Where ‘freedom’ meets the far right: the hate messages infiltrating Australian anti-lockdown protests

Michael McGowanThu, 25 March 2021, 4:30 pm

In November, a user named Dominic D wrote something akin to a mission statement for the anti-lockdown protest group he runs on the messaging app Telegram.

Dominic had been accused by another member of being associated with a far-right group, which he flatly denied. His group, Dominic wrote, was “a place for moderates, libertarians, conservatives, and all other advocates of Freedom to have discussions about protesting”.

“I have one face. This is it. I am not Far-Right. I am a Libertarian Populist, and I support Freedom of Speech,” Dominic told the dissenting member.

Related: How the wellness and influencer crowd serve conspiracies to the masses

But a Guardian investigation has revealed Dominic’s engagement with a number of far-right groups online, including one used by the far-right Proud Boys group to vet new members and another made up of white supremacists including neo-Nazi Tom Sewell, who last month was charged after an alleged assault of a Channel Nine security guard.

Dominic D’s real name is Harrison McLean, a 24-year-old IT programmer, “blockchain architect” and former competitive cheerleader from Wantirna South in Melbourne’s outer suburbs.

Using his pseudonym, he has outlined plans to introduce his “freedom” group to more radical political views, while expressing deeply antisemitic opinions.

In an interview with the Guardian this week, McLean denied that he was seeking to radicalise his followers or to introduce them to antisemitic material, but said he wanted to “unify people on the basis of peaceful protests and under the idea of freedom”.

“[The aim] is to empower people so that if they’re not necessarily politically active before, then a political protest might be some way for them to sort of begin their process of engaging in this space, but I’m absolutely not trying to radicalise anybody,” he said.

‘The cabal which runs this country’

McLean began attending anti-lockdown protests in September and has since become a key organiser, helping to drive a rebrand after the lockdown lifted by shifting the movement’s focus to the broader themes of “freedom” that have come to typify the protests.

His group is now one of the largest and most organised in the movement, with more than 2,000 followers on Telegram, and attracts hundreds of people to the Melbourne protests.

On the surface, the freedom movement’s broad aim has been to end Covid restrictions. At a rally in Melbourne’s Flagstaff Gardens last Saturday, several hundred protesters waved anti-vaccination placards and called for the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, to resign.

But the movement has also become a beacon for conspiracy theorists, emerging as the real-world manifestation of a rabbit warren of online misinformation that has run rampant during the pandemic.

While McLean uses an alias online, he has recently begun using his real name at the rallies. On Saturday he railed against so-called “vaccine mandates”, claimed there was “no pandemic” and said the freedom movement was “done with the cabal which runs this country”.

“We are going to purge this country of every single incumbent politician who does not support freedom,” he told the cheering crowd.

Related: How Australia became fertile ground for misinformation and QAnon

In collaboration with anti-fascist research group the White Rose Society, the Guardian has tracked McLean’s activity through the rabbit warren of largely unregulated Telegram groups and found that he describes a vastly different version of his intentions.

In groups he has described as devoted to “serious Anti-Zionist chat” and about “digging into the relationship between Jews, and the NWO” [new world order], McLean has explained the need to be cautious about exposing his allies in the anti-lockdown movement to antisemitic content “yet”.

McLean has offered counsel on effective ways to introduce people to “entry level research” on antisemitic conspiracy theories, given advice on how to create effective antisemitic memes and explained how he helped introduce followers in his anti-lockdown movement to more radical views.

In a series of messages sent in November, McLean told the “serious Anti-Zionist chat” that while he shared “many of the concerns about the … present role of the Jews”, members of his group were “not ready for the JQ yet”, using a common shorthand among white supremacists for the “Jewish Question”.

“We have a LOT of very NORMIE people coming in from banners and [Facebook] groups that are not ready for the JQ yet, and may attack us as highly anti-Semitic and stop promoting us all together to their friends and family,” he wrote.

The members of his group, he wrote, “are new to this side of politics and discourse” and were “not comfortable” with “the idea that Hitler had some good points … or that they are a major controlling force in the world”.

“We start at ‘Dan Bad’ and go right through to “No Coercive Vaccines” and get into the Pedo suppression orders and NWO agenda and One world government as a concept to be opposed,” he wrote, echoing a laundry list of baseless and antisemitic conspiracy theories that have found a fresh audience during the pandemic.

“I wish it were different [but] we need to take it one step at a time.”

Overlap with Proud Boys

Police and security agencies have repeatedly warned that far-right groups have used the pandemic to recruit, but the rise of anti-lockdown groups that blend wellness influencers, libertarians, anti-vaxxers and those who mistrust governments into a heaving conspiracy-laced soup has made distinguishing the motives of those actors increasingly confounding.

