Australia’s ‘QAnon’: Bizarre online trend
When veteran ABC broadcaster Leigh Sales made a surprise appearance at Daniel Andrews' press conference on Monday to grill the Victorian Premier over the state's snap lockdown, the result was predictable.
So-called "Dan Stans" - an online army of Mr Andrews' most diehard supporters - leapt into action to savage the 7.30 host, accusing her of hijacking the event and being "incredibly rude and disrespectful".
"So you are aware Ms Sales, thankfully our amazing Premier listens to the science and medicine to keep all Victorians safe during this COVID-19 pandemic," one wrote.
"Always has, always will! And not to you armchair 'experts'!!!"
Another woman said, "Did you advise @DanielAndrewsMP that @abc730 would be high jacking (sic) the press conference, which is primarily held to inform Victorian public of updates to COVID restrictions and how to stay safe?"
One man wrote, "Now the ABC pile-on begins @leighsales at Vic presser in tandem with Murdoch grubs pushing HER point that lockdown is unnecessary. Here we go again, WHY is Victorian health advice any DIFFERENT to any other STATE??"
Throughout the course of the pandemic - with debates over the necessity of lockdowns, concerns of heavy-handed police enforcement, and repeated hotel quarantine failings - the Andrews government has maintained a consistently high approval rating among Victorians.
Many reporters simply doing their jobs by asking questions of the Premier have received vicious abuse from his most ardent fans, who often use the hashtags "#IStandWithDan" and "#ThisIsNotJournalism".
Anyone who purports to be a journalist and uses the term 'dAn sTaNs' is just plain old silly 🙃 https://t.co/kEsslKVk0h— PRGuy (@PRGuy17) February 15, 2021
"(Victoria lockdown) to end tonight as planned. No new cases today. #IStandWithDan," one woman tweeted on Wednesday. "He makes unpopular decisions but he wont be distracted. He is led by science. Credit to Victorians, we did it! Only #MurdochSewerageCo #VicLibs whining. Businesses, sorry for your losses but humans first."
While journalists from publications owned by News Corp - publisher of news.com.au - including The Australian and the Herald Sun are often targeted, the abuse is not limited to one side of the aisle.
Over the weekend, The Age state political editor Annika Smethurst was similarly criticised after penning an opinion piece suggesting Mr Andrews' "rhetoric may backfire" if the latest outbreak was not contained.
"I'll tell ya what is backfiring @annikasmethurst," one woman wrote in a widely shared Twitter post. "The more you lot pile-on Dan, they more popular he becomes. What an utter load of crap this piece is. Grow up. #auspol #IStandWithDan #ThisIsNotJournalism"
Osman Faruqi, a podcast host and journalist with The Saturday Paper, has also come under fire from Andrews supporters for his criticism of some elements of the state's coronavirus response, as have others including Melbourne writer Jill Stark.
Host of national broadcaster's flagship current affairs show asks a bunch of entirely reasonable questions at a Premier's press conference when she happens to be stuck in his state amid a statewide lockdown (aka does her job). Twitter goes into complete meltdown. 🙄 https://t.co/M65AF3xPzE— Rachel Baxendale (@rachelbaxendale) February 15, 2021
But it was Rachel Baxendale, The Australian's Victorian political reporter, who copped the lion's share of the abuse, regularly finding herself on the receiving end of a Twitter pile-on after her appearances at Mr Andrews' press conferences.
"There's been some pretty violent, nasty stuff involving suffocation and strangling and gagging. There's been sexual nonsense about who I 'must be' sleeping with. But there's also just been relentless, low-level stupid stuff, about what I wear and how I look and what my voice sounds like. Ironically a lot of the latter has come from people who describe themselves in their social media profiles as feminists who believe in things like 'kindness', 'fairness' and 'equality'."
Even the Premier's wife Catherine is a prolific "#IStandWithDan" supporter, liking hundreds of tweets with the hashtag, including ones attacking journalists by name. The Australian reported in September that Mrs Andrews had blocked both Baxendale and Alex White, the Herald Sun's state politics correspondent.
On Wednesday, a post from one "#IStandWithDan" fan neatly summed up the phenomenon - a mocking caption alongside a TV screengrab showing a group of female journalists as they stood looking at their phones after the press conference.
"So-called media and journalists rushing to Twitter and Instagram to see how much of a fool they've made of themselves after #IStandWithDan presser," the user wrote.
When they are not attacking journalists online, "Dan Stans" spend their time boosting the Premier. "Dan Andrews is a shoe-in to win the Australian of the Year (for his) brilliant response to COVID-19," one man wrote in December.
Others have called for Mr Andrews to become Prime Minister - something he ruled out when asked last year, saying he had promised his wife "many years ago" that he would only ever serve in state politics.
But some "Dan Stans" veer into more conspiratorial territory, including the widely mocked suggestion that NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian was covering up positive COVID-19 cases to make her Victorian counterpart look bad.
Others have gone further still. "I'm starting to think that these sporadic infections in Victoria are a plant by some sick minded rwnj (right-wing nut job) determined to get rid of Mighty Dan," one user wrote this week. "Hope they have rotten eggs all over their faces eventually."
Digital media researchers from the University of Queensland last year analysed six months worth of Twitter data around the "#IStandWithDan" hashtag, as well as anti-Daniel Andrews hashtags "#DictatorDan" and "#DanLiedPeopleDied".
They found the "#IStandWithDan" hashtag, the biggest of the three with 275,000 tweets between March and September, was largely being interacted with by accounts that appeared authentic, The Guardian reported.
Social media expert Dr Diana Bossio from Swinburne University of Technology said there were two main reasons for the "Dan Stans" phenomenon.
"The first thing is the virus - the virus numbers developed quite differently across the different states, and there was initial unity between political parties but that kind of fell over," she told news.com.au.
"I think what we're seeing now is fairly political one-upmanship between the Prime Minister and states, especially around border closures and lockdown measures."
When political leaders don't show unity, it "spills over into social media".
The second reason, Dr Bossio said, was the same kind of online political tribalism that fuelled the right-wing "QAnon" conspiracy theory.
She pointed out that the research showed it was actually a "very small group of people" who were generating the "#IStandWithDan" hashtag, which was then retweeted by a larger group who were "trying to buy into" a political identity.
"For me it is kind of reminiscent of the kind of Trump-like conspiracy theorist, it has echoes of that," she said.
"Because it's not necessarily the politics or the message, it's actually the political identity and sense of community that plays into that factionalism. Social media is a tool for creating engagement and intimate connection, and sometimes that happens in really uncivil ways."
Another factor was the combination of seeing politicians on TV screens every day giving lengthy press briefings, and the false sense of personal intimacy people feel through social media.
"They show us photos from their home, 'getting on the beers', that does play into that kind of personality politics," Dr Bossio said.
"(Social media) allows a politician to cover for the fact that they are a politician and not our friends. We feel closer to public figures because of that. If we like a public figure and are getting access to their personal life, we feel protective of them."
But as for the apparently disproportionate abuse meted out to female journalists, Dr Bossio doesn't believe it is unique to the "Dan Stans".
"Most research shows that on social media, in terms of journalists, female journalists and people of colour generally get trolled the most and the worst," she said.
"It's just good old-fashioned misogyny."
Originally published as Australia's 'QAnon': Bizarre online trend