In August last year, Matt Lawson, a Melbourne-based conspiracy theorist and anti-5G activist linked to the group that helped organise the city’s anti-lockdown protests last year, held one of his regular YouTube gabfests.
The guests were mostly the usual crowd. The former celebrity chef Pete Evans was there, wondering aloud why the only politician talking about the immune system during Covid-19 was the US president Donald Trump: “He’s talked about zinc, he’s talked about sunlight, and he’s been ridiculed for it.”
So too was Serene Teffaha, a Melbourne lawyer who became a darling of the anti-lockdown movement after raising at least $500,000 to launch a class-action lawsuit during the city’s lockdown, and Zev Freeman, a skydiving instructor and anti-5G activist who regularly pushes theories linked to the sovereign citizen conspiracy theory on a range of fringe Australian podcasts and YouTube channels.
But there was also an unexpected guest on the call. Shrouded in black, wearing a hooded jumper and going by the name X, she described herself as an actor and “professional feeler”. She talked about attending the Met Gala and appearing in “Hollywood blockbusters”.
According to a tweet from Lawson, the actor was Isabel Lucas, the former Home and Away and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen star. The Guardian has not been able to independently confirm whether the actor was Lucas.
“I don’t want to be anonymous but I am about to start filming a film and I do need to be careful about being outspoken because you can get dropped by charities, you can lose campaigns with car companies,” the actor on the video said, which has been viewed by more than 10,000 people since August.
“But I feel 100% called to speak to this topic because … it’s about speaking the truth and shining a light on the reality of what’s really going on.”
The actor on the video talked about a video she watched on YouTube about whether Donald Trump was “a light worker”. Although she called Trump a “divider” and said she “literally left Hollywood” because he came to power, she said she found the video “fascinating”.
“All the information which comes out when you look at what he might be doing is pretty fascinating and mind-boggling.” she said.
“I believe in humanity and I believe that we’re magical, amazing, living embodiments of spirit [but] there’s a certain level of agenda and darkness that has had authority and has had a lot of people just believing in lies,” she said.
Lucas did not provide a response to questions from the Guardian. Her publicist said she would “kindly decline” the opportunity to comment.
But it wouldn’t be the first time the actor has waded into the murky depths of Australia’s conspiracy ecosystem.
Indeed, she is just one of a number of high-profile people who has used the language and ideals of the wellness industry – with its preoccupation with individual choice, mindfulness and health – to bring a gamut of once-fringe conspiracy theories to a new and more mainstream audience.
A month after the anonymous actor’s appearance on the YouTube channel, Lucas revealed in a podcast that she had “opted out” of a Covid-19 test while filming the movie Bosch & Rockit in Byron Bay to “maintain my own health”, despite it being a mandatory condition of working on the production.
“My immune system has just become so solid from my way of life, how I live and eat and think,” she said.
In April last year Lucas was dropped as an ambassador for charity Plan International after she commented on one of Evans’ Instagram posts that she didn’t “trust the path of vaccination”.
She later wrote on Instagram: “I have concerns about ‘mandatory’ vaccination, not vaccination itself. Moving forward, I’d like to welcome and invite cohesive, clear and calm communication around ‘mandatory’ vaccines, ethical vaccine testing and how to support every human being to have the right to freedom of choice.”
And just last week the actor railed against Instagram’s decision to delete the account of the US anti-vaccination and conspiracy theorist Robert F Kennedy Jr, saying he “fearlessly shines light on oppression, false narrative media, and the corruption of big pharma”.
Lucas, who lives in Byron Bay, has long been an outspoken environmental activist as well as a spokeswoman for a range of natural beauty products. But today she regularly tells her more than 200,000 followers on Instagram about what she believes are the dangers of 5G and “censorship”.
The rise of ‘conspiritualism’
Sarah Wilson, an Australian author whose name became synonymous with the “clean living” movement after her I Quit Sugar cookbook and diet program became a sensation here and overseas, has long raised the alarm about what she calls “conspiritualism”: the idea that what were once the wellness industry’s legitimates desires to “expose the vested interests of the food, pharmaceutical and oil industries” has become muddled by the vast uncertainty and complexity of the problems facing the world.
