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?
This is an extract from ”America’s QAnon problem is infecting Canada. What should we do about it?” published on the National Observer on October 15, 2020. I was interviewed for this series of stories Emma McIntosh is writing as part of National Observer’s special coverage of the U.S. election.
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.
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.
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
“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. The Conservative Party of Canada declined to comment on whether the government should be doing more about QAnon.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Priority one: Booting QAnon off major social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
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.
This is an extract from ”America’s QAnon problem is infecting Canada. What should we do about it?” published on the National Observer on October 15, 2020. Read full article on the National Observer.