Politically, the so-called freedom convoy has served as a projection of all manner of discontent. But the deeper and more troubling fact is it has revealed a fundamental fissure in how we perceive social reality in Canada.
I began to understand the seriousness of this disconnect as I struggled to engage with constituents about what was happening with the occupation of Ottawa. When I posted an article about how journalists were taking extra precautions because of the threats of violence, several people responded with ridicule.
A grandmother summed it up, "If the media didn't lie, they wouldn't need to worry [about violence]." When I explained that I’ve witnessed harassment of local businesses in the occupied zone, some people accused me of lying or said I deserved to be put on trial.
How do you discuss politics when you're not arguing facts, but reality itself?
The convoy has been sustained within an info ecosystem where people from across demographics, genders and life experiences have simply opted out of national media or other anchors of commonality.
They have their own Facebook feeds, Reddit channels, and Slack chat information buttressing an utterly alternate reality of science, medicine and politics.
The convoy has made it clear that not only have we lost the war on disinformation, but we also didn't even know where to look.
In 2018-19, I participated in parliamentary hearings in Ottawa and the U.K. on the threat of digital disinformation. At that time, the fear was the ability of well-placed digital mercenaries to manipulate Facebook's algorithms to flip votes and possibly upend elections.
It was thought that such manipulations would be in the form of subtle monkey-wrenching in close constituency races where the profiling of Facebook users could be used to nudge votes in a certain way without people realizing they had been influenced.
What we failed to consider was the social implications of society being broken down into an endless series of individually curated, but distorted, funhouse mirrors in the Facebook algorithm.
Tristan Harris of the Center for Humane Technology tried to warn us at our committee hearings in 2018. "Technology is overwriting the limits of the human animal. We have a limited ability to hold a certain amount of information in our head at the same time.
"We have a limited ability to discern the truth. We rely on shortcuts, like what other people are saying is true, or the fact that a person who I trust said that thing is true."
Harris warned us about the danger of playing "whack-a-mole" in trying to separate facts from deep fakes in a digital sea where trillions of pieces of information are floating without an anchor.
Whack-a-mole was the response we took to medical misinformation in the early days of the pandemic. In 2020, I worked with U.K. MP Damian Collins and other parliamentarians on an international project called Infotagion.
Our focus was to identify COVID disinformation and challenge it with scientific facts.
At first, it seemed to go well until it became apparent we weren't fighting a few bad actors and false Facebook memes, but rather the combined power of ordinary people who had become their own research and online publishing forums of alternate medical and political facts. Where we counted on scientific journals, they relied on distorted content provided by the Facebook and YouTube algorithms.
This hyper state of disinformation has real-time social and political implications. In his attempt to explain the irrational rage that consumed the United States in the lead-up to Jan. 6th, Evan Osnos wrote that society is increasingly unmoored from local, regional and community links that traditionally provided a sense of shared experience. He describes it as a fundamental rewiring of the "geography of the mind."
The convoy is Canada’s Jan. 6th moment. I’d like to think that when the protest settles down, and the pandemic recedes, we will find our way back to a shared sense of community and nationhood.
But we need to face the fact that Canada, with its long history of social solidarity, was simply unprepared for the mass power of online disinformation and social frustration.
"How do you discuss politics when you're not arguing facts, but reality itself?" asks @CharlieAngusNDP in this oped. #cdnpoli #OttawaConvoy
That discontent has been manifested in truckers with guns at the Alberta border, people protesting outside hospitals and grandmothers who fantasize about journalists taking a beating. The geography of the public mind has shifted.
This shift will have profound political implications in the weeks — and years — to come.
Charlie Angus is a Canadian author, journalist, broadcaster, musician and politician and a contributing writer to the Centre for International Governance Innovation at CIGIonline.org.