Exploring the danger behind Quebec’s anti-mask conspiracy theorists

Of concern:

Late one Tuesday night in May, while most of Quebec was still under lockdown orders, the phone rang in Premier François Legault’s riding office.

In a calm but firm voice, a man left a message saying he regretted voting for Legault, and then warned the premier that his days were numbered.

A few hours later, at 3:16 a.m., the man called back and left another message. This time he was screaming and swearing about Quebec’s top public health official, Dr. Horacio Arruda.

The man said he could get access to a gun and wanted to shoot Arruda.

A member of Legault’s office staff who heard the message alerted Quebec provincial police. Their investigation quickly turned international.

The calls were traced to a 47-year-old trucker from Quebec City, Philippe Côté. A tracking device on his truck indicated Côté was in Texas, not far from a gun shop, when he phoned Legault’s office.

Canadian border guards were placed on alert. When Côté crossed back into Canada on May 16, they spent three hours searching his truck.

The border guards didn’t find any weapons, but they did uncover evidence of a different threat, one that also crosses borders and has the potential for violence.

“Several bits of paper were found on which were written different political conspiracy theories,” reads a description of the incident contained in court documents.

Côté was allowed to re-enter the country, but was arrested by provincial police a short time later. On May 21, he pleaded guilty to two counts of uttering death threats, and will be sentenced later this month.Côté’s lawyer, Olivier Morin, told reporters back in May that his client had been emotionally distraught by the pandemic and the rules he had to follow as a trucker.

“He was mixed up. He wanted answers and he went on conspiracy websites,” Morin said.

Since May, provincial police in Quebec have arrested at least four other people for allegedly making online threats against politicians and other public figures. Police have interviewed several more about their online activities following complaints from the public.

The suspects all have Facebook accounts that promote conspiracy theories about COVID-19, including some that originate from QAnon, a conspiracy movement that began in the U.S. and is now considered a national security threat by the FBI.

Experts who monitor extremist groups in Quebec are concerned about the role conspiracy theories are playing in radicalizing online behaviour, and the possibility it could turn into real-world violence.

“We’ve seen it before, and it was called Alexandre Bissonnette,” said Martin Geoffroy, who heads an anti-radicalization research centre at Cégep Édouard-Montpetit, a public francophone college in Longueuil.Geoffroy was referring to the man who killed six people at a Quebec City mosque in 2017.

“QAnon is ravaging the mainstream population right now,” Geoffroy said. “This is part of the collateral damage of the pandemic.”

Conspiracy theories take root in pandemic

Conspiracy theories shape the way a significant number of Quebecers think about the pandemic.

A poll conducted last month for Montreal’s La Presse newspaper suggested 35 per cent of the population believe mainstream media outlets are spreading false information about COVID-19; 18 per cent believe the pandemic is a tool created by governments to control them.

Those findings echo a survey done in June by the province’s public health research institute (INSPQ), which found 23 per cent of Quebecers believe that COVID-19 was fabricated in a laboratory — a theory rejected by scientists who have studied the genetic code of the virus and determined it was not manipulated.

Among the most popular purveyors of conspiracy theories in the province is Alexis Cossette-Trudel, the son of two convicted FLQ terrorists, who broadcasts his views on social media under the moniker Radio-Québec.His YouTube channel has more than 110,000 subscribers. Analytics show that number has nearly quadrupled since the pandemic hit Quebec in March.

Cossette-Trudel openly expresses support for QAnon, which holds, among other claims, that U.S. President Donald Trump is waging a battle against an international cabal of high-profile liberals who are Satan-worshipping pedophiles operating a child sex-trafficking ring.

In one recent video, Cossette-Trudel said Legault was exaggerating the risks of COVID-19 as part of a global plot to ruin the economy and prevent Trump from being re-elected.

This strain of conspiracy thinking is a visible component in the ongoing anti-mask demonstrations in Quebec.

At a protest last Saturday in Montreal, which attracted several thousand people, there were dozens of posters and T-shirts inspired by QAnon symbols and slogans.

Many participants said they thought the pandemic was “over” or “fake” and that the government was lying about the deadliness of the disease.”At first I thought Radio-Québec was too extreme, but then with time I realized they are right,” said Marie-Josée Bernard, a mother of three who took part in Saturday’s demonstration.

Arrests for alleged threats

Conspiracy theories, though, are not only contributing to anti-mask protests in Quebec, they also appear to be playing a role in violent online behaviour.

  • On July 28, a 26-year-old man was arrested for allegedly making online threats against a journalist. His Facebook page has links to conspiracy videos about the pandemic, and content from QAnon supporters.
  • On July 30, a 27-year-old man was charged with intimidation, obstructing an officer and three counts of uttering threats against Legault, Arruda and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. His Facebook page features links to far-right content, videos by Radio-Québec and various other conspiracy videos about the pandemic.
  • On August 4, a man in his 60s was arrested for allegedly making online threats against both Legault and Arruda. The arrest came shortly after a Facebook account that circulates QAnon conspiracies published Arruda’s home address.
  • On Aug. 7, a 45-year old man from Drummondville was charged with intimidation and two counts of uttering threats, reportedly against Arruda. Along with posting conspiracies about the pandemic, his Facebook page also features racist and anti-Semitic content.

Along with the arrests, Quebec provincial police have also met with several other individuals about threats associated with their social media accounts, at least three of which indicated support for Radio-Québec.

Cossette-Trudel did not respond to a request for comment.

