‘They are insurgents’: inside online groups spreading disinformation and hate during federal election campaign

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An anti-vaccination protester carries a sign ahead of a campaign shutdown by Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in Newmarket, Ont., September 5, 2021. Last-minute social media protests disrupted Trudeau’s campaign shutdowns these days last few weeks.

CARLOS OSORIO / Reuters

It doesn’t take much effort to find Facebook pages denigrating vaccination efforts, lockdowns or Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

In a group of nearly 10,000 members demanding Mr. Trudeau’s resignation, bubbling people are discussing his promise of long-term vaccine passports. One user compares him to Adolf Hitler. Another post a photo of the Liberal leader in the sights of a rifle. A third says they are impatiently awaiting the return of the guillotine. Several responses encourage members to vote for the People’s Party of Canada candidates.

In another group, this one with more than 3,700 members, one user refers to a report detailing how the Liberal leader was bombarded with gravel during a campaign shutdown in London, Ont., Last week. “Should use larger rocks,” someone replies. (Three people “like” this comment.)

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Anti-vaccination and anti-government Facebook groups – as well as posts on platforms like Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, Reddit, Telegram and Discord – are breeding grounds for disinformation and inflammatory rhetoric driven by racists and extremists, according to experts who have followed social networks closely. media through the pandemic and the election campaign. “Their most basic and fundamental tenet is undemocratic and authoritarian,” says Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, of people protesting against Mr. Trudeau and participating in these social media groups.

“They want to see their suspected enemies tried and killed,” he said. “They are insurgents.

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In recent weeks, last-minute social media protests have disrupted the Liberal leader’s campaign stops. Some of the rallies forced the liberal campaign to cancel a planned event; many resulted in Mr. Trudeau or his fellow candidates being heckled or booed; others even led to brief moments of violence, including the gravel incident last week.

Mr. Balgord says the anti-Trudeau and anti-containment online communities coordinating these protests are the latest in a long line of conspiratorial and hate media with anti-Muslim, white nationalist and xenophobic roots. Racism, in other words, is at the heart of these groups, he says. Not everyone at a protest or participating in an anti-vaccination community is racist, notes Balgord. But, in the end, “they stand side by side with them, or consume their content.”

The rhetoric and conspiracy theories in some of these groups are “nothing new” – they’ve been brewing for years, Mr. Balgord says. However, the upcoming elections have raised the temperature in these communities, he said.

Researchers studying election misinformation agree that anti-foreclosure and anti-government narratives have grown 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 tracks thousands of communities and users on social platforms.

His team, which has seen a “relentless amount” of misinformation about COVID-19, found that groups were importing false stories about COVID-19 and US electoral fraud into Canada. According to the group’s research, the volume of disinformation has not increased since the election was called – but the campaign has led to a release of pent-up anger and outrage over the lockdowns, ongoing economic fallout from the pandemic and the warrants of vaccines and masks.

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Mr Bridgman says demographics of protesters and social media users are difficult to pin down, but they are “mostly white”. One trend, however, seems evident in many of these communities: many posts contain messages of support for the People’s Party of Canada.

This support has also spilled over into the real world. “[People’s Party of Canada] signs have appeared more and more frequently during these protests, ”said Mr. Bridgman. Recent national polls have put the People’s Party ahead of 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’re not anti-vax, we’re not anti-mask, we just want to respect everyone,” he said. In a tweet last week, Mr. Bernier publicly disowned the gravel-blasting incident against Mr. Trudeau.

Despite how quickly protesters are able to converge on liberal campaign stops, these protests do not appear to be organized or led by a central body, says Mr Bridgman. Instead, they’re organized organically, through social media.

“This is a loose organization of people,” he continues. “The notion of ‘puppet master’ is unlikely, given that disinformation has been so pervasive and present on social media for so long. It just doesn’t seem likely that there is a single actor behind this.

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Naz Obredor, who runs one of the Facebook groups that posted the locations of Trudeau’s campaign stops in a bid to rally protesters, told The Globe that his page only shared the Liberal leader’s locations and didn’t did not organize demonstrations directly.

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Last Friday, in a message, Obredor told the group that the Liberal leader will soon be in Mississauga, Ontario.

“No stones, okay,” replied one person. Another speculated that the gravel thrown at Mr. Trudeau earlier in the week had been “inside work”. A third suggested he be bombarded with dog feces instead.

Ms Obredor described herself as ‘pro-choice’ rather than anti-vaccine, and said she was medically mask-free – but also said she would not take COVID-19 vaccines, calling them “poison”.

COVID-19 vaccines have been extensively tested, have been approved by Health Canada through a standard authorization process, and have been shown to be extremely effective in preventing severe cases of COVID-19. The federal government monitors adverse reactions to vaccines, which are extremely rare. Ms Obredor said she did not believe in the scientific results.

“I was a stay-at-home mom for many years,” Ms. Obredor said. “Last year I wanted to re-enter the workforce, but I’m exempt from the mask – I won’t put poison in my body, and finding a job I’m qualified for is very difficult. “

Ms Obredor said she had no problem with people making noise at protests, chanting or shouting obscenities, but she was against derogatory and racist language or violence. “We don’t want it to be violent in terms of objects thrown at people,” she said. “Absolutely not.”

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Stephanie Carvin, professor of international affairs at Carleton University, recently co-authored a study on anti-lockdown communities, which she says have become anti-establishment groups in their own right.

Professor Carvin’s study notes that while some of those participating online or attending protests are frustrated by the blockades, “the most vocal and prominent” activists “are often far-right supporters, many of whom are espouse anti-government, racist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and other hateful views.

The rise of these groups has led to a situation not seen 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. It’s a really scary thing.

The January 6 insurgency in the United States – when a host of Trump supporters, conspiracy theorists, anti-containment protesters and racist extremists stormed the Capitol – “accelerated this idea that you don’t solve problems through politics anymore, ”says Professor Carvin.

“They want to redo the system,” continues Professor Carvin. “They don’t believe in the system at all, and being part of it isn’t going to change that.”

Given these sentiments, she predicts that Canada may see a move to discredit election results after they are counted, similar to the “Stop the Steal” movement in the United States, which falsely claimed a massive electoral fraud plot. “It wouldn’t surprise me at all if this is what we see happening,” she said.

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With files from Marieke Walsh


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