Many watching had the same question: why Gates? Why did a protest against lockdowns involve so many unrelated — and imported — conspiracy theories?
One speaker, Fanos Panayides, is the founder of an extremely active Facebook group called “99% unite Main Group ‘it’s us or them'” that has rapidly become one of the biggest hubs of resistance against Australia’s coronavirus response.
It is populated by a colourful mix of coronavirus deniers, anti-vaxxers, 5G truthers, sovereign citizens, QAnon believers and other fringe conspiracy theorists. And all of their beliefs have cross-pollinated and converged to create a virulent — if not entirely coherent — umbrella movement against coronavirus lockdown measures.
The anti-lockdown movement remains small in Australia but, according to one poll, 1 in 10 people think social distancing measures should be removed immediately. The restrictions are already being gradually eased across the country, following a largely successful response to the coronavirus, with fewer than 100 deaths and a major slowing of new cases.
But in Panayides’s group, that doesn’t matter. Since it was started on April 8, the group has grown to more than 37,000 members who have made more than 900,000 posts, comments and reactions, according to social media analytics site Crowdtangle.
Sunday’s protest originated with a fringe, far-right YouTuber, but the driving force was Panayides’ group. Members of the group also organised at least two other anti-lockdown protests held in the past week.
Before last month, Panayides — who didn’t respond to requests for an interview with BuzzFeed News by phone, Facebook Messenger or via associates — was not a widely known activist.
He worked as a security guard trainer, ran a company building brick ovens and published a 35-page book ebook on weight loss — but was perhaps best known for being a contestant on reality TV program Family Food Fight.