Outback Australia and the Information Wars
Maajid Nawaz (left) and Tim Pool

Outback Australia and the Information Wars

Matthew Blackwell
Matthew Blackwell
14 min read

For several years now, David Cole has been a minor celebrity in the Northern Territory of Australia on account of his colorful conspiracy theories. While few people take anything he has to say seriously, many of us in the Territory enjoy wondering what he’s going to come up with next. Cole believes that the Hillsong Church in Sydney carries out child sacrifices, that Australia is a registered corporate entity of the Vatican, and that all police officers here are therefore privately owned. He has even helped a woman argue in court that the law didn’t apply to her (to the surprise of no-one, she lost). His beliefs about the Vatican somehow dovetail with his belief in a New World Order, a secret cabal that seeks to implement a world totalitarian government.

It is hardly a surprise, then, that Cole’s statements about the pandemic have been monumentally confused. He believes that sunlight can cure COVID-19; that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is an American bioweapon released against China; that the virus is also a myth; and that the pandemic is a hoax. He also thinks COVID vaccines are bioweapons, the purpose of which is to wipe out the human population. Face-masks, meanwhile, are designed to suffocate us, and COVID swabs are secretly being dipped in carcinogenic chemicals. But because Cole is partly indigenous, he has managed to persuade the uninformed and the unwary that he is an authoritative spokesperson for indigenous interests.

For the past few weeks, those of us who live in the Northern Territory have watched in astonishment as British and American pundits with huge audiences have breathlessly promoted the lunatic claims of our village idiot. It’s not clear where Cole is from, but he lives in Darwin and claims to be a Larrakia Aboriginal person. However, this is disputed by the Larrakia Nation’s chief executive officer, Robert Cooper, who has said, “I am advised [that] David Cole is not a Larrakia person and he and his associates do not in any way represent the views of the Larrakia Nation or any majority of our members.”

This all began when Cole posted a series of videos in which he held forth about the COVID-19 outbreak in the Northern Territory’s Aboriginal communities of Binjari, Robinson River, and Rockhole in the Katherine region, where I live and work. In his most popular viral video, he addressed his audience from in front of an Aboriginal flag, and surrounded by likeminded associates. From a distance of more than 300 kilometers, Cole denounced the Australian Defence Forces for rounding people onto trucks with military force and vaccinating them against their will. He also criticized the government for locking these communities down and forcing the people to flee to find food. He demanded foreign intervention. In another video, Cole described vaccines as an act of genocide and anticipated the death of
15 million Australians.

These statements are par for the course from Cole, and as usual, they didn’t attract much attention in the Territory. However, across the Internet, his videos were seized upon by credulous commentators for whom any anti-lockdown agitprop, no matter how outlandish, is just grist to their ideological mill. The Twitter feed of British activist and LBC broadcaster Maajid Nawaz has been a particularly egregious horror-show. His convoluted tweet-threads are an incontinent spiral of misinformation and falsehood, filled with righteous indignation and replete with lurid claims pockmarked by caps-lock. Endlessly nested quote-tweets linking to his previous threads offer more of the same.

On November 24th, Nawaz posted histrionic video testimony from an Aboriginal activist named June Mills alleging forced vaccinations and “war crimes” by a government that “is literally murdering our people.” That tweet has received over 2,500 retweets as of this writing, even though, two days later, Mills released a more subdued statement in which she admitted she hadn’t known what she was talking about. “Overnight,” she mumbled, “I have received [information from] what I consider reliable sources, that have advised me that there were no forced vaccinations, and that people were treated well, and that the army was there to distribute food and to transport people. So, I was very happy to hear that.” (She didn’t look happy at all.)

To his tweet of the Mills video, Nawaz added two David Cole videos (“Further allegations made about FORCED VACCINATION by aboriginal voices”), and a snapshot of a David Cole Facebook post, accompanied by a demand that Amnesty International investigate matters at once. “[I]f you think,” he thundered at the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory on Twitter the following day, “we will all remain silent around allegations of your ETHNIC CLEANSING of our ABORIGINAL brethren in the northern territories [sic], think again.” For good measure, he also circulated a video clip of police officers arresting an Aboriginal woman, apparently unaware that the Queensland uniforms indicated an incident thousands of kilometers away about an entirely unrelated matter.

