When obscure handwritten notes began appearing on car windscreens in the Queensland town of Yeppoon, residents were mystified but did not take much notice.
The notes contained kind messages — such as “Don’t forget to smile, because you are amazing”, “Have a fantastic day” and “Love wins” — and were accompanied by three hashtags.
It was not until they were shared on social media that the sinister nature of the notes became more apparent.
Some people had thanked the anonymous author for the positivity, others thought it was a bit strange, but one social media user identified the hashtags’ likely link to far-right conspiracy groups.
“Sorry to be a Debbie Downer, but the hashtags are used to spread propaganda,” they said.
“People are leaving notes like these on cars in the hope that people take photos and share to social media to spread their hashtags.”
Lorraine Coombs found one on her car. Thinking it was a one-off, the 77-year-old grandmother threw it in the bin — she then noticed the same note being shared online.
“I got really scared, actually. It was a bit frightening. I felt like I was being tagged and stalked,” she said.
“You come out of the shopping centre and you find that note on your car; you think: ‘Holy heck, who’s been watching me?’”
A common tactic
PhD candidate Shane Satterley, who researches and teaches religious and ideological extremism at Griffith University, said he had not noticed hand-written notes used to spread conspiracies before.
“Religious cults have been using this tactic of being super nice and friendly and bringing people into their social group or family, as they probably call it — that’s been a tactic for years,” he said.
“It’s perhaps unsurprising [the author] would try to win people over with niceness, but it’s a bit hard to speculate because we don’t really know who’s doing that and what their agenda is.”
Satterley said despite the unknown motives of the author, it was never good to have misinformation and conspiracy theories promoted in a community.
“Bad ideas are inherently dangerous because they can lead to dangerous outcomes,” he said.
“Conspiracy theories have been around for a long time … now it’s probably worse because we do have the internet, and while access to good information has never been better, access to bad information is on an equal footing.”
Satterley said conspiracies thrived in times of crisis, political unrest and rapid social change, which was why they had been rampant during the coronavirus pandemic.
Leaders of conspiracy groups and recruiters often made out that they had the answers to everything, he said.
“If someone doesn’t have a nuanced way of looking at grey areas in society and politics, religion and international relations; if it seems very rigid, dogmatic and it has all the answers to everything you’ve ever asked, that’s a big red flag.”
– ABC / Erin Semmler