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Victoria’s anti-lockdown campaigners are spreading misinformation that people, including children, in Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory are being forcibly detained by the defence force and coerced into receiving the COVID-19 vaccines.
The claims have been rejected by Indigenous health services and workers in the Northern Territory, the army, and both sides of politics, who say the misinformation is dangerous at the time they are in the “biggest fight of our lives” against the pandemic.
The COVID outbreak in Northern Territory Indigenous communities is still growing.Credit:Krystle Wright
Northern Territory communities of Greater Katherine and Robinson River went into lockdown on November 15 as an outbreak, which now numbers 52 cases, spreading in Indigenous communities.
But the lockdown has dramatically escalated a months-long campaign of misinformation by organisers behind the “Freedom” protests, who are predominantly based in Victoria.
This week, videos and posts claiming communities were being forcibly vaccinated alongside hashtags #holdthebloodline and #savetheNT were widely shared in Telegram groups and on social media by Melbourne-based activists.
Reignite Democracy, one of the largest anti-lockdown groups which has over 65,000 followers on Telegram, has directed followers to content on an Instagram account called “Voices of First Nations” and videos from the “Original Sovereign Tribal Federation” which claims the Australian Army was “deliberately murdering our people” with “bioweapons”.
“We are in lockdown because we’re in the biggest fight of our lives. We’re trying to keep safe … We don’t need people creating another flood.”
Another group associated with the protests urged Victorians to “represent their support and solidarity with our First Nations people” at this weekend’s anti-vaccination rally by flying the Aboriginal flag, wearing T-shirts with the flag or painting their face in the colours of the flag.
The call has been labelled “Blackfishing” – an attempt to attract credibility to a cause by co-opting Indigenous support.
Movement leader and Reignite Democracy founder Monica Smit told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald she had heard from multiple people “forced” into quarantine at Howard Springs Quarantine Facility.
“If there is misinformation out there, it’s because the government and mainstream media fail to report on stories that are sent to them, so the people are left to their own devices to find truth,” she said.
Anti-lockdown activist Monica Smit.
The “Vic Freedom Movement Events” Telegram channel, which has co-ordinated anti-lockdown protests across Melbourne for months, on Thursday claimed a “cover up” was silencing people in Indigenous communities from speaking about the situation.
Other popular figures in the movement told followers there has been a “media blackout” in the Northern Territory, pleading for people to share their content, so it spreads internationally.
The Voices of First Nations Instagram page has a link to the website for micro-party Informed Medical Options Party (IMOP), which opposes compulsory vaccinations and fluoride in water and stood candidates at the 2019 federal election and last year’s Queensland election.
The party’s cultural advisor, Max Dulumunmun Harrison (Uncle Max), a Yuin man, was billed as a speaker at this Saturday’s “Millions March” in Sydney alongside United Australia Party candidate Craig Kelly.
Max Dulumunmun Harrison.Credit:Glenn Campbell
A spokeswoman for IMOP denied the party ran the Instagram account and said they were “investigating the situation.”
Head of Indigenous Studies at Macquarie University, Professor Bronwyn Carlson said the posts were an example of “Blackfishing,” in which white supremacist and right-wing groups attempt to claim Black support.
“It gives cred to the protests in terms of being connected to Traditional Owners, and therefore somewhat approved to do so – a form of cultural appropriation of authority,” she said. “Social media is a hunting ground for the alt-right, and Indigenous people give them a particular platform, where they can’t be accused of being racist or centred on white supremacy. Yet they are. They care little for Indigenous lives or deaths.”
Wurli-Wurlinjang Health Service, on behalf of the traditional owners of Binjari and Rockhole, said people were hurt by the untruths being spread.
“We are in lockdown because we’re in the biggest fight of our lives. We’re trying to keep safe. We’re trying to do the right thing by the community and Katherine. We don’t need people out there creating another flood for us. We don’t appreciate outside people making comments that are untrue.
“People on social media saying our people are being mistreated need to realise their comments are hurting the very people they claim to care about. We want people to respect our privacy and show respect for our feelings,” it said.
Northern Land Council Chairman Samuel Bush-Blanasi said anti-vaxxers were “spreading wrong and hurtful information”.
“It’s important that we don’t listen to them. We applaud the Northern Territory Government for their response to this crisis. We are strong people, we need to band together to help each other to fight this virus.”
A National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation spokesman said the defence force supported vaccination in Northern Territory areas affected by COVID-19 outbreaks, and claims of forcible vaccinations were false.
Northern Land Council Chair , Samuel Bush-Blanasi.Credit:Glenn Campbell
A Defence Department spokesman said social media posts claiming the Australian Defence Force was forcibly vaccinating or detaining members of the Australian community were false.
“Claims currently gaining prominence within various social media communities are deliberate disinformation based on a theme that has spread globally, been localised for effect, and results in significant and unwarranted concern among residents,” he said.
Minister for Indigenous Affairs Ken Wyatt on Wednesday condemned attempts by outsiders to peddle dangerous misinformation.
“People spreading anti-vax propaganda, falsifying imagery and content, and drumming up fear and mistrust in health and support services should be ashamed of themselves,” he said. “More often than not, these people are wholly unconnected to the remote communities at risk.”
Labor senator Malarndirri McCarthy said NT communities were feeling “deeply hurt by the outrageous comments and disgraceful lies that are being spread about them on social media”.
“While people sharing this info may be thinking they are showing solidarity with First Nations communities, in actual fact it is leading to more trauma and stress for families who are simply trying to get through this difficult time with COVID in their communities.”
Alice Springs deputy mayor and conservative commentator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price said she spent most of Thursday fielding calls from people concerned about lies being spread online about communities near Katherine.
“People are being treated with respect and nobody is being held down and forced to be given the COVID-19 vaccination. Nobody is being forced against their will,” she said in a video on her Facebook page. “I have seen absurd allegations about this being about a land grab and or genocide. This is completely and utterly untrue … Likening it to Stolen Generations is an insult.”
NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner on Thursday described those who spread misinformation as “tinfoil-hat wearing tossers”.
Of the ADF he said, “they aren’t carrying weapons, they are carrying fresh food for people.
“I urge people not to worry about the insane, unhinged stuff spreading online and overwhelmingly comes from people who don’t live here and know nothing about us.”
“If anybody thinks we are going to be distracted … by tinfoil-hat wearing tossers sitting in their parents’ basements in Florida, then you do not know us Territorians.”
It comes after veteran performer and Melbourne Indigenous community Elder Uncle Jack Charles on Monday urged Aboriginal people to ignore disinformation and get vaccinated.
In a campaign launched by the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service to promote greater vaccination coverage in Aboriginal communities, Uncle Jack said: “I’m a firm believer in imploring people to disregard the messages you hear on your [computer] and your phone. Believe what I’m telling you: You need to get vaccinated.”
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