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Disinformation Down Under: The 'Aussie Cossack' and the Indigenous Voice to Parliament

By Kye Allen

9 October 2023



Photo Credit: Screenshot of an interview posted on the Aussie Cossack Telegram channel.


On October 14, Australians will vote in a referendum which proposes to enshrine within the constitution an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander 'Voice' to parliament. Over recent months, the subject has increasingly become a focal point of polarisation, caused not least by the dissemination of misinformation and active disinformation.


As Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney alleged, the ‘No’ campaign has veered into an abyss of ‘post-truth politics’. This characterisation is not without reason. While it should be recognised that the ‘No’ camp is a broad church encompassing a range of factions with varied motivations and different arguments leveraged against the Voice, a concerningly vocal subset have diverged from engaging potentially valid questions about the efficacy and configuration of the proposed advisory body, towards outright conspiratorial thinking.


Antisemites have hijacked the Voice to pedal grand conspiracy theories, alleging a plot orchestrated by, in particular, prominent lawyer and political activist Mark Leibler. Some have linked the Voice to an amorphous ‘Globalist’ conspiracy and a supposed ‘Corporatocracy’, while others have cast the referendum as an Indigenous ploy to claim ‘huge swathes of Australia’.


One particularly odd source from which opposition has emanated is the pro-Putinist YouTuber Simeon Boikov, otherwise known as the ‘Aussie Cossack’. Boikov previously gained a large following through his espousal of anti-vaccine and anti-lockdown rhetoric, alongside media attention by virtue of his controversial defence of the Putin regime. Indeed, after an arrest warrant was issued for Boikov over alleged assault of a pro-Ukrainian protester, he has remained sheltered within the Russian consulate in Sydney since December 2022. As of September 2023, Boikov’s petition for Russian citizenship has been granted, albeit the legality of this remains in question against the backdrop of Russia’s dual-citizenship laws (although as of October 6, Boikov has apparently been issued a Russian passport).


While confined to consular grounds, Boikov has waged an online campaign in opposition to the Voice. Through Boikov’s social media channels, one witnesses a peculiar confluence between an important but seemingly unrelated debate about the representation of First Nations peoples; contemporary geopolitical events; and reactionary, anti-‘globalist’, and conspiratorial lines of thought. Primarily relying on the ‘Aussie Cossack’ Telegram channel, which presently has over 75,000 subscribers, the following article aims to critically disaggregate three salient themes present within such content. First, an opposition to an ‘Establishment’ comprised of the mainstream media and leading political parties. Second, the discursive utilisation of national iconography and particular voices to afford legitimacy to the ‘No’ campaign, while delegitimising their opponents as ostensibly un-Australian. Third, a deliberate interlinking of opposition to the Voice with pro-Russian sentiments and a particularly recalcitrant critique of Australian foreign policy.


The ‘Establishment’


In the first place, material disseminated by accounts affiliated with Boikov have exhibited a strong scepticism towards the so-called ‘Establishment’, which includes the Labor government led by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, leading political parties, and the mainstream media. The Aussie Cossack feed on X (formerly Twitter) alludes, for example, to the supposed smear tactics of the media in its depiction of him as a conspiracy theorist and Putinist ally.


This anti-Establishment sentiment is unsurprising and a point that I will not dwell on at considerable length. However, one feature that is worthwhile to note in this regard is that even the Liberal-National Coalition has not escaped Boikov’s ire, notwithstanding its support for the ‘No’ campaign. Indeed, the leader of the federal Opposition, Peter Dutton, has sought to distance the ‘No’ campaign from Boikov, imploring the public against attending rallies promoted by him. In response, Dutton has been portrayed as something of a turncoat. As posted on Telegram: ‘This treasonous Government has taken a “joint approach” [understood negatively as denoting collusion between the Labor Party and the Coalition] on COVID vaccines, lockdowns, funding Zelensky and now the Voice.’ This stance veers from mere opposition to the Voice towards a more conspiratorial view of Australian parliamentary democracy as illegitimate and fundamentally corrupt, a viewpoint which holds dangerous implications (as even a brief perusal of comments posted on the Telegram channel allude to).


Traitors, Commies, and True Blue Aussies


The second thematic relates to the reliance on national iconography and particular voices, alongside a designation of those supporting the referendum as ostensibly ‘un-Australian’. As noted above, the Albanese government is rendered ‘treasonous’. In a similar vein, one Telegram post sought to draw attention to the presence of a flag present during a ‘Yes’ rally. The flag in question depicted the Southern Cross constellation superimposed over the hammer and sickle, a dog whistle eliciting fears of communist subversion. The accompanying caption read: ‘Notice there is not one Australian flag in sight!’


