How an anti-mask firebrand fans the right’s flames against Dan Andrews online | Victoria
After she failed to find fame as a Survivor contestant in 2017, Monica Smit has found another high-profile career: as a firebrand of the anti-mask-wearing movement and a ferocious critic of the Victorian premier, Dan Andrews.
According to her website, Reignite Democracy Australia (RDA), the 31-year-old Smit was motivated by her personal outrage at restrictions imposed by Andrews in July as the Covid-19 infections surged in the state. But there is much more to Reignite Democracy and Smit than meets the eye – and certainly more than is disclosed on the site.
In 2017 Smit was selling project home designs. In late 2019 she restyled herself as a hobby journalist and by mid-2020 had become an activist and wannabe YouTube celebrity.
She is part of a cabal of mainly far-right activists who are leading the charge against mask wearing, mandatory testing for those in quarantine or isolation, and vaccination. Their claims vary from concerns about civil liberties and health fears to conspiracy theories involving Chinese influence.
What is not so apparent is RDA’s links with the conservative wing of the Liberal party and how it uses the mainstream media to amplify the message and gain notoriety. While many of these activists have relatively small followings, they play a key role in fanning the sparks on social media, which are then wittingly or unwittingly amplified by conservative politicians and by the mainstream media, notably Sky News and the Murdoch press.
Smit came to prominence in October as the main promoter of a bus that drove around Melbourne calling for Dan Andrews to be sacked. She is the sole director and shareholder of a $1 company, Reignite Democracy Australia, that sprung up in September during the Melbourne lockdown and which now claims 50,000 members.
The Guardian tried multiple times to contact Smit though RDA’s social media platforms, but she did not reply to requests for interviews.
According to her website, RDA’s mission is to provide a “real alternative to the mainstream media” and deliver “honest, timely and truthful information”.
Readers can judge Smit’s content for themselves. It includes links to papers that dispute the efficacy of wearing masks, including one Danish study that was rejected by the Lancet, the American Medical Association Journal and the New England Medical Journal. The site also takes aim at the accuracy of PCR testing and claims that infection rates in Australia are overblown because of oversensitive tests.
Alongside the campaigning material are more dubious dossiers from other groups such as the Concerned Lawyers Network, a group comprised of a handful of Melbourne family law practitioners, which claims Covid-19 is a global plot to subjugate the world’s citizens. And there is merchandise including bumper stickers and T-shirts.
The site also includes a disclosure that it is harvesting data, which is being passed to politicians: “We collect your postcode so we can collate the data into electorates and send personalised data to your local MP, lower and upper house.” But there is no information on funding apart from a facility for making a donation.
‘Sack Dan’ bus fuels rise
Smit’s main schtick is to attend protests and then film herself debating with the Victorian police over her rights as a journalist, her right to assemble and her right to not wear a mask. Sometimes the YouTube video crews appear to outnumber the participants at these events. In one clip, Smit is photobombed by ultra-right YouTuber Avi Yemeni, who jumped in to promote his own channel, Rebel News.
The posts, and the complaints about their treatment by police, are then picked up by a small group of conservative politicians. The Victorian MPs David Limbrick, a Liberal Democrat, Liberal Bernie Finn and independent Catherine Cummings are regular interviewees on the site and have spoken about Smit’s organisation in parliament.
At the federal level, the Liberal MP for Hughes, Craig Kelly, is also a regular on Smit’s channel. He now appears to be sharing the same material as Smit on mask wearing.
But it was the “Sack Dan” bus that catapulted Smit into the mainstream media. The genesis of the anti-Andrews bus is indeed real. It was the work of Laurie Pincini, of Rockleigh Tours and a fellow Victorian small businessman who runs a signage company in Campbellfield, Melbourne.
Pincini told the Guardian that having seen his bus charter business decimated by Victoria’s lockdown and vehicles repossessed, he was moved to turn his last remaining bus into a protest vehicle. “Under Dan Andrews’ lockdown a union worker could go to work but if you’re a small business, no. The CFMEU was still working on building sites and public servants were working from home – they even got a pay rise,” Pincini said. “It’s just the frustration.”
At that point, someone introduced him to Smit.
Pincini said that as a journalist, Smit enjoyed a work exemption from lockdown laws that prevented movement around Melbourne, so she decided to use the bus as her transport. The bus was on the road for 15 days and garnered plenty of attention in the media.
Sky, Seven News, Daily Mail and the News Corp wire service ran video that Smit and a fellow YouTuber, Real Rukshan, had filmed and posted. Their desired narrative of a major uprising against Andrews had gone viral. A few days later a banner was towed over Melbourne. It was again promoted by Smit, though Pincini said he had nothing to do with this second action. The Guardian has not discovered who was behind it.
Jim Penman, the millionaire franchise operator of Jim’s Mowing, has also been a loud and furious critic of Andrews and the lockdowns. In August the Murdoch media reported on his plans to sue the Victorian government for millions. Penman argued that most of his franchisees in lawn mowing and cleaning businesses worked alone and the premier had failed to show how they would contribute to the spread of the virus.
Penman joined forces with Reignite Democracy to co-brand anti-lockdown T-shirts carrying the slogan “Let Victoria Work”, which were sold through the RDA website and from the Sack Dan bus, raising questions about whether he may have been financially backing the organisation. But he told the Guardian he was not funding Reignite Democracy or any other similar organisation.