On November 29th, Nawaz publicly thanked Amnesty International UK for helping to raise awareness of the alleged trauma caused by the Australian Defence Forces. He neglected to acknowledge a joint public statement issued four days earlier by Amnesty International Australia and John Patterson, the CEO of the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance NT (AMSANT), in which Amnesty Australia’s National Director Sam Klintworth said:

We're very disappointed that Amnesty UK re-issued a release that we at Amnesty Australia were very careful to ensure was doing precisely the opposite of feeding the spread of harmful information. The addition of the headline which was not in the original statement suggesting the ADF was “inflicting trauma” completely changed the sentiment of the statement which meant to convey Amnesty Australia's full support of vaccine access and the crucial work of groups such as AMSANT and we are deeply sorry for the distress this has caused.

One of Maajid Nawaz’s threads received a transatlantic boost when it was promoted in a retweet by Tim Pool, a popular YouTube personality with nearly a million Twitter followers. Since then, Pool has broadcast various aspects of the narrative Nawaz picked up from June Mills and David Cole, although Pool has increasingly expressed misgivings about Cole and his associates. In an episode posted on November 29th, Pool hedged:

A video went viral showing indigenous leaders calling for international help. Now they sound a little off the plot to be completely honest, a little conspiratorial, but there’s videos of indigenous people in Australia being thrown into police wagons, screaming and fighting, claims that tribal leaders are saying, “They’re experimenting on us,” and forcing vaccinations and forcing people into the camps.

In a subsequent episode posted on December 3rd, Pool hedged still further. He no longer referred to Cole and his associates as “indigenous leaders,” and he was at pains to stress that he wasn’t accepting their testimony at face value. In reference to Cole’s flag video he said, “I don’t know who these guys are. I believe Timcast.com did publish the video, and it’s a video, and these people are very clearly indigenous, [Australian website] Crikey even says they are, and that’s about the extent we could verify.” He went on: “Now, these guys might be totally wrong—the guy in the middle talks about the New World Order and bioweapons and stuff—and I think you know what, maybe a little bit out there. But it certainly is indigenous people themselves in Australia saying these things.”

That is a very odd thing for an opponent of identity politics to say. If, as Pool was starting to realize, these people are cranks, then what difference does it make whether or not they are indigenous cranks? But having offered a throat-clearing caveat, he repeated their views anyway, on the basis that their identity confers authority and legitimacy that we ought to weigh against the silliness of what they are actually saying. In none of his videos or tweets does Pool report the views of indigenous representatives who are not cranks—including the actual community leaders of Binjari and Rockhole, or AMSANT—and who have been speaking up against the inflammatory gibberish peddled by people like Cole:

I can understand why some of Pool’s audience, and others unfamiliar with Australia, were initially misled into thinking that Cole has firsthand knowledge of the situation in the Territory as an Aboriginal community leader. In an essay for Quillette on November 28th, I thought I had put that particular myth to bed. But instead of responding to my arguments, Pool trained his canons on liberal US journalist Jesse Singal who had shared my essay along with a sardonic recommendation that Pool acknowledge his gullibility and course-correct:

Challenged by Singal to provide a rebuttal to the points I’d made, Pool eventually responded with a detailed exegesis on his next episode, which he introduced with the ominous promise that he would “break down how propaganda works.” He took particular umbrage that I corrected an allegation of military coercion at gunpoint that he had never made—which was fine since I did not attribute that claim to him. But claims that Aboriginals were being “rounded up” and “hunted like wild animals,” “dragged onto trucks,” “abducted,” and forcibly vaccinated by the military, were made by right-wing podcaster Stew Peters. My essay explained that Aboriginal leaders in Binjari, Rockhole, and Robinson River had already refuted these rumors. Here is their statement (the essay contains more references):

“Nobody,” I explained in my essay, “is being rounded up at the point of a gun. The army is not even carrying guns.” Although this sentence referred to claims made by Peters, Pool evidently found the shoe a tolerable fit. In the November 29th episode of his show, Pool evoked one of David Cole's radical theories about food deprivation in the Binjari and Rockhole camps here in Katherine:

If the government says to you, “You cannot leave your home even for food,” and you’re sitting in your home without food and you’re hungry, and you go outside and they say, “Get back into your house,” because the ADF and the military has been deployed, and you’re like, “I need food,” and they say, “Well, look. You can’t leave your house. I’ll tell you what, if you so desire, you can hop in our truck and we’ll bring you to a Quarantine facility where we’ll give you food in the mornings.” Is that voluntary? So maybe it’s not that they’re showing up with guns saying, “Get in the truck,” if that’s what you’d expect, but they’re saying you can’t leave your house for food. … So when they say “What’s your evidence it’s done by force?”, I’ll say, ah the Minister of the NT saying you can’t leave your house to eat.

