This is the third of a series of stories Emma McIntosh is writing as part of National Observer's special coverage of the U.S. election. Read the first, second, fourth, fifth and sixth stories here.
In July, a heavily armed military reservist from Manitoba who had posted memes on Instagram about the QAnon conspiracy rammed his truck through the gates of Rideau Hall. Minutes away from Parliament Hill, Rideau Hall is the official residence of Canada’s Governor General, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s temporary residence is on its grounds.
In September, adherents to the far-reaching and baseless QAnon conspiracy — which falsely alleges the world is controlled by a Satanic cabal of pedophiles who are plotting against U.S. President Donald Trump — joined anti-mask and anti-vaccine protests in Montreal and Vancouver.
On Oct. 4, a political candidate in Saskatchewan resigned after clicking “like” on social media posts supporting QAnon. And a group of people that includes QAnon believers remains camped out on Parliament Hill after making headlines last month for attempting to place NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh under a “citizen’s arrest.”
The unfortunate cultural import from the United States has been kicking around Canada for years, though violent incidents with links to the conspiracy theory are still relatively rare. But QAnon has gained new prevalence here amid COVID-19 and the American presidential election, which presents a peculiar set of problems, experts say.
“There’s something unique about QAnon,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, an associate professor at Queen’s University and associate fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization, who co-authored a recent report on QAnon for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
“It has a better ability to mobilize people than other conspiracy theories.”
What people are reading
QAnon started in October 2017, named after an anonymous poster going by “Q” on the far-right message board site 4chan who claimed to be a high-level government official with details on a secret war. Spiralling off an earlier conspiracy theory called Pizzagate, Q’s messages started as elaborate and far-fetched defences of Trump. But broader themes in QAnon — the idea that an embattled minority of people who know “the truth” are fighting back against elites and corrupt politicians — have caught on worldwide, spreading to mainstream social media platforms.
Canada, along with the United Kingdom and Australia, is one of the top countries producing QAnon content besides the U.S., according to a July report from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a global think tank that studies extremism.
“The conspiracy theory is spreading and taking hold internationally,” the report said.
So far at least, the conspiracy appears to be far less prevalent north of the U.S. border. And although the FBI has designated QAnon a domestic terror threat in the U.S., Canadian authorities have so far made no such distinction here.
“It’s an issue that merits watching, but it’s not the thing that’s going to bring down civilization as we know it,” said Phil Gurski, a former senior strategic analyst at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the president and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting, whose specialty is typically Islamist extremism.
However, Amarasingam is more concerned, arguing that the conspiracy has the potential to eventually become more of a threat. An election loss for Trump, for example, could be seen as an urgent call to action for QAnon supporters, he added.
“You might actually see some people engage in more violence,” he said.
Last week, Trudeau said the Canadian government is readying itself for possible “disruptions” following the Nov. 3 vote.
When asked by Canada’s National Observer whether the scenarios it’s considering involve violence carried out by QAnon supporters, the Prime Minister’s Office directed questions to the office of Public Safety Minister Bill Blair.
“Our greatest responsibility is keeping Canadians safe. To fulfil that responsibility, our government and agencies must keep pace with evolving threats and global trends, such as the growing concerns of ideologically motivated violent extremism or the dissemination of hate speech,” said Mary-Liz Power, a press secretary for Blair, in a statement.
“Canadians can be confident that our security agencies have the skills and resources necessary to detect, investigate and respond to both criminal and national security threats.”
The Conservative Party of Canada declined to comment on whether the government should be doing more about QAnon.
In a statement, NDP public safety critic Jack Harris said the government should be “vigilant” in assessing risk levels and in asking social media companies to act.
“The government should be very clear with social media platforms that they have a responsibility to ensure that their platforms aren’t being used as a tool to spread dangerous and baseless conspiracy theories,” Harris said.
QAnon activity has increased amid COVID-19, U.S. election
For many of its followers, QAnon has proved to be addictive. In thousands of posts, or “Q Drops,” since the original in 2017, the anonymous person or people behind QAnon have left vague messages for the reader to interpret.
