Former TV Chef Behind Australia's Anti-Lockdown Uprising
A former reality TV star who told his online followers to destroy their TVs was one of the leaders of anti-lockdown protests on the weekend.
Protests have spilled to the streets as a result of growing anti-lockdown sentiment online.
Two people were arrested in Sydney and 10 in a separate event in Melbourne, as a motley crew of 5G conspiracy, anti-vaccination, and libertarian Facebook groups assembled to resist coronavirus restrictions.
The protests came as politicians, health officials, and law enforcement continue to battle a rising tide of coronavirus misinformation, with countless warnings that COVID-19 conspiracy theories are simply wrong and baseless.
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A video spreading "harmful and misleading" COVID-19 claims -- including that wearing a mask is dangerous -- has been blacklisted by social media sites, but not before it racked up millions of views as a worldwide sensation.
"There is, unfortunately, a lot of very silly misinformation out there," chief medical officer Dr Brendan Murphy said when asked about the protests.
"I have unfortunately received a lot of communication from these conspiracy theorists myself. It is complete nonsense."
The Melbourne demonstration, where an estimated 200 people gathered on the steps of Victorian state parliament to hear from a variety of speakers -- some of them long-term proponents of theories against 5G or vaccination -- was inspired by Fanos Panayides.
He is the administrator of a 37,000-strong Australian-based Facebook group claiming to represent the '99 percent'.
The group has become a hotspot for coronavirus theories mentioning Microsoft founder Bill Gates, vaccination and surveillance.
Social media analysis from the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensics Lab found the group was one of the biggest spreaders in the world of the 'Plandemic' film, a video that shares several conspiracy theories about the virus.
The video has received millions of views but has been banned from Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms.
Who is Fanos Panayides?
Panayides was a contestant on Channel Nine reality TV cooking show 'Family Food Fight' in 2017.
His group was created in April, but membership swelled as the pandemic -- and associated lockdowns in Australia -- escalated.
Last week, Panayides encouraged members of the group to smash their TVs in protest against what he claimed was mainstream media "telling us what to think" during the pandemic.
Dozens of followers posted videos of themselves attacking their screens with hammers and garden tools.
In his own video, Panayides threw his TV against concrete calling it a "tell-a-vision" and yelling "no longer will we be programmed".
"What they're doing isn't right and it's against everything I stand for," Panayides said in a Facebook video on May 3, as he travelled to Victorian parliament as part of a small protest.
10 daily contacted Panayides for comment.
That small protest last week grew to more than 200 people on Sunday.
Victoria Police arrested 10 -- including Panayides himself -- with three expected to be charged for allegedly assaulting officers.
A Victoria Police spokesperson said while it "respects the public’s right to protest," officers had warned such a protest "would be in direct contravention of the Chief Health Officer’s current directives".
Panayides on Monday boasted of how media coverage of the protest swelled his Facebook following and friend requests, saying "I was on primetime television for 17 weeks and I didn't have this much support".
The Melbourne protest was the weekend's most prominent, but arrests were also made in Sydney outside NSW parliament in a separate protest.
On Saturday, several people "exercised" on the street, some holding or wearing signs related to the lockdowns.
It was a demonstration inspired and attended by the leader of a Sydney Facebook group with nearly 4000 members, which encourages people to protest while exercising -- one of the only reasons residents are permitted to leave home under lockdown measures.
NSW Police called it "an unauthorised protest" and arrested a 36-year-old woman.
Video of the incident, where police separate the woman from her young child and put her in a squad car, went viral on the weekend.
Police said she was "unable to provide a reasonable excuse for being there and was later issued a $1000 PIN".
The woman had been wearing a cardboard sign urging people to read the Magna Carta, the British charter of rights from 1215. The document is often cited by groups that encourage followers to question the authority of police or government.
The leader of the exercise group also claimed to have been arrested.
Several GoFundMe pages were shared via Facebook groups to support the woman, with more than $6500 pledged as of the time of writing. One page pledged funds to help her "pay for a lawyer".
On Monday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he could "understand people's frustration ... of not knowing what happens next".
"It's a free country, people will make their protest and make their voices heard. But equally, that needs to be done in an appropriate way and it needs to respect the law enforcement authorities who are just simply trying to do their job," he said.
NSW Health tweeted that claims connecting 5G and coronavirus were a "myth".
Facebook has been taking "aggressive steps to stop misinformation" surrounding coronavirus, including "removing false claims [about] 5G," a spokesperson told 10 daily last month.
Chris Althaus, CEO of the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association, told 10 daily that alleged links between 5G and coronavirus were "rubbish" and "biologically impossible".