None of this is true. Pool is referring here to a temporary hard lockdown of these camps that required people to stay at home and forbade shopping. Free food was delivered to homes from the very first day of the lockdown—more food than these communities are accustomed to. When I spoke to one of the community leaders of Binjari and told her what an American YouTuber was saying, she giggled: “We’re being very spoilt, believe me.” When asked about the mistreatment of residents during the lockdown, a resident of Binjari told ABC Radio, “Those people who don’t know what’s going on, you have no shame or no morals to say that they’re doing that to us, because they haven’t. They have gone above and beyond, and I’m pretty impressed—not just me, it’s my whole community members.”

In a tweet-thread on December 4th, I posted some of the first photographs of and interviews with Binjari residents, who unequivocally rejected Pool’s allegation that there was a lack of food in Binjari or that hunger was being used as a means of coercion:

Pool has so far not withdrawn his claim that the government used food deprivation in the Katherine communities.

And so, what of the quarantine facilities that Tim Pool has described as “concentration camps” and that Maajid Nawaz has said are evidence of “fascism”?

As the pandemic unfolded across Australia, Aboriginal communities began to draw up contingency plans in anticipation of the virus’s arrival. The biggest hurdle they faced was the chronic Outback housing crisis. With as many as 30 people crammed into a three-bedroom house, it quickly became apparent that it would be impossible to contain COVID’s spread by keeping infectees and their close contacts isolated. As Dr. Jason Agostino, an epidemiologist at the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), observed, “The state of housing is so poor, and the level of crowding so high, that to leave someone who has COVID in their home is to condemn the rest of the household to also get it.”

Working alongside Agostino and NACCHO, these communities agreed a plan that called for hard lockdowns and the transfer of infected and close-contact members of the community to a facility where isolation would be possible in the event of an outbreak. When that outbreak finally arrived a few weeks ago, the Australian Defence Forces offered their assistance with the transferral of 39 high-risk Katherine region community members to the Howard Springs Quarantine Facility in Darwin. Although three young teenage boys temporarily absconded, the plan has so far been a success. Binjari and Rockhole have now eliminated COVID and are exiting lockdown. And, although one Binjari woman succumbed to COVID-19, the death toll would certainly have been much higher had the virus been allowed to tear through the densely packed population. “It’s great to see that a plan that was led by the community was implemented successfully,” Agostino reported a few days ago, “and that at the moment we’re seeing good results.”

But Tim Pool is not happy. “If everyone knows about this, it cannot persist,” he announced in a November 22nd episode of his show. “When you are a Nazi—a fascist—running these detainments, taking these people by military vehicle, even because ‘I was just doing what I was told,’ we will hunt you down for the rest of your life. … There is not a place on Earth you will be able to run if things turn out the way we fear. ... You’ll find yourself standing trial in The Hague. You’ll find yourself standing trial just like at Nuremberg. When you are that fascist. When you are that Nazi. And I don’t care what ideology you support, if you round people up in this way, it will never leave you.”

Pool seems to believe that communities shouldn’t ask members to quarantine outside their camps—that a person has the inalienable right to stay in their home even if they are a health hazard to the other 25 people living there, and even if the other 25 people would like them to isolate elsewhere. This may not be ideal (almost nothing during a pandemic is), but having scoured Pool’s videos and tweets, I’ve been unable to discover what his alternative plan would be here in Katherine. Would he have simply let the virus spread unrestricted, an approach that would have visited far greater suffering and grief upon the communities in whose interests he claims to speak?

Even the innocuous pictures circulating on social media of bikini-clad women and shirtless men sunbathing on the decking of their Howard Springs cabins aroused Pool’s contempt and suspicion:

I believe it was [podcaster] Jack Murphy who pointed out [that] if you search the Howard Springs hashtag, you don’t see any regular people. It’s just a bunch of hot babes and smilin’ faces! How psychotic and deranged is that? How creepy is that? Here’s a photo of the people happily being taken to a government camp. Nothing can ever go wrong! The indigenous people we’re bringing here? Well, they weren’t allowed to leave their homes to get food. But they chose to come. Cuz it was better. Or, maybe they didn’t choose, but we’re helping them.

