A Novak Djokovic fan dances outside Melbourne’s Park Hotel (Image: AP/Hamish Blair)

Anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists and fringe political players have seized on the international spectacle of Novak Djokovic’s visa debacle, using the opportunity to promote their beliefs (and themselves) to the world.

Djokovic has been a favourite of those in anti-vaccine, COVID-19 denialist circles for his refusal to vaccinate and his embrace of other types of pseudoscience, including his belief that “molecules in the water react to our emotions”. 

When Djokovic was refused entry to Australia and detained by border agents, it quickly drew the world’s attention beyond just sporting circles. Yesterday a judge decided to squash the federal government’s cancellation of Djokovic’s visa yesterday on appeal and ordered the star’s release. Despite having his freedom, the story continues as Immigration Minister weighs up whether to cancel his visa — the nuclear option. 

While this was happening, anti-vaccine online communities and influencers rallied around the world’s top men’s tennis player. “Is Novak Djokovic the ‘beacon of hope’ Australia has been waiting for?” read a post from Australia’s biggest anti-vaxxer group, Reignite Australia. 

Another widely shared message in online Australian conspiracy groups on the Telegram platform pointed towards an interview where Djokovic shared some of his pseudoscientific beliefs about why his visa was cancelled: “If you don’t understand why Novak is very dangerous for the deep state and globalists, listen carefully.” In particular, Djokovic’s father Srdjan Djokovic’s histrionic statements — calling Prime Minister a dictator, and comparing his son to Jesus — were popular in the groups. 

When the judge overturned the decision, anti-vaxxers misrepresented that as a win for their cause rather than a rebuke of the government’s handling of the case. Other groups urged members to bombard Hawke’s office with calls to tell them not to cancel Djokovic’s visa again. 

Other opportunistic individuals have been able to latch on to the cause as well. Anti-lockdown activists and content creators like Real Rukshan and Avi Yemini livestreamed and made videos of the protests outside the centre where Djokovic was being held. When police pepper-sprayed protesters outside the facility on the star’s way out, clips went viral as further proof of Australia’s police state. 

Current MPs and both posted online in support of the judge’s decision and of Djokovic. Even Nigel Farage — who once tweeted that the UK should copy Australia’s harsh border regime — celebrated Djokovic’s legal win and even posted a video online of a visit to Djokovic’s brother, Djordje (to which fellow tennis star Andy Murray tweeted: “Please record the awkward moment when you tell them you’ve spent most of your career campaigning to have people from Eastern Europe deported”).

Moments like the Djokovic saga give anti-vaxxers and others a foot in the door. Vaccines are extremely popular; about 95% of Australians aged 16 and over having had at least one dose. But when it comes to news events like Djokovic’s visa case — particularly one that garners so much public attention — it is an opening for individuals and groups to use the case as a Trojan horse for their beliefs. They’re able to grow their audience and establish a relationship with them while focusing on something like Djokovic, with the intention of pivoting back to their general message later. 

But there’s not 100% support for Djokovic from conspiracy types. Despite his outspoken anti-vaccine stance, members of online communities have cast doubt on his bona fides because of his attendance at events like the World Economic Forum — a sign of his “globalist” alliances, they allege. 

“Just another actor for the elite to entertain the ‘bread and circuses’ folk,” one wrote.