In general, the idea — however unsubstantiated and untethered to reality — is that Trump is fighting a secret war against a Satanic cabal of pedophiles, members of the global elite, who run a global child-trafficking network. The conspiracy also alleges that an ever-growing number of celebrities and politicians are involved, including former presidential candidate and first lady Hillary Clinton, and even high-profile Canadians like Trudeau.
It’s the type of conspiracy that thrives in the disinformation-rich environment created by Trump, Gurski said. Though it sounds as silly as conspiracies from decades past — think Area 51 or the moon landing — some people have stopped laughing, he added.
“They have suspended their powers of analysis, they have suspended their powers of critical thought, and they are taking it as true,” he said. “They are taking it as a call to action.”
The fact that followers must interpret Q’s hazy messages to attempt to understand them creates an almost religious element, said Amarasingam. People who “translate” the posts can gather large followings on social media, with information eventually circulating from darker corners of the internet to mainstream platforms where it reaches a wider audience.
“In a way, QAnon supporters have become like prophets … interpreting a sacred text,” he said.
The so-called Q drops are also cryptic enough that international audiences can find whatever meaning they want. For example, Vice documented attempts to fit the murders of Toronto billionaires Barry and Honey Sherman into the conspiracy in 2018.
The real power of QAnon, however, comes from the moral outrage inherent to its core ideas.
“If you truly believe that the world functions a certain way, that there are actually children being enslaved, the response would be the same for all of us,” Amarasingam said. “They come to accept a reality that would mobilize any of us. It’s just that we’re not seeing the same reality.”
This has spawned several serious incidents in the real world. In 2018, for example, a 30-year-old man from Nevada blocked off a bridge during a 90-minute standoff with police, four guns and 900 rounds of ammunition in his car. He was arrested without incident, and in letters to senior government officials after the fact, he used a QAnon slogan. In 2019, a 24-year-old from New York said in court that QAnon drove him to kill a mob boss.
In Canada, there has been one similar incident: that of the Manitoba reservist who crashed his truck through the gates of Rideau Hall. It’s not clear how much QAnon may have influenced the incident, but the fact that the man had shared two QAnon-related posts on social media did indicate he had dipped his toes in the waters of the conspiracy theory.
In the U.S., the conspiracy has also driven dozens of congressional candidates to run for office this fall.
“It’s become this political-social movement,” Amarasingam said. “Because they have Trump on the inside, they feel like they can join him in the struggle and burn it all down from the inside.”
We haven’t seen anything on that level in Canada — the Saskatchewan candidate, for example, has denied being associated with QAnon and said “liking” posts isn’t equivalent to being a follower.
But QAnon still appears to be growing in North America and beyond. The ISD Global report found “major spikes” in online QAnon activity in March.
Part of that is likely to be caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which upended much of our normal lives, Amarasingam said. Not only were a ton of people at home and spending more time in front of a computer than usual, but many had also been thrown into uncertain economic circumstances. Lack of social trust and an uprooting of norms have both historically been risk factors that make people more susceptible to conspiracy or extremist movements, he added.
“A lot of people’s response to (COVID-19) was … a sense of chaos,” he said. “A lot of what we thought we knew, we didn’t believe in anymore.”
In times of trouble, many people tend to look for someone to blame, former CSIS analyst Gurski said. A polarized election in the U.S. and rising levels of hate make it a “perfect storm,” he added.
“We’re already in an environment where a lot of people are afraid, they’re upset, they’re angry, at either real or perceived lack of action by their government when it comes to COVID, when it comes to the economy, and the U.S. election.”
The ISD Global report also pointed to the Nov. 3 U.S. election as an important factor. Researchers have said they believe Russian-backed organizations are attempting to amplify QAnon content online in the run-up to the vote, seeing it as an opportunity to sow division in the U.S.
The FBI has identified QAnon as a domestic terror threat. “The FBI assesses these conspiracy theories very likely will emerge, spread, and evolve in the modern information marketplace, occasionally driving both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts,” the agency said in a memo first reported by Yahoo News. Those incidents may increase as the election draws nearer, the document noted.
