It started with an anonymous post on an encrypted messaging app favoured by far-right activists and conspiracy theorists and moved to a fringe website promoting QAnon and Port Arthur massacre misinformation.
Quite how a conspiracy theory about Victorian premier Dan Andrews’ March fall at a Mornington Peninsula holiday home made its way from social media’s backwaters to the mainstream has been the subject of intense speculation this week.
On Monday the Victorian opposition treasury spokeswoman, Louise Staley, gave new impetus to a complicated web of conspiracy theories about Andrews’ fall by releasing a list of questions about the accident.
Staley has continued to insist she had simply been urging Andrews to “clear up” rumours when she released a list of 12 questions, which included whether Andrews had been interviewed by police after the accident and who had called the ambulance.
But her statement, which also called for the premier to answer the questions “if there is no cover-up”, followed a long-running conspiracy narrative which emerged almost immediately after Andrews’ announced his accident on 9 March.
In the hours following his statement, the encrypted messaging app Telegram, home to Australia’s largest anti-lockdown, anti-vaccination and far-right groups, was alight with theories about the accident.
The timing of the fall – it came on the same day that the federal health minister, Greg Hunt, was hospitalised with cellulitis and shortly after Christian Porter and Linda Reynolds both took indefinite leave from cabinet – fed into a series of conspiracy narratives given oxygen by a string of prominent actors in Australia’s convoluted conspiracy space.
A 9 March post by prominent anti-lockdown group Reignite Democracy Australia, run by former reality television contestant Monica Smit, noted a “strange trend” and fuelled a baseless rumour the MPs had all suffered adverse reactions to the Covid-19 vaccination. So too did a post by the far-right actor Blair Cottrell on the same day.
The next day, the first mentions of trucking tycoon Lindsay Fox in relation to the fall were made by a user in an anti-lockdown group known as Melbourne Freedom Rally. The Guardian has previously revealed links between the group’s leader and a number of far-right organisations. The post, which claimed Andrews had been at Fox’s home when he fell, was followed by a series of users advancing QAnon-flavoured claims he had “the shit kicked out of him” and been “taught a lesson”.
Since then, conspiracy rumours have centred on trucking magnate Lindsay Fox and a former PricewaterhouseCoopers executive, Luke Sayers. Different iterations of the theories have centred on the false beliefs Andrews was with Fox at the time of the accident or that he was involved in an altercation with Sayers.
Andrews is a friend of Lindsay Fox’s son, Andrew Fox, and some of the early posts on Telegram linked to a February article in the Age which examined the links between the premier and the family. The relationship was also subject to questioning by Staley in the Victorian parliament earlier this year.
The rumours that Andrews was with Fox at the time of the accident, though, have been roundly discredited. This week the Age reported Fox was considering legal action over the rumours – which he flatly denies – while the Australian Financial Review reported that Sayers was at an entirely different location having dinner with his wife on the night in question.
Staley’s questions also prompted Victoria Ambulance to release a statement this week confirming the timeline Andrews had previously given for the accident. The state’s police commissioner, Shane Patton, also confirmed police did not attend the home where Andrews fell, or interview him.
Outside of Telegram, however, the unfounded claims that Andrews’ fall was the subject of a cover-up were first aired by an obscure Queensland blog which also pushes Port Arthur massacre conspiracies, QAnon theories and baseless claims that Covid-19 is a “psyop”.
On 11 March – the day after the first Telegram posts – the website posted an article under the headline “Who bashed Dan Andrews?”. It claimed, again without basis, that the injuries suffered by the premier were “consistent with having been kicked while prone on the ground”.
The website is home to a dizzying array of conspiracy material. A series of articles on the site claims, for example, that the deadly Port Arthur massacre was a “government-sanctioned terror event”; pushes the QAnon theory that “Hollywood celebrities” have been “rounded up” for “child pornography and ritual, satanic abuse of young children”; or claims that Covid-19 is a “psyop”.
The Guardian has been unable to contact the two men listed as editors of the site.
The website followed its first Andrews article with a series of similar posts pushing theories that photos of Andrews in hospital had been “doctored”, as well as linking both Fox and Sayers to the incident.
These articles – which are wrong – set out the basic infrastructure of the conspiracy theories which have dominated social media since: one pushing the idea Andrews was with Fox at the time of the accident, the other suggesting he had been assaulted.
Since their publication, they have been widely circulated on the same conspiratorial Telegram groups which pushed the initial rumours around Andrews’ accident, as well as on a series of Facebook pages associated with anti-lockdown protests and far-right ecosystems in Australia.
An analysis of the Facebook posts by Queensland University of Technology lecturer Timothy Graham showed that while they were not widely shared outside of online communities linked to conspiracy content, it appeared the Queensland website was “very much the originating vectors of this narrative and its sub-narratives”.
Less clear, though, is how these theories spread from social media’s backwaters, but Graham said it was likely that examining the spread of the articles on social media was showing only “the shadow” of the way the conspiracy had spread.
“It’s operating in this weird space in the information ecology where you have these fringe actors mixing with the political elite,” he said.
“And it’s really common for this false or misleading information to spread when it hits that middle ground. There’s this connective tissue between the fringe, who are talking about this stuff online, and then someone who has the power to take these ideas and bring them up in a cafe or a bar or a meeting and obviously we then can’t see how it moves at that point.”
Despite Staley’s list of questions being widely condemned as “nonsense” and “QAnon craziness”, both she and the Victorian opposition have continued to stand by the list.
Earlier this week, she denied she was peddling conspiracy theories.
“The easiest way to stop any of these conspiracy theories – which I’m not playing into – is for these questions to be answered,” she said.
In response to questions from the Guardian, a spokesman for Staley said the MP was “not alleging any wrongdoing, purely posing some simple questions that many Victorians are asking”.
He also said the questions were not in response to “something she read” on the Queensland website, but he did not answer questions about whether the questions were informed by others, including her staff, reading the site.
What is clear is that the articles published by the conspiracy site were circulating widely among Victorian media and politics. The Guardian understands that most of the questions asked by Staley had previously been put to Andrews’ staffers, and that at least one outlet pointed directly to claims made by the Queensland website.
Graham said the political “weaponisation” of conspiracy theories had been seen to be “insidiously effective”, particularly in cases such as Andrews’ where the relationship with the Fox family provided “seeds of truth” to pursue.
“If there are actual, factually verified events pulled into this narrative and are part of the premise of the conspiracy theory, that’s where the damage can be greatest.”