As the inverse to this, the ‘No’ campaign has been depicted as patriotic, authentically Australian, and defenders of freedom against supposed dictatorial diktats imposed by government authorities. As one Telegram post highlighted following a rally in Sydney, ‘[p]roud Australians flew the Eureka flag’, a symbol of historic national significance (albeit one which far-right actors have sought to co-opt). Another post featured a meat pie superimposed with the word ‘No’ written in tomato sauce (ketchup), a combination which is a classic Australian staple (see Figure 1). Moreover, Boikov has been integral in organising the so-called ‘World Freedom Rallies’, its title seemingly connoting a democratic aura.


Figure 1. Screenshot of a Telegram post from 12 September 2023.



Most concerning, however, has been the platforming and co-opting of views expressed by certain Indigenous people critical of the Voice. Notwithstanding earlier polling which suggested approximately 80% of Indigenous Australians supported the Voice, it should be captioned from the outset that many Indigenous people have expressed an intention to vote against it. In particular, a vocal opposition has crystalised around the ‘Blak sovereignty movement’ affiliated with independent Victorian senator Lidia Thorpe.


Yet it is not from such quarters that Indigenous support for the fringe ‘World Freedom Rallies’ has primarily emanated. Instead, an intersection has emerged between the ‘Original Sovereigns’ movement – an Indigenous strand of the parallel sovereign citizen (SovCit) movement – and a motley grouping of far-right extremists, conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, and the like. Indeed, online fliers for the recent anti-Voice rally in Sydney’s Hyde Park has spotlighted the attendance of Uncle Bruce Shillingsworth Snr. and Ngunnawal elder Glenda Merritt, both of whom have been linked to prior ‘Original Sovereigns’ protests.


The growing penetration of SovCit ideas within the Indigenous land rights movement and the co-optation of the latter by the former represents an alarming development. Indeed, such ideas were arguably complicit in the December 2021 arson incident that damaged the entrance to Old Parliament House in Canberra, to which Bruce Shillingsworth Jr. pleaded guilty.


Upon his release after serving three months in prison for violating a suppression order in 2022, Boikov called attention to Australia’s abysmally high rates of incarceration among First Nations peoples and chastised what he believed to be a lack of concern on the part of the Albanese government for the wellbeing of Indigenous Australians. Yet Boikov’s comments on Indigenous affairs should not be accepted uncritically, nor should the platforming of Indigenous voices at the aforementioned rallies be somehow construed as representative of opinion among Indigenous Australians.


The Aussie Cossack Telegram has sought to feature Indigenous representation at ‘No’ rallies as something apparently jarring for ‘Yes’ supporters to understand or reconcile (see Figure 2). To display opposition by First Nations peoples towards a proposed Indigenous advisory body is to ostensibly lend a modicum of legitimacy to the conspiracy-laden position promoted by Boikov. Yet what is obscured from purview is the fringe nature of the ‘Original Sovereigns’ movement which has been co-opted towards this end.


Figure 2. Screenshot of a Telegram post from 23 September 2023.



‘I Always Served Russia’


Lastly, Boikov’s staunch pro-Russian stance regarding the war in Ukraine has been discursively intertwined with his opposition to the Voice, whereby the latter serves to further his defence of the former. By virtue of Boikov’s uncritical parroting of Russian propaganda, and not least his self-ascription to the ‘Aussie Cossack’ title, he has been cast as something of a fifth columnist seeking to ferment discord within the Australian electorate. In particular, the Ukrainian Ambassador to Australia, Vasyl Myroshnychenko, has accused Boikov of ‘using foreign diplomatic grounds to meddle into the domestic affairs of Australia by organising anti-voice rallies’, ‘a clear sign of the malign foreign influence in Australia’.


This is not the first clash between Boikov and Myroshnychenko. As recently as January, the Ukrainian Ambassador reported to have been bombarded by harassment after Boikov uploaded a prank call wherein he advertised Myroshnychenko’s phone number. The Ambassador’s most recent accusations regarding the Voice have been denied by the Russian ambassador to Australia, Dr Alexey Pavlovsky. Meanwhile, Boikov has flippantly dismissed such allegations as all but absurd. He has instead emphasised that his position vis-à-vis the Voice reflects his personal views on the matter, while his role in organising rallies is within his democratic prerogative. Moreover, he has sought to counter any allotment of blame on ‘Putin for the failure of the Voice’ as a ‘sign of… desperation’ on the part of media and the government alike. By contrast, Boikov suggests, Myroshnychenko ‘is actually himself conducting foreign interference’ by virtue of his accusations.