The view from Canada is different.
“The RCMP is aware of this movement, however, the RCMP does not investigate movements or organizations for their ideological dispositions,” RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Caroline Duval said in an emailed statement to Canada’s National Observer.
“We investigate criminal activities by those who threaten the safety and security of Canadians.”
Gurski said he wouldn’t disagree with the RCMP’s view and that he believes QAnon hasn’t yet reached a level of critical momentum in Canada the way it has in the U.S. The Rideau Hall incident is just one example, and the public doesn’t have a lot of information about what led to it, he added.
Though QAnon exists here, it hasn’t reached the same proportions as it has south of the border. Canada also lacks open-carry gun laws that exist in many U.S. states, which make for a more dangerous set of circumstances, he added.
“I would argue … (QAnon) wouldn’t be high on the list (of priorities) right now,” Gurski said of QAnon. “Could it change? Absolutely.”
How do you stop an online conspiracy movement?
It’s very difficult to reason with QAnon adherents directly, Amarasingam said. “The same systems of expertise or knowledge that we turn to, to explain fact and fiction, they dismiss it in its entirety.”
It’s also difficult to identify them or count how many people are involved — in Canada and in the U.S., the movement has coalesced both online and in real life with other right-wing causes, meaning a lot of people dabble in it without fully going along, said Barbara Perry, director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University. It’s now linked to broader white supremacist, anti-Semitic, anti-authority and anti-vaccine movements, and it’s easy for people to passively participate in a low-risk way by “liking” and “sharing” content.
“It’s a little bit of cherry-picking going on in terms of people jumping in and out of conspiracy platforms ... taking on the pieces that seem to help them make sense of their lives,” Perry said.
For example, QAnon supporters joined with another far-right group called the Yellow Vests in 2019 protests in Ottawa, Perry said. And QAnon believers are part of a fringe group that has camped out on Parliament Hill since Canada Day, which attempted last month to execute a “citizen’s arrest” on several people and accosted federal NDP Leader Singh. On Facebook, Perry said, QAnon content has often been buried among other right-wing causes.
“As it goes internationally, you may see more of that,” Amarasingam said of QAnon blending with other far-right ideologies. It needs to adapt and align with other movements to keep gaining momentum, he added.
It’s also important to remember that most people who believe in QAnon will never become violent, Gurski said.
No one has really figured out how to stop fringe conspiracy theories, especially once they hit the mainstream. But past studies of extremist movements give us an idea of where to start.
Priority one: Booting QAnon off major social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
“It has become just as problematic as when ISIS was thriving on Twitter and Facebook in 2013 and 2014,” Amarasingam said.
Platforms have now started to do just that. Twitter took steps to limit QAnon content in July, and Facebook initiated a crackdown this month that saw top QAnon influencers deleted there and on Instagram. One top QAnon influencer in Quebec who disseminated COVID-19 conspiracy theories to tens of thousands of followers was kicked off Facebook in that sweep.
Extremely dedicated QAnon believers will likely attempt to regroup, both on the same platforms and others that may inhabit darker corners of the internet, Amarasingam said.
“They just kind of chase their tail for a while. That’s generally a good thing,” he said, adding that it’s better they spend time making new accounts than spreading their messages.
Removing them from the biggest platforms can also limit the number of people who see conspiracy content — your unsuspecting grandma, for example, is unlikely to seek out Q drops on 4chan, but might unwittingly encounter QAnon posts shared by Facebook friends who didn’t realize what they were disseminating.
Though conspiracy theories always have hardcore believers, the people they want to win over are the “mushy middle” who aren’t firm adherents but might uncritically accept portions of it, Perry said.
In some ways, the “genie is out of the bottle” already, Perry said. People can easily switch up their language and find ways to get around restrictions on platforms, and conspiracy movements can use the crackdowns to lend credibility to complaints that their movement is being silenced.
