Over the past few weeks Queensland One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts has conducted several Instagram Lives with social media influencers with large followings.
One was with Anna Rose Richards, a podcast host and health and wellness influencer with 32,000 followers who has been called out within the influencer community for promoting anti-vax, anti-lockdown and conspiratorial messages on her platform.
Another was with Andrew Sedra, the founder of the Echo Church, located in Leumeah in Sydney’s south-west. His personal Instagram account, with 12,900 followers, also heavily features anti-lockdown and anti-vax content, communicated through the prism of his Christian faith.
A third was with an account named @maria.zeee, who has an Instagram following of 27,000 and pushes anti-vaccine and anti-mandate content.
This influencer runs a 10,000-strong Telegram account that advocates the conspiracy theory QAnon.
Data from Facebook-owned analytics site Crowdtangle shows that, since bringing the account online in early April, Roberts has grown his following from zero to 29,600.
And in the past three months, from July to October, the senator’s audience has jumped by 366%, an increase of just over 23,000 followers.
This spike can be partly attributed to a campaign conducted by the senator of using live video — which has increasingly become the type of content that generates the most engagement on Instagram — as a means of accessing highly engaged, niche, and predominantly younger audiences.
Roberts, a 66-year-old politician, is an anomaly on Instagram, an app predominantly used in Australia by people under 34.
In 2020, just over 21% and 26% of Instagram users in Australia were men and women aged between 25 and 34.
In contrast, the average user on Facebook in Australia — where Roberts has 105,000 followers — skews more heavily toward the 50-64 age bracket.
The content posted on the account’s main feed and in videos suggests Roberts is actively working to connect with a new, younger audience by tapping into the audience of niche influencers on the platform.
An aggressive campaign of Instagram live videos
There has been a massive spike in anti-vax, anti-mandate and anti-lockdown content over the course of the pandemic, with experts suggesting this is the result of a deliberate strategy by some to boost their engagement and grow their following.
Elise Thomas, an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), an international organisation that tracks misinformation, previously told Business Insider Australia that the incentive structures for those who monetise engagement on social media platforms make spreading misinformation appealing and potentially even financially beneficial.
“If you are an influencer, your income depends on how much engagement you can generate,” Thomas said, “and conspiracy audiences are hugely engaged audiences.
“You can build an entire business model and a brand….around developing a conspiracy audience.”
During one Instagram Live with Roberts, an influencer explicitly said that she “never used to be into this stuff” and that her feed “has always been about fitness, self-love and business for a decade,” before explaining that she felt Roberts could help her educate her audience further around how to take political action for anti-vax and anti-lockdown causes.
While a number of influencers who earn an income through health, wellness and lifestyle content began posting content that either pushes the boundaries of misinformation, or actively promotes anti-vax and anti-lockdown content since the beginning of the pandemic, Roberts and One Nation have also used the issue of vaccination as a wedge to build an audience and spike engagement.
Roberts has actively cultivated a large Facebook following using these techniques, which have brought him a highly engaged audience on the platform. On October 10, the senator ranked second behind Prime Minister Scott Morrison with 15.7% of the total interactions on Facebook pages for Australian politicians.
The activity on Instagram by Roberts in recent months spotlights how content around vaccination and vaccine mandates has become a potent tool to attract a new and highly-engaged audience, for both influencers and for political actors.
Over the past 18 months One Nation has inserted itself into the anti-vax and anti-lockdown movement, with a current petition live on Facebook opposing an interstate vaccine passport. During the construction worker protests against vaccines and lockdowns in Melbourne in September, Hanson threw her support behind the movement.
Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party has also used the pandemic as means of attracting attention, with Palmer suggesting earlier this year that the vaccine did not stop people from contracting and passing on COVID-19.
He has also advocated for discredited COVID-19 treatments such as vitamin C and hydroxychloroquine to deal with the virus without vaccines, purchasing tens of millions of doses of the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine in 2020 to donate to the federal government in August last year.
In August this year, Palmer threatened legal action against WA’s Chief Health Officer Andrew Robertson, claiming the WA government was advocating for a vaccine based on “incomplete and misleading” information.
The mining magnate also stated he would launch a High Court challenge to Western Australia’s plan to make people from out of state show they have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccination before crossing into WA.
The alignment in the approach taken by wellness influencers and far-right politicians suggests both groups are using the boost to engagement provided by incendiary content around vaccinations and lockdowns to grow their audience.