A remote community in the NT has spent the last week in the fight of their lives against a COVID-19 outbreak which could have devastating consequences. The last thing they needed was a social media storm of misinformation.
Social media posts have been circulating in recent days making false claims that, among other things, Australian Defence Force personnel deployed to the remote Aboriginal community of Binjari were armed with guns while forcibly removing people from home and forcibly injecting them with vaccinations.
The claims had an astonishingly wide reach within just hours, with one Darwin journalist tweeting that he had inquiries from a concerned resident of Ireland, and an NGO worker in Katherine reportedly receiving a call from Spain.
Even Amnesty International's UK arm issued a press release urging the ADF not to "inflict trauma" on the communities it was helping, which Amnesty Australia director Sam Klintworth has since apologised for in a joint statement with Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance NT chief executive John Paterson.
Binjari and the neighbouring community of Rockhole were plunged into hard lockdown on November 20 when nine people of Binjari's population of around 200 tested positive to COVID-19.
Rockhole has since transitioned to a regular lockdown because of a lack of cases, but Binjari's case numbers continue to grow.
The lockdown means the residents of Binjari are unable to leave their homes except in an emergency, with the ADF being asked to help with the delivery of food, medication and transportation of close contacts to the Howard Springs quarantine facility.
The ADF were quick to refute the claims, noting that they don't have the power to do any kind of law enforcement.
For the residents in Binjari who are already in an unprecedented and terrifying situation, the social media storm was the last thing they needed.
"People are very hurt by the untrue comments being made in the media and social media about their situation," senior community members said in a statement.
"People on social media saying that our people are being mistreated need to realise their comments are hurting the very people they claim to care about.
"We don't need people out there creating another flood for us.
"We are in lockdown because we're in the biggest fight of our lives."
Wurli-Wurlinjang is the Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Service which services Binjari and has been on the ground during the lockdown. Chief executive Suzi Berto said they consulted with community leaders about the misinformation, who asked them to speak out on their behalf.
"They weren't happy with those social media posts and they said 'we're going through enough of this already,'" Ms Berto said.
Wurli-Wurlinjang CEO Suzi Berto said the misinformation has done serious damage to the community.
She said the rumours were really distressing to locals.
"If you don't have actual evidence of what's going on out on the ground, stop rumor mongering because it's damaging our people," Ms Berto said.
"And they're being respectful to the people that are being respectful to them and providing support services to them. It's a two way operation.
"It's about respect."
She said the misinformation makes the job even harder for her staff, as well as others on the ground such as police and local NGOS.
"This sort of stuff, it can be actually quite damaging for those people out there on the ground in service delivery and everything."
Jawoyn Elder and Chair of the Jawoyn Association, Lisa Mumbin OAM, said the voices of the people in the community were left out of the narrative.
"They should listen to people from that community," she said.
"Being a part of that community most of my life, and I'm communicating with families in the community, there's nothing like that ever did happen.
"There's no negative part that really happened so people should really listen before they jump to a conclusion."
Jawoyn Association Chief Executive, John Berto, said the rumours had spread at an alarming rate before anyone had checked if they were true with people on the ground.
"The last thing these people need is this bull****, especially coming from our mob who could have at least just picked up the phone and checked with us first and then they would have got the right story," he said.
"It's not fair on us, we're the ones going through the experience."
Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner didn't hold back at a press conference on Thursday, labelled the misinformation as "insane" and "unhinged" from "tinfoil hat wearing tossers sitting in their parents' basements in Florida."
"99.99 per cent of the BS that's flying around the internet about the Territory is coming from outside the Territory, mostly America, Canada and the UK," he said.
"People who have nothing better to do than make up lies about us because their own lives are so small and so sad."
Katherine Mayor Lis Clark told a Council meeting on Thursday night that she is a part of a local emergency control group which meets with community elders each day.
"Food drops [were] done at both communities today with fresh fruit and vegetables as well as food for their pets...as well as cleaning products," she said.
"They [community elders] are full of praise for the help they've been given out on these communities."
Although the damage may already be done to some extent, Ms Mumbin said what the community needs going forward is help getting through this outbreak which is far from over.
"All we need now is great support, no negative speaking," she said.
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