Amarasingam said so far, crackdown efforts appear to be making a difference, cutting out some of the most prominent QAnon voices and groups. But whether the changes will work in the long term is unclear — social media platforms must stay vigilant to prevent conspiracy theorists from regrouping, he added.
“It’s really a question of sustained pressure,” he said.
An added challenge, he said, is that QAnon believers tend to be middle-aged or older. In the past, anti-extremism programming has been aimed at men in their 20s who are vulnerable to some types of radicalization — strategies used there likely won’t work on older people, he added.
“We haven’t actually thought about what that looks like, to try to help old people,” he said.
Of course, the outcome of the presidential election is also likely to have an impact on what happens next. A Trump victory could legitimize the movement, Amarasingam said. But a Trump loss — which polling indicates is more likely — could also galvanize it, depending on whether the president commits to a peaceful transfer of power.
Gurski said it’s likely that CSIS and the RCMP are watching the issue.
“If there’s any indication that it might be veering towards violence, it would be taken seriously — if, and this is a big if, the resources are available,” he said. “Those resources have to be taken from somewhere.”
In an interview with Canada’s National Observer editor-in-chief Linda Solomon Wood last week, former CSIS director Richard Fadden called for a royal commission on the problem of disinformation. And although Canadians are quick to dismiss extremism at home as the work of a “couple nutbars,” he added, the country could benefit from open conversations about such problems.
“I don't mean to exaggerate, but democracy is not going to work unless people are able to compromise, dialogue and talk. It seems to me, there's rather less of that,” Fadden said.
Governments could also think bigger, Perry said. Older people are influenced by their peers, much like any other age group , so could labour movements and employers, for example, be mobilized to help?
Perry also said governments could look at legislation aimed at stopping disinformation, and even take steps to redefine terrorism.
“We really have to get to the adults,” she said. “They’re more set in their ways ... We’ve got to find ways to disrupt that.”
I'm always so curious ... why
I'm always so curious ... why are so many people so willing to believe conspiracy theories, but refuse to acknowledge the granddaddy of them all: the conspiracy to deny the climate emergency? You'd think a conspiracy that has us on a path to extinction would be of interest to those who are concerned about conspiracies. Imagine how quickly we could "solve" the climate crisis if all those people who lack critical thinking skills decided to accept the science -- empirically verified by observation of what's actually happening in the world already -- and all those people with highly active imaginations used them for good, coming up with innovative zero-carbon strategies. Sigh....
Sigh. So true. Sadly it’s
Sigh. So true. Sadly it’s because there is so much money and power behind climate crisis denial that they just can’t see it. I also think it is a result of serious and critical ongoing chronic underfunding of public education and public funding of private education in many CONServative provinces in Canada.
One might also ask why one
One might also ask why one believes Jason Kenney. Or after the multiple lies from on high, other important political personages.
Or if a coterie of individuals and corporate employees that propose legislation to governments, fund election and disinformation campaigns (like the pro-TarSands TV ads, FI) might be loosely co-operating and preaching to the same lot of relatively uneducated individuals who've been pushed to the margins of "The American Dream" and whatever its Canadian counterpart is?
Never forget that there are those who benefit from recessions, austerity measures, etc., or from government subsidies and changes to tax, social services and pension strucures.
A big part of the problem is that "observation of what's happening in the world" is a tall order for someone who's been living in their car for 6 months, struggling to find work and somewhere to charge their phone, locked out of (pathetically inadequate) social services because a random parking lot isn't an "address."
Another part of the problem is that a huge chunk of people living in the bottom two socio-economic (income) quintiles have to use all their resources of time and energy running between 4-hour, thrice-weekly shifts miles and miles apart, and trips to the food bank, and figure out where to go next when the shortfalls in rent add up to a critical number. When they go online, they don't search out the "new and fresh disasters" from the climate war zone: they check out kitten antics, and the latest from their friends on FB, follow whatever's enticingly juicey and scandalous on twitter, etc. They don't "do" news because it's about an imaginary reality "we" are supposed to believe exists -- and it does, for those who are being treated well by "the systems." Just not most people. And even those living at the 80th %-ile see themselves as hard done by, because they judge everything by the situation of those who best match their own socio-economic profile. That's who they see at work, at leisure, and in between.