Despite Boikov’s protestations, the Aussie Cossack Telegram channel has frequently and undeniably engaged in a vocal defence of the Russian war effort. In recent months, there has been an explicit effort to link a rejection of the Voice with objections to Australia’s support for Ukraine and other aspects of Australian foreign policy (see Figure 3). In this narrative, the Voice is depicted as a duplicitous ploy to fool unsuspecting masses, while the Australian government meanwhile antagonises Russia and risks the provocation of war. As one post claimed, ‘Albanese is dragging Australia into WW3 whilst distracting the sheeple [sic] with a referendum about “The Voice”’. To quote another, ‘[t]he Australian Labor Government is spoonfeeding Aussies “The Voice” as a distraction whilst quietly pushing Australia into war against Russia & China on the sly’.


Figure 3. Screenshot of a Telegram post from 31 August 2023.


In a similar fashion to that described above, Boikov has also co-opted the support of select Indigenous Australians to defend this pro-Russian narrative. For example, following the rapid passing of legislation which prevented the development of a new Russian embassy beside parliament house in Canberra, a post was made on the Aussie Cossack Telegram about a delegation of Indigenous elders who met with the Russian Ambassador. This group symbolically ‘grant[ed] permission’ to use the land ‘in defiance of Albanese’s ban’. According to another post, this delegation presented a message to the Russian Federation, wherein expressing sympathy for the ‘right to self-determination’ of Russian-speaking people in the Donbass region and scolding the ‘illegitimate neo-Nazi regime in Kiev’. ‘As the traditional custodians of this land’, the statement allegedly proclaimed, ‘we did NOT give permission to send weapons, troops and money to a war that does not concern Australia’. This delegation was argued to be a true ‘Voice’; that is, ‘Indigenous leaders engaged in international diplomacy’. What is important to emphasise, however, is that the emissaries leading this group were the aforementioned individuals affiliated with the ‘Original Sovereigns’ movement, Merritt and Shillingsworth.


This interlinking of narratives points towards a mutual spillover effect. By pedalling misinformation about the Voice among those who may be receptive, while simultaneously connecting it to, and interspersing content about, broader geopolitical developments and foreign policy questions, opposition to the Voice acts as a dubious means to critique Australian foreign policy decisions and vice versa.


Conclusion


While polling indicates that support for the ‘Yes’ campaign has faltered, this cannot be attributed purely to extreme conspiracists, not least the efforts of a Putinist crank. Yet an attentiveness to this discourse remains important, in part because it has garnered considerable traction online (to such an extent that Prime Minister Albanese has addressed the absurdity of such claims). In concluding, three broad takeaways should be emphasised. First, the increasing intersection between SovCits and the ‘Original Sovereigns’ movement since 2021 represents a particularly notable development. As Taplin, Holland, and Billing have recently argued in the Australian Journal of Anthropology, there is a comparative lack of research into this phenomenon, a subject which ought to be further explored.


Second, as mentioned above, Boikov’s pro-Putinist propaganda risks spilling over into other domains, potentially undermining support for Ukraine and Australia’s foreign policy amongst an array of factions loosely united by their support for the ‘No’ campaign. Of course, Australia’s military aid to Ukraine and the AUKUS partnership remain valid subjects for debate. Yet against the backdrop of Boikov’s extensive ties to Russia and espousal of conspiratorial rhetoric, one may understandably believe that the spread of misinformation by Aussie Cossack social media accounts is less than conducive, indeed it is outright harmful, to healthy public debate.


Finally, and relatedly, Boikov’s social media presence highlights dilemmas involved in content moderation. While the Aussie Cossack YouTube channel was deplatformed in early 2023, Boikov continues to hold several thousand followers on X, alongside a popular Telegram channel. Despite Boikov’s objections against being branded a conspiracy theorist, the latter channel regularly mimics conspiratorial language, referring to ‘satanic’ or ‘woke Globalists’ and a supposed ‘Globalist WEF [World Economic Forum] agenda’. Among subscribers, such conspiracies – implicating the United Nations and other actors – are likewise pervasive within the Telegram channel’s comment section. Boikov’s content has even veered into potentially violent territory. On Rumble, a popular alt-tech video platform, Boikov pleaded to the late Yevgeny Prigozhin, presenting a case for Wagner forces to capture Australian and New Zealander volunteers fighting for Ukraine in order to facilitate his passage to Russia in a prisoner swap. Towards this end, Boikov listed the names of individuals allegedly known to be in Ukraine. Above all, though, the case of the Aussie Cossack spotlights the need for policymakers to address harmful content, misinformation, and disinformation spread via end-to-end encrypted, large-scale group messaging platforms as they consider Labor’s recently released Combatting Misinformation and Disinformation bill. This problem remains, as noted by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, an ‘ongoing concern’.




Kye Allen is a candidate for the DPhil in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a commissioning editor with E-International Relations

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