In its submission to an upcoming federal inquiry into extremism and radicalism, Victoria police say extreme leftwing and rightwing individuals have joined conspiracy-based groups espousing “conflating ideologies” during the pandemic, something it says has proved a challenge for law enforcement.

The head of Asio, Mike Burgess, announced this month that the intelligence organisation would dump terms such as rightwing extremism because of “a growing number of individuals and groups that don’t fit on the left–right spectrum”.

But the Guardian’s investigation found a significant overlap between the so-called freedom movement and far-right groups.

In an interview with the Guardian, McLean denied that he wanted to introduce his followers to the kind of antisemitic material he expressed support for online and emphatically denied having any white supremacist sympathies. He said his group “supports freedom of religion and freedom from religion” and argued his comments were made “in the context of not wanting those discussions to occur” on his own group.

“I direct people to that Telegram group so they can see that argument and almost certainly see the flaws in that argument,” he said.

But in the course of an hour-long interview, McLean also made antisemitic claims about Jewish “overrepresentation … in the higher echelons of media [and] business”.

“I’m not saying that those discussions shouldn’t occur, just not in [my group],” he said.

“Obviously it’s controversial and I have a view on it, which is people should do that research themselves and make that decision.

“What I was saying was that this is a discussion for people to have on their own terms and sort of make their own mind up and see both sides of the argument … they’re not wrong about everything but they do highly over-attribute those issues to Jews, which I don’t think they should do and I don’t support.”

But the Guardian’s investigation also found McLean is a member of the Telegram group used by the Australian Proud Boys to vet new members. Founded by the Canadian-British far-right activist and Vice magazine co-founder Gavin McInnes in 2016, the Proud Boys describe themselves as “Western chauvinists”. In February the Canadian government designated the Proud Boys as a terrorist organisation, describing it as a “serious and growing threat”.

Asked whether he was a member of the organisation, McLean said: “I can’t answer that question at this time.”

Though the Proud Boys remain relatively small in Australia, the group has become much more active during the pandemic. McLean admitted members were involved in his freedom movement, and revealed that he had met some of the Australian leaders during protests.

“There are Proud Boys in [the group McLean runs] but it is not a Proud Boys operation per se,” he said.

“There is some overlap on a lot of principles [within the groups] but not all of them … we have had the Proud Boys come to our events, they were invited, they didn’t infiltrate us.”

As the Guardian has previously reported, in October the president of the Borderlands faction of the Proud Boys, Jarrad Searby, used the same Telegram group administered by McLean to put a call out for “people trained in some form of combat” to clash with police at a rally in Melbourne.

A month later, Searby was arrested and pepper-sprayed at a protest on Melbourne Cup day at which several hundred people were arrested.

Searby was not the only Proud Boys member present. Internal messages sent between members of the group obtained by the Guardian reveal that before the protest the group’s Victorian president encouraged other Proud Boys members to attend.

“It’s time to rise up,” he wrote on 28 October.

“Victoria needs a Pinochet and we need it fast … If you’re on the fence about supporting this on Tuesday because Dan ‘eased restrictions’ then you have Stockholm syndrome.”

In private messages seen by the Guardian, the president, who goes by the alias Versace Cowboy online, has also hailed the US gunman Kyle Rittenhouse for doing “gods work” and discussed conducting “patrols” of Melbourne suburbs during the “African gangs” scare.

“Might be able to help do what the cops can’t,” he wrote at the time.

McLean has also maintained a list of “freedom” groups that he circulates to thousands of followers on Telegram. The list includes members of the Proud Boys organisation, and another group that is populated by a number of white supremacists, including Sewell.

The list is shared widely throughout so-called freedom groups on Telegram, creating what Cameron Smith, an independent researcher who has tracked conspiracy movements throughout the pandemic, calls a “cross-pollination point” between it and the far right.

“We’re talking about a group of people with no real political framework to make sense of the response to the pandemic. They have a feeling that something is amiss but they don’t know what. It’s not hard to point them in a particular direction and that particular direction being the Jews is not a new concept,” Smith said.

“It’s also a group that largely had no real political experience to be able to recognise things like entryism. This all combined to make them easy pickings for the far-right.”

Shifting the Overton Window

McLean categorically denied that he supported any form of white supremacism, but said he had promoted the group because its administrator had “been supportive of the movement, not because we agree with everything he says”. But he conceded his aim was to “shift the Overton Window”, a term that describes the range of political ideas or policies considered acceptable by mainstream society.

“What I’m trying to do is build a big tent movement from the libertarian right to nationalists to populists to independents to moderates and even some leftwing people all supporting freedom,” he said.