As is so often the case with Pool, it’s not entirely clear what’s he’s alleging beneath all this scornful innuendo. If you don’t make any specific allegations, then I suppose you don’t have to go to the trouble of substantiating them with any actual evidence. Still, there’s no need to imply a sinister explanation (or a “psychotic” and “deranged” one, for that matter), when an anodyne alternative exists—images of happy and beautiful people simply receive more likes, and are then rewarded by the Instagram search function.

Over the two podcasts he’s devoted to the issue since my essay’s publication, Pool has walked his “concentration camp” rhetoric back a bit. “Now how absurd is it,” he says, “when obviously I’m being hyperbolic by saying ‘concentration camp’? It’s about what could happen, not what is.”

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “hyperbolic” as “of, relating to, or marked by language that exaggerates or overstates the truth.” An online thesaurus offers these synonyms: false, distorted, fabricated, melodramatic, unrealistic, and (my favourite) a bit thick. Antonyms are: reasonable, realistic, sensible, actual, and factual. “I’ll be the first to admit, it does raise the spectre of the Holocaust,” Pool conceded in his video response to my essay, before adding defiantly: “If you take umbrage with this, and don’t like my opining or hyperbole, well that’s too bad.” But in a brief moment of honour, he also acknowledged his inconsistency on this point, since he has mocked the Left in the past for their misuse of Nazi analogies. “Fair criticism,” he mused. “My point was it was only a matter of time before they take their own citizens, and so I’ll do better next time.”

But why did he go there at all? Towards the end of my last essay, I noted the vast disparity in COVID fatalities between Australia and the US indicated by this World in Data graph:

If you hover the mouse-pointer over the curves, the corresponding number of COVID deaths recorded in each country appear. At the time of writing, the US (population circa. 333.7m) has lost 787,695 lives to the virus, while Australia (population circa. 25.9m) has lost 2,042. It is quite possible that by the time the pandemic ends, the US death toll will top a million. Had Australia adopted the same approach as the Trump and Biden administrations, tens of thousands of Australians who are alive today would have perished.

In response to an article by Quillette editor Claire Lehmann in the Australian headlined, “Mocked We May Be, But Compare the Death Rates,” Pool retorted: “Yeah, we can. But give it a year or two...” I’ve no idea what he thinks is going to happen between now and then. But I am now convinced that those who vehemently opposed COVID restrictions from the outset—either to defend their own government’s inept response or because they are inflexible libertarians or both—cannot bear to see the Antipodean suppression strategy succeed. It helps to explain why so many of them gloated on social media when Australia was sent back into lockdown by the Delta wave just as America and Europe were starting to reopen. And it’s why many of the same people are now claiming that the only alternative to uncontrolled spread was surrender to fascism—an option more monstrous by orders of magnitude than hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths.

There is no persuading commentators like Tim Pool or Maajid Nawaz on this point. From their respective studios half a world away, they are so woefully unfamiliar with the facts on the ground here that correcting them feels like trying to explain moral equivalence to a pug. I find it very hard to believe on present evidence that either of them really cares about the welfare of Aboriginals or of Australians in general. They are fighting their own culture wars with anyone tempted to suggest that Australia shows the terrible death tolls elsewhere were not an inevitability. And as human nature compels, they will now probably double-down and try out some new method of disputing the facts or reframing their previous statements.

So why bother writing this second essay at all? Well, countering ignorance and malice with truth is important for its own sake. Even if those who absorb the information I have offered decide they still oppose Australia’s pandemic policies, at least they will have understood them a bit better. But Aboriginal groups are also keen to have the record corrected—their communities were not invaded by armed force or starved out of hiding; they are active participants in policy decisions that have affected their own communities and lives and they feel justifiably proud of what has been achieved under difficult circumstances.

Commentators like Tim Pool and Maajid Nawaz have shown no interest in these groups or in anything they have had to say on this matter. Neither the Aboriginal Medical Alliance NT nor the Closing the Gap Campaign have merited their attention. Nor have the Wurli-Wurlinjang Aboriginal Health Service here in Katherine, the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, the Northern Land Council, or the Aboriginal leaders of Binjari and Rockhole. Instead, they have been happy to rely upon an unscrupulous conspiracist and demagogic crackpot like David Cole, and to present him as the authentic voice of indigenous Australians—so long as he serves their agenda.

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Matthew Blackwell

Matthew Blackwell is an Australian writer and Outback Drug and Alcohol Case Manager & Educator in the Northern Territory.