Fact Check

Did ‘sonic weapons’ make demonstrators sick during Canberra’s protests?

CoronaCheck is RMIT ABC Fact Check’s weekly email newsletter dedicated to fighting the misinformation infodemic surrounding the coronavirus outbreak.

You can read the latest edition below, and subscribe to have the next newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.

CoronaCheck #100

This week, we celebrate our 100th edition of CoronaCheck, and investigate claims of police assailing Canberra’s so-called freedom protesters with sonic weapons.

We also look at whether COVID-19 jabs can give you HIV/AIDS, and recap the controversy embroiling high-profile podcaster Joe Rogan.

It’s unlikely Canberra protesters were injured by ‘sonic weapons’, but such a risk is real

LRADs can cause hearing damage, but only when emitting a high pitched, audible tone.(LRAD Corporation)

As thousands of anti-vax protesters descended on Canberra last weekend, police were out in force in the nation’s capital, with Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw noting that the lack of coordination among demonstrators provided a “challenge” for law enforcement.

The police, however, had an advantage: long-range acoustic devices (LRADs), which are used to transmit messages or alarms at high volumes and frequencies.

Photos and videos shared by protesters show the devices atop a police vehicle and in front of Parliament House. A spokesman for ACT Policing confirmed to Fact Check via email that LRADs were deployed during the protests.

But while the devices are known to cause harm (they are often referred to as non-lethal weapons), claims made by Canberra protesters that the use of the devices caused them to feel ill are likely incorrect.

In one video posted to YouTube, a high-profile anti-vaccine activist claims that police deployed “sonic low frequency weapons against peaceful protesters”, and that demonstrators were “copping the effects” of such devices.

“They’re deploying supersonic weapons,” the activist was filmed declaring to a crowd gathered outside Parliament House.

“That’s why you’re feeling a bit nauseous and sick. It’s a disgusting thing that the government is doing.”

The video implies that the ill effects caused by the LRADs were being felt by the crowd despite the devices being inaudible.

But James Parker, an associate professor at Melbourne University who is the director of a research program titled “Law, Sound and the International”, told Fact Check that’s not how LRADs work.

Dr Parker explained that the devices could be used in two ways: to issue voice commands or to emit “an incredibly high pitched and painful” alert tone capable of causing ear damage.

Asked whether the devices could be used to “attack” the protesters without being audible, Dr Parker replied: “I don’t think there’s any evidence whatsoever of the LRAD being used for secret, stealth, sub-audible attacks.”

He added that the most effective way to cause harm using sound was through high-pitched frequencies broadcast extremely loudly.

Protestors wave flags behind a concrete barricade.
Protesters descended on Canberra to demonstrate against vaccine mandates and COVID-19 restrictions.(ABC News: Tahlia Roy)

Past reports of harm being caused by LRADs, such as the permanent hearing loss and nerve damage suffered by Professor Karen Piper during G-20 protests in Pittsburgh in 2009, were apparently the result of the activation of the devices’ alert functions.

The spokesman for ACT Policing told Fact Check the alert function was not used during the recent Canberra protests.

“The LRADs were only used to convey spoken-word messages,” he added.

Regardless of whether or not the devices emitted harmful sounds during the weekend protests, Dr Parker explained that their presence could be construed as an intimidation tactic, a practice which was not confined to Canberra policing.

He pointed to the deployment and use of LRADs at Black Lives Matter protests in Sydney in 2020, as well as similar demonstrations overseas.

“This is not a new thing being levelled against anti-vax protesters,” he said. “It’s been happening for a really, really long time at anti-racist protests.”

No, COVID-19 vaccines do not cause HIV/AIDS

Luc Montagnier
There’s no evidence Dr Montagnier said to “take and AIDS test” then “sue your government”.(AP: Jacques Brinon)

The death of controversial French virologist Luc Montagnier this week sparked fresh interest in unproven links between COVID-19 vaccines and HIV/AIDS, with Google recording a spike in related search terms in the days after his passing.

Dr Montagnier earned a Nobel Prize for his role in discovering the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) but later became known for making discredited claims about COVID-19 jabs.

However, recent social media posts claiming that he said booster shots lead to positive HIV results have been rated false by fact checkers at Reuters.

“There is no possibility that COVID-19 vaccines in use can cause HIV, AIDS (… the name given to illness resulting from HIV) or false positive HIV tests,” Reuters concluded, adding that it found no evidence of Dr Montagnier advising people to “take an AIDS test” then “sue your government”.

Meanwhile, some Twitter users have questioned the arrival of HIV self-testing kits in Australia, suggesting this was somehow linked to COVID-19 vaccines.

According to a Telegram channel dedicated to United Australia Party MP Craig Kelly, that’s because “[t]he Covid vaccine is literally AIDS.”

However, professor of immunology at the University of Melbourne Stephen Kent told Fact Check via email that the vaccines approved for use in Australia “do not contain HIV/AIDS”, and rejected the notion of there being any link between the two.

Indeed, as fact checkers with US-based PolitiFact wrote in December, any suggestion that vaccines increased the risk of AIDS was not borne out by data from clinical trials.

“Real world data from the billions of COVID-19 vaccinations around the world also haven’t shown that the vaccinated are more likely to get AIDS than the unvaccinated,” they added.

Misinformation researchers at FirstDraft, who tipped off Fact Check about the recent spike in Google searches, have previously debunked the claim that University of Queensland/CSL vaccine trial participants were being injected with HIV.

Those trials were abandoned after the vaccine was found to produce false-positive HIV results, a consequence of its reliance on a harmless HIV protein that cannot lead to infection.

So, why are self-test kits now more readily available in Australia? Because, in October 2021, the medicines regulator eased supply restrictions on the sole test so far approved for use in order “to improve the accessibility of HIV testing”.

In a statement, it said the changes were made after new studies demonstrated “the preferences, acceptability and significantly improved usability of this HIV self-test”.

CoronaCheck chalks up a century

A red 100 icon next to a red fire shaped icon on a white background
One hundred issues of debunking disinformation.(Twitter:@emojipedia)

This week marks the 100th edition of CoronaCheck and more than two years of battling the onslaught of misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories relating to COVID-19.

Drawing on the latest evidence and expert advice, as well as the invaluable work of the global fact-checking community, this newsletter has debunked hundreds of viral claims ranging from the odd to the outright dangerous.

Not least among these has been misinformation about vaccine side-effects and the contents and effectiveness of the jabs, and about unproven COVID-19 treatments such as ivermectinhydroxychloroquine and “detox baths”.

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