No, protest didn’t make Australians complacent (democracy isn’t as deadly as they say it is)

As a follow up to my previous and very long post about Australia’s racist response to Black Lives Matter protests, it’s time for a very short one to address a new myth.

The narrative goes something like this: sure, maybe the protest didn’t cause a second wave of coronavirus. But everyone watching the protests saw people flouting social distancing, that caused people to slack off, and that’s what caused a bump in recent cases in the state of Victoria, in which families had been spreading the virus due to not obeying isolation guidelines (the other states with huge protests but no bump are studiously ignored).

It was bubbling around for a few days until Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy voluntarily air-dropped the theory into the fever swamps of Victorian right-wing politics at a press conference:

Both before and after it was given credence by Australia’s CMO, it has spread wildly. I’m going to try and collate them here. Thanks to everyone on Twitter who helped out, with special mention to Benjamin Miller. I’ll add more to this list as they come in.

Politicians

  • Greg Hunt, Australia’s actual Minister for Actual Health, said “On the basis of, well, gosh if it’s okay for 10,000 people to get together then surely we can’t be a risk if we’re 10 people” (he said the same thing to Channel Nine, and has been loudly criticising the protests for weeks)
  • Victorian opposition MP Tim Smith: “The protest changed the public mindset, it showed the rules weren’t being applied equally to everyone”.
  • Victorian opposition MP Jason Wood “A switch was flicked when the Victorian Premier stated that protesters would be allowed to gather in masses and would not be fined. I believe this was the turning point for Victoria and the change of attitude that we are getting back to normal” and “Straight after the protest we observed that things around here almost returned to normal; people were getting out and about a lot more”
  • Liberal party MP Jane Hume, as reported by the ABC’s Patricia Karvelas: “I have spoken to a couple of Liberal MPs, one is Jane Hume, the frontbencher, and she says the Black Lives Matter protests in Melbourne, even though it didn’t spread the virus, that it sent a message to Victorians, Melburnians, that they could be lax”
  • Nationals Senator Matt Canavan: “Some implicitly or explicitly encouraged the protests to occur, and that did undermine broader confidence and trust in authority in the regulations. I now worry if we do have to impose more restrictions, it will be much harder to do because governments aren’t trusted as much as they were before this protest”

Media

  • 3AW journalist Tony Tardio: ” I see that rally two weeks ago as a watershed moment for Victoria .. people were genuinely happy to follow the rules and respect the fines until 10 thousand people gathered in the city and three were fined .. that changed on that day that is the problem with the rally”
  • News Corp blogger Miranda Devine: “The protests also gave licence to everyone else sick of being cooped up. A double whammy”
  • News Corp blogger Sophie Elsworth writes “Many Victorians stopped listening to their premier ever since the Black Lives Matter protest on June 6. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back”
  • The editorial page of The Australian: “When the event was not stopped, and the tens of thousands of people who broke social-distancing laws were not fined as Victoria Police stood lamely by, many others, fed up with isolation and restrictions, gave up on the rules in disgust. They forgot, or chose to forget, there is no room for complacency”
  • Sky News Australia host Paul Murray: “Mr Murray said in Australia people are still pretending there is “nothing to see,” despite a recorded rise in Victorian coronavirus cases following similar anti-racist protests”
  • Sky News Australia host Peta Credlin: “Victorians have as a result been told to wait another month after initially expecting to return to normality because of the government’s poor response to the protests and the Cedar Meats outbreak, Ms Credlin said”
  • Sky News Australia host Chris Smith: “He pointed out that unlike the NSW government, the Andrews government did not go to court to stop the Black Lives Matter protests or order the Police to disperse protesters to show the danger the rallies posed to society”

If you’re familiar with the climate debate, you can see what’s happening here. A single idea is festering within an enclosed bubble of political and media friendships. Each participant sees their peers declaring something, and declares it themselves, sometimes adding a twist or an improvement using their imagination.

It is of course impossible to truly know what’s in the heart of people, or to measure their interpersonal interactions. This is probably why it’s been picked up – it’s an unfalsifiable, hazy claim.

Here’s the thing. We actually can get a rough proxy for the magnitude of human movement in Australian cities and states. And for every single city and state, the trend is clear: there has been a slow upwards climb towards pre-COVID19 levels, with zero impact on that from the rallies.

First, Google makes mobility data they’ve collated from their location data that’s on by default for many Android phones (a problematic thing, for sure). Here’s Victoria’s data, including the impact of the protest on the data for ‘parks’ – unfortunately it only goes up to June 17, but I will update this post on the 24th, when the next update is released:

Vic_Google Small

It’s the same story for the other states:

Australia has been going through a long, slow process of increased human movement since the commencement of the COVID19 lockdowns. This isn’t unusual. We can confirm this pattern using Apple’s mobility data too, which is slightly less problematic because it uses directions requests in phones rather than tracking, but that also makes it slightly less granular (hence why you don’t see a bump for walking for the protests). For Melbourne:

Melb_Apple Small

And for the other cities:

If you want the data files or the high-resolution images, just click here, and feel to use them (with attribution would be really nice).

This story is emerging from data in other countries, too. A working paper from private American non-profit National Bureau of Economic Research found that there is no “evidence that urban protests reignited COVID-19 case growth during the more than three weeks following protest onset”, and conclude that “predictions of broad negative public health consequences of Black Lives Matter protests were far too narrowly conceived”. They also find that protests may have even contributed to less movement in cities, though that’s unique in the context of America’s curfews.

The ‘protests cause attitude change’ theory is a lie, in that it is a claim that isn’t supported by any evidence, and contradicted by what evidence we do have. But there has been close to zero testing of the validity of the claim in media.

Alongside this, the effort to pin ‘protester’ labels on people diagnosed with COVID19 but who probably acquired it elsewhere and didn’t spread it at the rally continues. Sky News Australia literally lied in a story, claiming the virus was “spread” at the rally; something explicitly denied by authorities.

To reiterate my previous post: this isn’t happening because people are clumsy or not smart enough to understand the data. The myth is emerging because people react to the sight of Indigenous Australians demanding the right to be heard with a racist anxiety, and scrabble wildly for purchase to find something that sounds reasonable, to give that anxiety some veneer of respectability.

COVID19 is perfect, for that. It’s a random scatter plot of vaguely related circumstance, and you can slice and dice the emergence of clusters to exercise whichever wildly ludicrous superstition you want to. Except, when the theory that 5G causes coronavirus sprang up, it saw hundreds of ‘debunk‘ and ‘fact check‘ style articles, When the conspiracy theory that anti-racist protests are causing coronavirus comes up, there is near-total silence. That is a clear message from Australia’s media outlets heard by non-white Australians.

This racist idea is largely unchallenged because the people who’d normally been rearing to debunk conspiracy theories and medical misformation stay quietly mute. They may not be quite as racist, but they’re racist enough to want to let these ideas fester without providing any counter.

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