Eyes on foreign actors in lockdown rallies

Georgie MooreAAP
Authorities are looking at the role of foreign actors in stirring up Australian lockdown protests.
Camera IconAuthorities are looking at the role of foreign actors in stirring up Australian lockdown protests. Credit: AAP

Intelligence officials are looking at the role of foreign actors in stirring up Australian anti-lockdown rallies.

Dozens of people were arrested and more than 250 fined following violent weekend rallies, including in COVID-hit Sydney.

They were promoted by the German-based Worldwide Demonstration group on Facebook and had reported links to QAnon.

A senior national security official told a Senate committee on Friday the rallies might be considered an example of foreign interference.

"Anti-lockdown protests, if they were amplified clandestinely by an online foreign actor, then that would deem to be foreign interference by my reading," Lachlan Colquhoun said.

The Department of Home Affairs said it was unaware of any substantiated and coordinated disinformation campaign targeting Australia that would constitute foreign interference.

It had referred more than 1735 instances of misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic to social media platforms in the six months to June.

"We've certainly seen instances where, in the extremist context, COVID-related narratives including misinformation is playing out," the department's Richard Johnson said.

Facebook told the committee it was working to "aggressively combat misinformation about COVID and about vaccines generally".

"Some of the protests from last weekend are front of mind for us. There's lots we're monitoring this space," Facebook's head of public policy in Australia Josh Machin said.

The platform last year took down 110,000 pieces of COVID-19 misinformation originating from Australia.

Globally, it has removed about 18 million posts propagating misinformation since the start of the pandemic and slapped a "false" label to 167 million posts.

Facebook cautioned misinformation campaigns sponsored by foreign actors weren't the only risk, with domestic players also looking to manipulate public debate at home.

"We're seeing actors that otherwise wouldn't have the resources or the skills to run an influence operation hiring a firm to do that for them," said the platform's global head of security policy, Nathaniel Gleicher.

"As you're thinking about your upcoming elections, being aware of this tool that could be used domestically is important."

NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller confirmed intelligence agencies were looking into how overseas actors stirred up Australia's weekend protests.

"On Saturday, there were some decent people who turned up thinking this was just a normal protest," he told ABC radio.

"They were hijacked by these violent thugs.

"There is certainly, in terms of those left and right movements, influence from around the world."

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