We have all these interesting propositions about income inequality, what makes it worse, etc., but for all the talk across now well beyond a quarter century, it's continually gotten worse. Just like the climate change fiasco. Meanwhile, those with education and savvy get caught up in the kind of self-promotion favored by identity politics (which divide the masses, and stir up the wrath of those outside their scope).
It's not, I think, that people put aside their powers of reason and critical thinking: it's more likely they never developed any. It's not something one learns in primary or secondary school. And if parents aren't helping kids develop it ... (see running between part-time shifts and food banks above) ... you get what we're seeing.
Once you shut down resource extraction and factories, what's left is small-time deliveries, food service preparation and wait staff (low wages, low profits), retail and jobs providing "front-line" phone "services." (How many oxymorons can you count?)
So you have 40% or more of the population spending great chunks of their lives laid off temporarily or otherwise, unable to find "contracts" (everything's contracted out, sub-contracted, sub-sub-contracted: to people who in the end haven't the literacy skills to read a list of technical standards, or to find their way out of a paper bag (even with eyeholes cut in) while people *with* real skills are sidelined, or at least perceive it that way.
Blame who you will, but we're 3 generations in, now, to great and greater and ever greater disparities in income, life experience and therefore worldview -- and with that comes similar disparities in information consumption. While those who have the wherewithal (financially and educationally) to make a difference are more interested in ... *entertainments*!!! (And still, conspicuous consumption -- largely via Amazon. Wot???)
And everyone thinks they hold the truth, or says they do. I'd submit that includes numbers of individuals whose opinions make it into media, opinions based on information that was real enough 10 or 20 years ago, not to mention into government and high level civil serice. More and more, the "update files" function has disappeared from people's memory processes -- except, perhaps, those who must struggle harder and harder to not go down the third time. (Don't know if that idiom is still used: it use to be said that if a drowning swimmer "went down the third time" they'd not likely make it back up again.)
And that's part of why, despite what I observe on the sales racks on the sidewalk outside shoe stores, I still think one should be able to buy a reasonable pair of shoes for $20, even though I recognize that 17 cent a loaf bread and 67 cent a pound butter have long been gone for good). Partly because the observations I make include that my income hasn't risen since the last pair I bought at that price. (When grown-in-Canada apples cost 29 cents a pound).
There are many, many reasons why individually, people have not "got ahead." But for those who were born ahead, that, in itself, is the main reason they have.
Everyone thinks they are on the side of The Good: even doing God's work, if you please!
Personally, I think the time has high passed that the Yellow Jackets (unh, I mean "vests") and the Proud Boys, and Q Anon should all be designated as terrorist groups.
(Does one count as killers the anti-mask protesters who disobey laws around congregating at close quarters in large numbers, and become super-spreaders of Covid-19? And if not, why not?)
The reasons for our current situation started long ago, and they've continued to pile up since. The amounts and kinds of change needed to fix it are enormous.
Well said, f, and just as
Well said, f, and just as true now as four months ago when you wrote it. (I only discovered the article today).
Sometimes I think the
Sometimes I think the attraction of a conspiracy theory is, at bottom, that it defies logic and so ultimately can't be true.........its a kind of wish fulfillment, a fantasy in which good and evil are stark and easily differentiated.
The climate emergency on the other hand, is not that complex, once you understand what green house gases do, and for how long they are going to do it.......but the consequences of runaway global warming are real.........and genuinely scary. Climate change makes us feel powerless; conspiracy theories make us feel 'in the know', smarter than joe public. They also give us a cartoon villain, the perfect scapegoat.
Climate change on the other hand demands we change, or die. It demands action, not reaction. Knowledge, not belief.
Too real by half. Better to join a church, or a cult.....its a diversion, not a life change. And it feels so good to be smarter than everyone, including those damned elites.
