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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.”
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.
QAnon, an unfortunate cultural import from the United States, has gained new prevalence north of the border this year. How bad is it, and what can be done to stop it? #Election2020 #cdnpoli
“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.”