During Melbourne’s Covid-19 lockdown, Wilson saw an amplification in something she had long been noticing within that world: a “confounding” venn diagram that has seen “the new-age, love n’ light, wellness industry” merging with conspiracy-focused beliefs about vaccinations, 5G and QAnon.
“It got to the point where I had people I know from social media telling me, you know, about how Daniel Andrews was storing children in tunnels during the lockdown,” she told the Guardian.
The causes for this shift are complex. Wilson believes for example that the rise of social media alongside the burgeoning wellness community spawned a new generation of influencers less moored to conventional sources of information. “It was all care and no responsibility,” she says. As “wellness” became more fashionable, it devolved into what she called a “green-smoothie elitism” which replaced those legitimate questions about the power of various industries with a more “wishy-washy, truth-lite” which put individuals above the common good.
“It became a career path, suddenly. To that extent I feel a little grubby because I became a little bit of a mentor to these people. I recognise some of these voices now; they were young teenagers who commented on my blog or Twitter eight, nine years ago and went on to become some of the most controversial voices in this space,” she said.
It’s a trend that experts are increasingly familiar with. In the US, for example, the adoption of the QAnon conspiracy theory by a more mainstream audience has been accelerated by its widespread infiltration of the wellness industry.
In September last year, Seane Corn, a California-based yoga teacher and influencer with more than 100,000 followers on Instagram, posted a black tile with the words: “We care and we stand against QAnon.”
In the post, Corn warned that QAnon’s “manipulative messaging” was “deliberately and strategically” targeting the wellness community to win over followers.
“Too many folks, including many of my dear colleagues, have bought into their divisive and outrageous messaging for me not to speak out,” Corn wrote.
The wellness industry, she warned, with its focus on “alternative health practices and mistrust of the government”, was playing a key role in mainstreaming something that was previously confined to the fringes of the internet.
Marc-André Argentino, a researcher from Concordia University in Canada, coined the term “pastel QAnon” to describe the trend: a sanitisation of QAnon that allowed it to filter into a more mainstream audience through “lifestyle influencers, mommy pages, fitness pages, diet pages, and alternative healing”.
“These influencers provide an aesthetic and branding to their entire pages, and they in turn apply this to QAnon content, softening the messages, videos and traditional imagery that would be associated with QAnon narratives,” he wrote on Twitter last year. “This branding is the polar opposite of ‘raw’ QAnon.”
Argentino argued that “child-trafficking narratives” associated with QAnon helped merge the communities, pointing to the well-publicised “hijacking” of the “save the children” hashtag by QAnon followers.
The Evans effect
In Australia, the most prominent example of both the pull of conspiratorial thinking to the wellness community, and their attendant power to push those theories into the mainstream, is Pete Evans.
Evans, who uses his large social media following to combine the sharing of conspiracy theories with a salesman’s zeal for pitching questionable alternative health products, was able to amass 1.5m followers on Facebook before his page was deleted in December for posting false information about the Covid-19 pandemic.
And while the move from Facebook has cost Evans followers, it has also freed him from the shackles of its somewhat regulated space. On Telegram, for example, where he has now amassed more than 24,000 followers, Evans shares a constant stream of conspiracy theories, including posts linked to QAnon.
Similarly his name recognition means he remains an influential figure in the web of conspiracy in Australia. In February Evans hosted a 90-minute “vodcast” with then Liberal Party MP Craig Kelly, himself a frequent and unapologetic disseminator of conspiracy material, in which he implored the government not to make Covid-19 vaccines “mandatory or coerced”.
Evans has also been a keen seller of doTERRA, a multi-level marketing company whose enthusiastic “wellness advocates” spruik (as Evans himself described it in a video last November) the “amazing opportunity” to “empower yourself with more knowledge” and “create more income” by selling essential oils.
Multi-level marketing has proven a haven for conspiracy theorists in the wellness sphere. One Facebook group seen by the Guardian called “Advocates Against Trafficking” states that it was “started by doTERRA Wellness Advocates to collaborate and raise awareness and money to STOP child sex trafficking!”.
Despite Facebook’s pledges to crack down on conspiracy content, the group, which has more than 42,000 members, is a rabbit warren of QAnon content, and a glimpse at how the co-option of #savethechildren helped guide a new audience to it.
