It doesn’t take much effort to find Facebook pages disparaging vaccination efforts, lockdowns or Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.
In one group with nearly 10,000 members demanding Mr. Trudeau’s resignation, seething people discuss his pledge for long-term vaccine passports. One user compares him to Adolf Hitler. Another posts a photo of the Liberal Leader in a rifle’s crosshairs. A third says they look forward to the return of the guillotine. Several replies encourage members to vote for People’s Party of Canada candidates.
In another group, this one with more than 3,700 members, a user links to a news story detailing how the Liberal Leader was pelted with gravel during a campaign stop in London, Ont., last week. “Should use bigger rocks,” someone replies. (Three people “like” that comment.)
Antivaccination and anti-government Facebook groups – along with messaging on platforms like Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, Reddit, Telegram and Discord – are breeding grounds for the misinformation and inflammatory rhetoric being pushed by racists and extremists, according to experts who have closely followed social media through the pandemic and the election campaign. “Their most core, fundamental tenet is anti-democratic and authoritarian,” says Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, of the people protesting Mr. Trudeau and participating in these social media groups.
“They want to see their perceived enemies put on trial and killed,” he says. “They are insurrectionists.”
In recent weeks, last-minute demonstrations organized on social media have disrupted the Liberal Leader’s campaign stops. Some of the gatherings have forced the Liberal campaign to cancel a planned event; many have resulted in Mr. Trudeau or his fellow candidates being heckled or booed; others have even led to brief moments of violence, including the gravel incident last week.
Mr. Balgord says the anti-Trudeau and anti-lockdown online communities co-ordinating these protests are the latest in a long line of conspiratorial, hateful outlets with anti-Muslim, white nationalist and xenophobic roots. Racism, in other words, is at the core of these groups, he says. Not every person at a demonstration or participating in an antivaccination community is racist, Mr. Balgord notes. But, in the end, “they’re standing side by side with them, or consuming their content.”
The rhetoric and conspiracy theories in some of these groups is “nothing new” – it has been simmering for years, Mr. Balgord says. However, the upcoming election has cranked up the temperature in those communities, he says.
Researchers studying election misinformation agree that anti-lockdown and anti-government narratives have become increasingly frenzied during the campaign. “It’s escalating,” says Aengus Bridgman, director of the Canadian Election Misinformation Project, a partnership between McGill University and the University of Toronto that is tracking thousands of communities and users on social platforms.
His team, which has seen a “relentless amount” of COVID-19 misinformation, has found that groups are importing the false narratives on COVID-19 and election fraud from the United States into Canada. According to the group’s research, the volume of misinformation hasn’t increased since the election was called – but the campaign has led to a release of pent-up anger and outrage over lockdowns, the ongoing economic fallout from the pandemic and vaccine and mask mandates.
Mr. Bridgman says the demographics for demonstrators and social media users are hard to pin down, but they are “primarily white people.” One trend, however, seems evident across many of these communities: many posts include messages of support for the People’s Party of Canada.
This support has spilled over into the real world, too. “[People’s Party of Canada] signs have been emerging increasingly frequently at these protests,” Mr. Bridgman says. Recent national polls have put the People’s Party ahead of both the Bloc Québécois and the Green Party.
At a rally in Hamilton on Thursday, People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier said he was not against vaccination. “We are not anti-vax, we are not anti-mask, we just want to respect everybody,” he said. In a tweet last week, Mr. Bernier publicly disavowed the gravel-throwing incident against Mr. Trudeau.
Despite the speed with which demonstrators are able to converge on Liberal campaign stops, these protests do not seem to be organized or directed by a central body, Mr. Bridgman says. Instead, they are organized organically, through social media.
“This is a loose organization of people,” he continues. “The notion of a ‘puppet master’ is unlikely, given that the misinformation has been so diffuse and present on social media for so long. It just doesn’t seem likely that there’s a single actor behind it.”
Naz Obredor, who runs one of the Facebook groups that has posted Mr. Trudeau’s campaign stop locations in an effort to rally protestors, told The Globe that her page only shares the Liberal Leader’s locations, and does not directly organize protests.
In one post last Friday, Ms. Obredor told the group that the Liberal Leader would soon be in Mississauga, Ont.
“No stones, okay,” one person replied. Another theorized that the gravel thrown at Mr. Trudeau earlier in the week had been an “inside job.” A third suggested he be pelted with dog excrement instead.
Ms. Obredor described herself as “pro-choice” rather than anti-vaccine, and said she is mask-exempt for medical reasons – but also said she would not take the COVID-19 vaccines, calling them “poison.”
COVID-19 vaccines have been extensively tested, were approved by Health Canada as part of a standard authorization process, and have proven extremely effective at preventing serious cases of COVID-19. The federal government monitors adverse vaccine reactions, which are exceedingly rare. Ms. Obredor said she does not believe the scientific results.
“I was a stay-at-home mom for many years,” said Ms. Obredor. “Last year, I wanted to get back into the work force, but I am mask-exempt – I will not put poison into my body, and finding a job that I’m qualified for is very difficult.”
Ms. Obredor said she has no problem with people being loud at protests, chanting or shouting obscenities, but is against derogatory and racist language or violence. “We don’t want it to be violent in terms of objects being hurled at people,” she said. “Absolutely not.”
Stephanie Carvin, international affairs professor at Carleton University, recently co-authored a study examining anti-lockdown communities, which she says have evolved into full-blown anti-establishment groups.
Prof. Carvin’s study notes that while some of the people participating online or attending demonstrations are frustrated with lockdowns, “the most vocal and prominent ‘activists’ are frequently supporters of the far-right, many of who espouse anti-government, racist, antisemitic, Islamophobic, and other hateful views.”
The rise of these groups has led to a situation unseen for generations, she said in an interview. “We haven’t had this problem since the 19th century – the idea of mobs coming to physically attack their opponents. That’s a really scary thing.”
The Jan. 6 insurrection in the United States – when a mob of Trump supporters, conspiracy theorists, anti-lockdown demonstrators and racist extremists stormed the Capitol – has “accelerated this idea that you no longer solve matters through politics,” Prof. Carvin says.
“They want to remake the system,” Prof. Carvin continues. “They don’t believe in the system at all, and being a part of it isn’t going to change that.”
Given those sentiments, she predicts Canada could see a movement to discredit the election results after they are tallied, similar to the “Stop the Steal” movement in the United States, which has falsely claimed a vast conspiracy of election fraud. “It wouldn’t surprise me at all if this is what we see happen,” she says.
With files from Marieke Walsh
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