"The climate emergency on the other hand, is not that complex, once you understand what green house gases do, and for how long they are going to do it.."
I am willing to bet that very few if any of the cultists could even begin to explain the actual science of the climate emergency. All they know is that it's part of the Fake News global conspiracy, because they have heard and read that Big Lie often enough to believe it.
".....but the consequences of runaway global warming are real.........and genuinely scary."
Not to them. They think that *we* are the ones who have been brainwashed.
Let's call what the armed
Let's call what the armed "gate crasher" what he really is, a failed assassin. No one shows up to have a "chat" with the Prime Minister, amply armed and ready to kill his imagined enemy. He is a white extreme right wing domestic terrorist. He is not simply a sausage maker or "gate crasher".
Minimising him and others of his ilk as disgruntled Canadians is placing peaceful and law abiding citizens in harm's way.
It's time to wake up to the serious problem we have in Canada with domestic terrorists, white or otherwise. Stats prove that home grown extreme far right terrorists are far more numerous and dangerous than brown or foreign terrorists.
Furthering the distraction from these extremists, their hate and violence toward those who dare to offer progressive ideas and solutions, MSM and the Canadian press are complicit in their agenda and any and all harm they do to Canadians.
Practice responsible journalism. You might help to save a life.
Great points, Nancy. Thank
Great points, Nancy. Thank you.
We also need to start
We also need to start thinking about how to re-engage across the political spectrum..........how do we become the difference we desire, the change we desire.
One way might be to learn more about the people who support a Trump....or any of a number of right wing activists in Canada. What is it they fear? How has the current system excluded them? Why has it become so easy to demonize and disparage in our country.......and how might we have more conversations that open up new ways of doing an economy?
At my core, instinct tells me our current unregulated capitalist casino economy is at the bottom of this growing divide between progressives and regressives, climate activists and petro devotees. If so, the status quo can't fix it.
One thing I've been wondering
One thing I've been wondering is, the US intelligence agencies such as the NSA monitor practically the whole flippin' internet. How is it that QAnon is still, well, Anon? I mean, some guy is anonymously posting subversive stuff making wild libellous, treasonous accusations which are likely to lead to terrorism, has masses of followers some of whom are insinuating themselves into the US government. And has as I understand it been doing so for years now.
Why is it that this alphabet soup of agencies with their billions and billions of dollars supposedly can't figure out who it is and arrest them?
Now this is the 24 billion
Now this is the 24 billion dollar question..........but also......ample fodder for a new conspiracy theory...lol.
"“The RCMP is aware of this
"“The RCMP is aware of this movement, however, the RCMP does not investigate movements or organizations for their ideological dispositions,” RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Caroline Duval said in an emailed statement to Canada’s National Observer."
Well now, anyone who knows anything about the recent history of RCMP spying on environmental, first nations and other progressive protest movements knows that's a lie. Interesting, if unsurprising, double standard.
Exactly........makes one wonder if at some deep level, conspiracy theories serve the ruling powers....nice to have something in reserve, if times get really tough and the really tough have to get going....Conspiracy theories might fill some future void.
In the mean time.....conspiracy theorists aren't changing anything substantive, they're not organizing for living wage......or demanding housing for all...so who's afraid of a bunch of nutbars???
It's those natives..........or guys with turbans thinking they can lead Canada, we better watch....fascists can sometimes be detected by who they give a pass to. Trump never condemned a right wing extremist in his entire years in office.
Conspiracy theories among the
Conspiracy theories among the disaffected, the shunned, the outcasts, is probably as old as humankind. Paranoia is deeply embedded in our dinosaur brain. Today's iterations of the phenomena are amply supported by the real and desperate inequities of income and the enforced powerlessness of the non-unionized workforce.
It is an easy sell for the low information cohort.
Governments, security forces and corporate titans have systematically dismissed and ignored and added to the pressures endured by the underclasses. One does not have to be a tenured professor of economics to know that our economy as it currently exists is unsustainable and is leading inexorably to the collapse of civilization.