The influence that celebrities such as Evans can have on spreading misinformation has been well-documented. Last year, researchers from the Queensland University of Technology showed how during Covid-19 actors such as Woody Harrelson played a vital role in pushing discredited theories about 5G, for example, beyond existing conspiracy communities.
Recent polling shows that belief in conspiracies in Australia does go beyond the usual suspects.
YouGov polling carried out in July and August last year found that 21% of people polled agreed that “the truth about the harmful effects of vaccines is being deliberately hidden from the public”, and 20% of people polled believed pharmaceutical companies were deliberately delaying or hiding a Covid-19 vaccine “in order to drive up the price”.
Capitalising on distrust
In early February, Matt Lawson, the anti-5G activist who had appeared with the anonymous actor and Evans back in August, filmed himself arriving at an aged care home to deliver a bundle of pamphlets containing vaccine misinformation.
Using his phone to record himself, Lawson rang the doorbell and spoke to a staff member over an intercom, saying he was there to deliver information about “informed consent”.
The recording captured the bemused staffer asking Lawson to leave the pamphlets at the door, before he wandered away. He announced to his followers that he had spent the day handing out similar “information” at aged care homes throughout the city.
The excursion is just one example of how a group of highly motivated individuals whose belief in a dizzying array of conspiracy causes have coalesced into an organised movement during the pandemic.
Lawson is a member of a group called United Collective, whose leaders helped to orchestrate last year’s anti-lockdown protests and which still had almost 19,000 members on its Facebook group before it was deleted this month. Earlier iterations of the group had as many as 80,000 members.
One of those leaders is Raphael Fernandez. Also from Melbourne, it is Fernandez who encouraged the group’s followers to distribute thousands of pamphlets containing vaccination misinformation during the so-called “week of action”.
“We might end up going to like um, what’s it called, like, I don’t know, going in front of schools or something like that, like primary schools, and just handing them out to the parents after school,” Fernandez said while filming himself placing the sheets in letterboxes with his girlfriend in February.
“That might be pretty good, because it’ll be very busy.”
Melbourne is now out of lockdown but United Collective’s ongoing relevance has much to do with its ability to pivot focus.
Indeed, Fernandez has shown a keen entrepreneurial zeal throughout the pandemic. On his personal Facebook page, which has almost 10,000 followers, he flits between long screeds about vaccinations and claims that Covid-19 is a hoax to selling products that he claims protect users from electromagnetic fields that conspiracy theorists believe are emitted by 5G towers. A shungite pyramid crystal will protect a radius of “approximately 6-7 metres”, his website claims, and costs $226, reduced from $256.
His earlier Instagram posts mix Kendrick Lamar concerts, shirtless selfies and luxury cars with self-help quotes, offers of “mentorship” for cryptocurrency investors and plugs for his clothing line.
Littered throughout them are hashtags such as #wealth, #success, #ambition and #entrepreneurship. Indeed, his personal website still contains the banner slogan “grow your wealth”.
His social media history also reveals a preoccupation with what might be described as a sort of corporate “mindfulness”.
“Wake up before the sun rises to have that advantage over the majority of people,” he wrote in one post late in 2019.
Fernandez’s journey from self-help guru and entrepreneur to a conspiracist who believes, for example, the Covid-19 pandemic was planned in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to make money from vaccine production, is not unique.
Kaz Ross, a researcher who specialises in misinformation and the far right, argues the fusion between conspiracy theories and the wellness sphere has much to do with the “clear overlap” in their distrust of traditional institutions, as well as the way Covid-19 allowed the pre-existing anti-vaccination movement to capitalise on people’s fears during the pandemic.
“They share a belief that the true state of things is being held back from us,” she told the Guardian.
But, she says, there is also a more cynical play for attention in an economy that is built around personal branding.
“I think in a lot of cases playing to that conspiracy, anti-vaccination crowd, it’s where the money is at, where the clicks are at, and where the potential followers are,” she said.
“It’s all tied up in that wellness, Instagram influencer grift; it’s how they make money.”
From anti-vaxxers to 5G conspiracists, the Web of lies series explores the growth and spread of misinformation and conspiracy thinking in Australia.