The most chilling death threat levelled against Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland came the day after literature was disseminated among convoy protesters accusing her of participating in a global conspiracy led by the World Economic Forum (WEF).
The WEF conspiracy theory holds that a shadowy international cabal of elites is using the pandemic to seize power over populations and restructure the world. There is no factual basis for the claims, but that hasn’t stopped some Canadians from believing it and channelling their hatred against those perceived to be in the elite camp. Freeland was one such target.
“I declare war on all the CANADIAN government for lying about covid-19. Chrystia Freeland will get a bullet to the head,” said the email sent to her office Feb. 16. That threat and others were raised last month by a Canadian government lawyer testifying at the Public Order Emergency Commission.
Freeland is one of dozens of politicians across Canada who have faced threats of political violence and terrorism over the past year, and while the convoy might be gone, the threats — and conspiracies behind them — are still here.
The WEF theory and others, like the racist Great/White Replacement theory shared by convoy organizer Pat King, built steam this year following the convoy rallies and are surging on social media as the Emergency Act inquiry plays out. Research from earlier this year suggested as many as 25 per cent of Canadians believed in conspiracy theories. Some MPs feel it's only a matter of time until the rhetoric results in violence.
To find out how we got here, we have to look not just at the messages but the conditions that created them, misinformation and conspiracy theory researchers explain.
Analysis of a conspiracy theory
Conspiracy theories are often mentioned in the same breath as misinformation and disinformation, which are themselves distinct terms. Queen’s University professor Amarnath Amarasingam has studied extremism and conspiracy theories all the way back to 9/11 truthers. Definitions of what constitutes a conspiracy theory are nuanced, but there are three generally agreed-upon elements they all contain: a group of people, secrecy and power or financial benefit at the expense of a subjugated population.
“Those three are important because sometimes I think people think they’re in the presence of a conspiracy theory and they’re not,” says Amarasingam. “If I say COVID-19 was leaked from a lab, that’s not necessarily a conspiracy theory. If I say, ‘Jews leaked COVID-19 from a lab in order to keep people enslaved,’ then you’re tipping into conspiratorial thinking. There does need to be a sinister actor who benefits from people being asleep to the true reality.”
The WEF conspiracy theory fits this model: it focuses on a group of global progressive elites, whose identities aren’t clear, who are using COVID public health policies to grab and exert power. The white supremacist Great Replacement theory espoused by King also qualifies, since it involves the Liberal or Democrat establishment operating covertly to undermine and replace white populations in North America.
While the popular (and partly true) assumption is that feelings of alienation lead to engagement with conspiracy theories, Amarasingam says it's often the other way around. “It’s usually once you adopt these conspiracy styles of thinking that you’re more prone to adopt more and more conspiratorial ideas,” he says.
Ahmed Al-Rawi, professor at Simon Fraser University and director of the Disinformation Project, notes conspiracy theories often occupy “grey areas,” which makes parsing them difficult. “Some of these conspiracies are embellished with a few facts here and there” alongside fabrication and lies, he says. “Those truths are what makes these conspiracies popular.”
Radical right conspiracy theories have taken hold in Canada and are leading to terrifying threats against politicians. #ConspiracyTheories #RadicalRight #cdnpoli
From the shadows to the spotlight
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, conspiracy theories were relegated to fringe groups in small numbers. Over the course of the past two years, the fringe has expanded to occupy the centre of politics and discourse.
Al-Rawi says the combination of more time in isolation from others coupled with distrust for government lockdowns created the perfect conditions for conspiracy theories to multiply rapidly. “[People had] never seen this before in their lives, what they perceived to be an oppressive measure,” says Al-Rawi. As a result, people believed their rights had been violated. Al-Rawi says the conclusion many reached was that “the government is taking too many strict measures against us, and we are concerned about our freedom.”
These preconditions caused COVID-related theories to gain a lot of traction, and fast. “We have data to support the fact that any groups that spoke the language of COVID conspiracy theories saw their numbers go through the roof online,” says Amarasingam. “These ideas used to be disparate and held by different groups, whether it's Proud Boys or QAnon. Because they all converged on this COVID conspiratorial thinking of anti-government, anti-science, ‘this is all a hoax designed to engage in some sort of power grab,’ a lot of far-right groups saw their numbers climb.”
Amarasingam says the theories continued to grow exponentially when they were platformed by American social media influencers like Joe Rogan and Alex Jones. In Canada, politicians like Randy Hillier and Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, along with right-wing media like Rebel News, helped escalate the theories, often while targeting Liberals, the NDP and progressives. Amarasingam notes the social media accounts of King, one of the convoy organizers, counted only a few thousand followers before the convoy; by the time he was suspended from Facebook, his page had reached 176,000 subscribers.
From vitriol to violence
Not all conspiracy theories lead to or carry a heightened possibility of violence, but those propagating in Canadian politics are certainly of concern, especially given there have already been threats levelled against politicians. Amarasingam says conspiracy theories encourage a “good versus evil” mindset that elevates minor policy differences to existential threats.
“Once you get to that transcendental, almost cosmic discourse about ‘the other,’ then conversation and discourse break down and it becomes, ‘It’s my obligation to protect my country against you,’” he says, pointing to attacks like the one on U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul Pelosi.
While Canada hasn’t yet experienced violence like that, Amarasingam says the tenor of some elements of the convoy protests, like those who appeared to call for Trudeau’s hanging and accused the Liberals of anti-Canadian agendas, pushes us towards it. This is what terrorism scholars call stochastic terrorism: when more and more people hear a particular message, it’s statistically more likely that one of them will do something about it.
“A lot of people might be listening to that discourse, and it only takes one or two to decide that it’s their responsibility to act on it and save Canada from people who are derailing the country,” he says. “I do think it’s around the corner if we don’t turn down the temperature of our politics.”
Turning down the temperature
The bad news is arguments based on logic and rational, critical thinking are very unlikely to snap people out of conspiracy theories. Amarasingam describes it as “punching a waterfall: nothing happens.” However, there is hope. Amarasingam says his research shows people eventually find their way back to reality with the help of family or other support systems. Amarasingam has spoken with former neo-Nazis and QAnon believers who slowly found their way out of those communities after failed predictions and growing disillusionment. “It does happen,” he says, “but it happens slowly.”
Amarasingam says policy fixes like regulating social media companies and taking down content are “Band-Aid solutions,” and that preventive measures are more impactful. In addition to better digital media literacy education and fostering personality traits found to make individuals less vulnerable to conspiratorial thinking, like higher self-esteem and humility, Amarasingam says it's important to focus on the environment around conspiracy theories, rather than the theories themselves.
He uses an analogy of a man with a sign saying, ‘The end is near.’ If we pass him once with only two listeners, then again weeks later with 30 listeners, it doesn't make sense to ask what the message is because it hasn’t changed.
“Something changed in us to make this message more appealing and resonate more,” says Amarasingam. “We have to ask what’s happening in the culture, in us, that some of these ideas seem more likely now.”
Al-Rawi says politicians have a responsibility to de-escalate in situations where extremism seems possible rather than simply brushing off detractors. He says that when Trudeau attempted to dismiss the convoy as a “fringe minority,” it emboldened participants and provided a greater sense of injustice. “Cancelling them is not the right approach,” he says.