursday night after death threats appeared on The Age’s Facebook page.
Many conspiracy theorists involved in the online campaign believe the severity of the coronavirus is exaggerated, or in some cases that the illness is not real, and is a ploy to allow governments to assert more control over the lives of citizens.
Attacks on media organisations and politicians are also attracting adherents of the notorious QAnon, a far right group that alleges US President Donald Trump is engaged in a secret battle against a powerful network of Satan-worshiping paedophiles running a global child sex-trafficking ring.
In an Instagram post from mid-August, Melbourne photographer Matt Lawson and a woman known online as Mel Ann plan a spam attack against mainstream media organisations. Mel Ann boasts that the campaign had already forced changes to Channel 9’s online presence.
“Nine News have had to take down some posts,” Mel Ann says on the video.
“If they take down posts, then that’s happy days, like if Dan [Andrews] takes down his propaganda, then I’m more than happy with that.”
Mel Ann rejected the notion that members of the group were "whack jobs", and insisted they were representing a broad-based movement with mass support.
In the same Instagram video, Mr Lawson speaks of setting up the Millions Rise for Australia group, the platform from which Thursday night's attacks on The Age were launched. Mel Ann is an administrator of the group.
Mr Lawson tells his followers on the video that co-ordinating the attacks, so that thousands of comments appear online in a short period of time, is the key to shutting down the news coverage.
“We’ll co-ordinate, so we’re really pumping it into these guys,” the freelance photographer tells the online audience.
“If there's three or four thousand people doing it at once, and each of you doing five to 10 comments on every post, that's … 50,000 comments this page is going to get hit by within five minutes. They're gonna be having to take pages down."
Mr Lawson did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.
Ms Ann declined to comment further on the actions of the group but provided a short statement.
"I have serious concerns about the integrity of The Age, and will not be participating in any form of discussion, providing you with an opportunity to take my statement out of context."
James Chessell, executive editor of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, said Facebook had a responsibility to limit the spread of conspiracy theories and fake news.
"If Facebook was even vaguely interested in preventing the spread of fake news and conspiracy theories at a time when a measured, evidence-based discussion about public health issues was critical, it would allow media companies to turn off comments on certain stories.
"But Facebook has made it very clear that the profits it generates by providing a safe space for nutters and extremists overrides all other considerations."
Facebook has been contacted for comment.
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