“It’s about building one unified group that can embrace a wide range of political stances [and] to expand the Overton Window to some elements of movement that are currently more fringe.

“You’re probably right, I would prefer for them [the Proud Boys] to be less fringe in the context of having their views be more acceptable … but not in a way that involves any sort of violence, just the rhetoric and discourse.”

Joshua Roose, a senior research fellow at Deakin University, has been tracking the far right in Australia throughout the pandemic. He told the Guardian that typically there were two levels of overlap between elements of the far right and the anti-lockdown movement.

“On one level there is a natural overlap in the narratives of those groups in that they are both concerned with the idea of liberal elites, you know, a wealthy and unelected ruling class who they have to take back control from,” he said.

“The far right typically have a harder racial edge to that, but that overlap, combined with some of the racialised elements of Covid-19 in mainstream media and politics – you know, the ‘China virus’ – has I think opened a door for those worlds to combine.”

But Roose said there had also been a more explicit attempt by far-right elements to win over conspiracy-minded groups.

“There has certainly been discussions in far-right forums both in the US and Australia about how to mobilise, for example, QAnon supporters, and more broadly the people engaged in these freedom rallies,” he said.

Roose said there were “active protagonists” within the far right who were “seeking to mobilise the resentment, the sense of anger and disenfranchisement to bring people into the far-right fold”.

He pointed to the example of Sewell and the former United Patriots Front leader Blair Cottrell, who have frequently posted anti-vaccination material, combined with a steady stream of antisemitic and racist content.

‘Really legitimises the event’

The 20 March protest offered a demonstration of how the pandemic has allowed those with far-right views to find common cause with more mainstream political actors.

Another attendee was Monica Smit, a former reality TV contestant who founded a group called Reignite Democracy Australia in September. Smit has not flirted with the more fringe elements of the far right such as the Proud Boys. Instead, her group rails against Covid-19 restrictions, including against mask mandates and lockdowns. Like McLean, Smit denies she is anti-vaccination, instead claiming to be “pro-choice”.

Reignite Democracy has built up a following of about 60,000 on Facebook. During the statewide lockdown in Victoria the group gained mainstream media attention with its “Sack Dan” bus, and has broadened its attention to rightwing theories including the “great reset”.

More recently, Reignite Democracy has sought candidates to run in elections, saying it wants to “replace lazy politicians with worthy ones” and “be a voice for the people”.

Related: Sky News Australia is tapping into the global conspiracy set – and it’s paying off

As the Guardian has previously reported, Smit has links to the Liberal party, and the group has been able to attract support from a number of mainstream political figures including the Victorian Liberal Bernie Finn, the state Liberal Democrat MP David Limbrick and the independent Catherine Cummings.

Limbrick spoke at the 20 March rally, appearing immediately after McLean to tell the crowd that Victoria’s long-running state of emergency had resulted in “some of the greatest human rights oppressions” in the state’s history. In a livestream video of the event, Smit said Limbrick’s presence “really legitimises the event”.

The Guardian was unable to contact Smit, and does not suggest that she holds McLean’s views. But McLean said his group and Reignite Democracy “definitely share a lot of ideological alignment”. The groups frequently promote each other’s content, and McLean and Smit have appeared at a number of protests together.

The main difference between the two groups, McLean said, was that Reignite Democracy was “more focused on shoring up the political element of the movement”, but he described Smit as a “friend” and said that while the groups operate separately, “we have followers across both groups”.

“I would say there is a 25% to 50% overlap of [my group’s] supporters and RDA and vice versa,” he said.

The Guardian does not suggest Limbrick or any of the MPs who have offered their support to the freedom rallies endorse the antisemitic views expressed by McLean.

Limbrick said that if he had heard antisemitic views expressed at Saturday’s rally he would have been “disgusted”.

“The main message I was hearing was that people were upset about the human rights impacts of the lockdowns and the restrictions over the last year,” he said.

“There has been an explosion in misinformation over the last year but part of what I’m doing is to try to combat that with high quality information about some of the actual concerns people have … I don’t think othering people who might listen to misinformation and not listening to their concerns is the right way to deal with it.”

But while Limbrick said he did not believe attempts by elements of the far right to infiltrate the movement had been successful – pointing to the diverse crowd that attended Saturday’s rally – others argue that the interplay between the groups is changing the state of acceptable discourse.

Roose said: “People on the far right are constantly talking about the Overton Window and shifting the realm of public debate, to make their ideas acceptable and normalise deep-seated racism and hostility to others.”

BEWARE OF THE FAR RIGHT!!! THEY ARE POISONOUS AND DANGEROUS!!!

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