“Nor would I, as they have many views I object to. such as being anti-vaxxers,” he said. “I objected strongly to the state government barring lone traders, which brought unnecessary suffering on tens of thousands of Victorians who posed no danger to public health.
“But I have strongly and vocally supported all sensible measures to control infection, including the wearing of masks and the banning of mass gatherings.”
‘They begin on the fringe but are building a persona’
So who is behind Reignite Democracy? “Sack Dan” was not Smit’s first foray into political campaigning against Andrews. In May 2020 she and another “freelance journalist”, Stephanie Bastiaan, worked together on videos for Victoria Forward, an online organisation that claims to be bipartisan but whose primary purpose appears to be attacking Andrews.
Stephanie Bastiaan is married to the former Victorian Liberal party operative Marcus Bastiaan and was employed in federal MP Michael Sukkar’s office as an electorate officer. But after Nine Media aired allegations of branch stacking linked to Marcus Bastiaan and Sukkar, Marcus Bastiaan was forced to resign from the Liberals. Sukkar survived the incident. Both Sukkar and Bastiaan denied the allegations.
As Cam Wilson revealed on news website Gizmodo, Victoria Forward founder Edward Bourke is a vice-president of the Liberal party’s Sunbury branch and also a wannabe political operative. While he claims Victoria Forward is bipartisan, he describes himself as personally conservative.
“Edward decided enough was enough and he founded Victoria Forward to give a voice to those Victorians who felt left behind by political opportunism,” he says on Victoria Forward’s website. Since its creation in January 2020 it has campaigned relentlessly against Andrews, criticising the brumby cull in the Alpine National Park, Covid-19 restrictions, the Belt and Road agreement and more.
Using website analytics, Gizmodo reported Victoria Forward had spent more than $1,000 on Facebook advertisements, reaching more than a million Australians.
Unsurprisingly, Sukkar too has been a loud critic of Andrews’ lockdowns, as has his senior colleague Josh Frydenberg. Sukkar’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
The libertarian anti-mask movement appears also to have gained a hold up north. Smit has been interviewed on Goodsauce News, a rightwing conservative Christian media site established by David Pellowe in July last year. Pellowe, a digital marketing strategist and conservative Christian, has previously worked on state and federal election campaigns for the Liberal National party in Queensland. However, he told the Guardian he had let his membership lapse.
Regular commentators featured on his website include Lyle Shelton, the head of the Australian Christian Lobby; George Christensen, the federal MP for Dawson in northern Queensland; and Karina Okotel, a former vice-president the federal Liberal party.
Okotel was suspended from a key party committee in August over allegations related to branch stacking, but remains an influential figure in the Victorian party. Her brother worked on Sukkar’s staff.
While Smit appeared on Bernard Gaynor’s show, Pellowe has used his own social media presence, Pellowe Talk, to push out the anti-mask wearing memes.
In an interview with the Guardian, Pellowe insisted he was not against wearing masks but was questioning the logic of some of the health decisions being made. He said his concern was that the science was not settled and that restrictions were often politically-based rather than science-based.
Goodsauce was about giving voice to conservatives, Pellowe said. Audiences were small at this stage, with a monthly reach of around 30,000, but he expected them to grow rapidly.
With small audiences, it might be easy to say: who cares? But that ignores the role some social media activists play in weaponising material.
A group of researchers at Queensland University of Technology recently released a paper on their analysis of two interrelated anti-Dan Andrews hashtag campaigns, #DictatorDan and #DanLiedPeopleDied, and one supportive hashtag, #IStandwithDan, in response to the Victorian lockdowns in mid-to-late 2020. The group revealed how a small number of hyper-partisan pro- and anti-government campaigners were able to mobilise ad hoc communities on Twitter, and – in the case of the anti-government hashtag campaign – co-opt journalists and politicians to amplify their message.
In Victoria, MP Tim Smith appeared to lead the anti-Andrews campaign, running a Twitter poll in May on whether the name Dictator Dan or Chairman Dan for the premier was preferred. But the academics say he may not have been the originator of the attacks.
Their study, which analysed tweets from 1 March to 25 September 2020, found the language targeting Andrews had begun though coordinated and apparently inauthentic accounts some time earlier. They found that sockpuppet accounts – anonymous accounts, often with fabricated profiles using images taken from the web – played a major role in driving both pro- and anti-Dan hashtags’ early genesis.
The first tweet containing the #DictatorDan hashtag was authored on 3 April 2020 by an anonymous fringe account (@CCPIsWatching, 2020) but received no engagement. Smith’s success with the viral Twitter poll gained social and news media attention and effectively established the epithet, the researchers say. It was subsequently used regularly in the Herald Sun and on Sky.
“What these commentators are doing is trading up the media chain to garner a form of notoriety,” said Associate Prof Timothy Graham, one of the researchers on the study. He points to Milo Yiannopoulos, an alt-right commentator and former editor of Breitbart News, who was picked up by the Murdoch media and catapulted to fame.
“They begin on the fringe but they are are building a persona, often for personal gain,” Graham said. “What we need to be cautious about is how much we are responsible for giving oxygen to them.”