Daniel Panneton is a writer, educator and online hate researcher based in Toronto.
In their 2021 book You Are Here: A Field Guide for Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and Our Polluted Media Landscape, scholars Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner use hurricanes as a metaphor to explain an important dynamic of the QAnon meta-conspiracy theory.
Similar to how a hurricane can grow by consuming smaller storms, QAnon absorbed and rerouted existing conspiratorial narratives around Pizzagate and the murder of Democratic National Committee employee Seth Rich. Although each narrative was destructive in its own right, their absorption into a larger “storm” produced more devastating results than they would have alone. The power of a hurricane depends in part on the shape of the landscape that it hits, and in QAnon’s case, the COVID-19 pandemic helped shape an environment particularly vulnerable to radicalization and social fragmentation.
The United States is not the only country where the pandemic has frayed the shared sense of community and reality; Canadians are similarly vulnerable to radicalization. As with QAnon, the recent Freedom Convoy to Ottawa demonstrates how existing economic and political concerns are converging around and being sucked into larger conspiratorial narratives. Nominally protesting against vaccine mandates, the Freedom Convoy represented a medley of real, imagined and exaggerated issues bound together by a common sense of alienation and grievance. It created a context in which mainstream and fringe concerns could meld, merge and reinforce each other, and where extreme symbols and rhetoric could be normalized by association and adjacency with legitimate issues.
Marked by threats against journalists and lawmakers, the Freedom Convoy included a motley array of Western separatists, anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, antisemites, Islamophobes and other extremists. This wasn’t a surprise to anyone who’d been paying attention: Several of the convoy organizers have a history of white nationalist and racist activism, a fact that extremism experts such as the Canadian Anti-Hate Network emphasized repeatedly prior to the convoy’s arrival in Ottawa.
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The Freedom Convoy was organized largely online, and within relevant Facebook groups there is meme after meme articulating the idea that Canada is suffering under a tyrannical government. The memes are evocative of a similar “Canada is collapsing” narrative that has existed for several years on the infamous 4chan, a fringe website whose cultural and political impact outweighs its relative size, and which often functions as a workshop and crucible for extremist propagandizing.
Since early 2018 there have been regular threads posted on the site’s “Politically Incorrect” board promoting the accelerationist narrative aimed at undermining trust in existing institutions in service of societal collapse. Threads follow a similar sequence: The original poster shares images of astronomical food prices from fly-in communities or high-end grocery stores, often with comparisons to prices in other countries. Many of these images are made into memes with text such as, “Canada under Trudeau.” In response, other users post photographs of in-store prices from their own local stores to disprove the disinformation, often – in typical online absurdist fashion – alongside memes. Accusations and speculation about who is posting the fake information fly freely until people lose interest and move on to other threads. Rinse and repeat every few weeks. Repetition is key to normalization, and while a single grocery meme won’t radicalize, it can contribute to a growing perception that drastic, even violent measures may be called for.
The threads have developed two functions: Spread the narrative that a collapse is imminent and promote conspiratorial speculation over who is to blame for it. Despite how often these misleading posts are disproven, such disinformation threads have been a consistent presence on 4chan for several years. They are common enough that users developed antisemitic conspiracy theories about their origins, claiming that propagandists were spreading lies to distract from imagined Jewish political machinations in Canada. The antisemitic conspiracies were then met with further antisemitism: Users posting accurate prices were accused of being part of the (made-up) Canadian Grocery Defense Force, a reference to the (very real) Jewish Internet Defense Force, implying yet again Jewish control.
There is an inherent risk in writing about hateful disinformation in a mainstream publication as it can amplify corrosive accelerationist narratives. However, when we look at existing discourse around food prices and inflation in Canada, we find that elements of the “Canada is collapsing” theory were already being normalized in the leadup to the Freedom Convoy.
In December, we saw a mainstream iteration of the meme on Reddit, which received a write up in the Toronto Star: A person posted a sparse grocery haul with the caption, “This was $95.″ As with the debunking on 4chan threads, users quickly pointed out that the total had been inflated by relatively expensive items and an undisclosed delivery fee.
Elected officials have also posted similar content. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney recently tweeted photographs of empty shelves and described the situation as a crisis – a move that a distribution expert said weaponized the unrepresentative images.
Although none of these examples have the same explicitly accelerationist intent as the material on 4chan, they reinforce a radicalizing narrative that is already prevalent in darker corners of the web and being normalized with troubling speed. The fact that these grievances appeared alongside other more extreme symbols at the convoy is cause for concern. The “Canada is collapsing” narrative has bled into the mainstream, and events such as the Freedom Convoy provide environments in which it can flourish among other conspiratorial and accelerationist theories.
Rising food costs and supply chain issues were among the legitimate issues highlighted during the protests, but panic-shopping in the early days of the pandemic demonstrated how the prospect of empty shelves can easily induce irrational behaviour. Already, right-wing extremist activity has surged and increasing numbers of Canadians are thinking conspiratorially. Trust in institutions is failing, and it’s vital that journalists and particularly lawmakers recognize how extremists can opportunistically redefine and hijack existing issues, and hold their peers accountable when they amplify or normalize accelerationist narratives. Failure to do so, or worse, attempting to harness and manipulate them for political gain, will only pull Canada deeper into our present quagmire.
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