‘We don’t want to wait until it’s too late’

In the U.S., conspiracy theories in general, and those associated with QAnon in particular, have contributed to the radicalization of several people who have committed acts of violence.

recent study published by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center concluded that the “increasing frequency of criminal or violent acts by QAnon supporters seems possible, even likely” in the months to come.

Experts in Quebec have similar fears that online violence could move offline.

“We’re speaking with police to help with prevention. We don’t want to wait until it’s too late,” said Roxane Martel-Perron, who heads education efforts for Montreal’s Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence.

The issue, said Martel-Perron, is not that people would question the government’s handling of the pandemic. It’s that the answers they are receiving — about shadowy plots out to control them — can be used to justify extreme acts.

“What we’re worried about is the violent means that might be taken in response to these perceived grievances,” she said.

Quebec politicians have signalled their growing concern, as well.

On Tuesday, the first day of the fall legislative session, independent MNA Catherine Fournier introduced a motion calling on the National Assembly to “recognize that the rise of conspiracy theories in Quebec is alarming and requires concerted action from civil society and public authorities.”

The motion passed unanimously.

Source: Exploring the danger behind Quebec’s anti-mask conspiracy theorists

Medical Expert Who Corrects Trump Is Now a Target of the Far Right

Sigh but predictable. A few but appear to be exceptional worrying signs in Canada in questioning expertise (e.g., Conrad Black on COVID-19: The world succumbed to a pandemic of hysteria, more than a virus, MALCOLM: It’s time to double check the experts’ COVID-19 work):

At a White House briefing on the coronavirus on March 20, President Trump called the State Department the “Deep State Department.” Behind him, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, dropped his head and rubbed his forehead.

Some thought Dr. Fauci was slighting the president, leading to a vitriolic online reaction. On Twitter and Facebook, a post that falsely claimed he was part of a secret cabal who opposed Mr. Trump was soon shared thousands of times, reaching roughly 1.5 million people.

A week later, Dr. Fauci — the administration’s most outspoken advocate of emergency measures to fight the coronavirus outbreak — has become the target of an online conspiracy theory that he is mobilizing to undermine the president.

That fanciful claim has spread across social media, fanned by a right-wing chorus of Mr. Trump’s supporters, even as Dr. Fauci has won a public following for his willingness to contradict the president and correct falsehoods and overly rosy pronouncements about containing the virus.

An analysis by The New York Times found over 70 accounts on Twitter that have promoted the hashtag #FauciFraud, with some tweeting as frequently as 795 times a day. The anti-Fauci sentiment is being reinforced by posts from Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch, a conservative group; Bill Mitchell, host of the far-right online talk show “YourVoice America”; and other outspoken Trump supporters such as Shiva Ayyadurai, who has falsely claimed to be the inventor of email.

Many of the anti-Fauci posts, some of which pointed to a seven-year-old email that Dr. Fauci had sent praising Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of State, have been retweeted thousands of times. On YouTube, conspiracy-theory videos about Dr. Fauci have racked up hundreds of thousands of views in the past week. In private Facebook groups, posts disparaging him have also been shared hundreds of times and liked by thousands of people, according to the Times analysis.

One anti-Fauci tweet on Tuesday said, “Sorry liberals but we don’t trust Dr. Anthony Fauci.”

The torrent of falsehoods aimed at discrediting Dr. Fauci is another example of the hyperpartisan information flow that has driven a wedge into the way Americans think. For the past few years, far-right supporters of President Trump have regularly vilified those whom they see as opposing him. Even so, the campaign against Dr. Fauci stands out because he is one of the world’s leading infectious disease experts and a member of Mr. Trump’s virus task force, and it is unfolding as the government battles a pathogen that is rapidly spreading in the United States.

It is the latest twist in the ebb and flow of right-wing punditry that for weeks echoed Mr. Trump in minimizing the threat posed by the coronavirus and arguably undercut efforts to alert the public of its dangers. When the president took a more assertive posture against the outbreak, conservative outlets shifted, too — but now accuse Democrats and journalists of trying to use the pandemic to damage Mr. Trump politically.

“There seems to be a concerted effort on the part of Trump supporters to spread misinformation about the virus aggressively,” said Carl Bergstrom, a professor of biology at the University of Washington who has studied misinformation.

Adding that Dr. Fauci is bearing the brunt of the attacks, Mr. Bergstrom said: “There is this sense that experts are untrustworthy, and have agendas that aren’t aligned with the people. It’s very concerning because the experts in this are being discounted out of hand.”

The Trump administration has previously shown a distaste for relying on scientific expertise, such as when dealing with climate change. But misinformation campaigns during a pandemic carry a unique danger because they may sow distrust in public health officials when accurate information and advice are crucial, said Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor at Syracuse University who teaches digital ethics.

“What this case will show is that conspiracy theories can kill,” she said.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases did not respond to a request for comment on the misinformation being directed at Dr. Fauci, who has said he plans to keep working to contain the coronavirus.

“When you’re dealing with the White House, sometimes you have to say things one, two, three, four times, and then it happens,” Dr. Fauci said in an interview with Science magazine this past week. “So, I’m going to keep pushing.”

The online campaign is an abrupt shift for Dr. Fauci, an immunologist who has led the institute since 1984. He has long been seen as credible by a large section of the public and journalists, advising every president since Ronald Reagan and encouraging action against the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

In recent weeks, much of the online discussion of Dr. Fauci was benign or positive. Zignal Labs, a media analysis company, studied 1.7 million mentions of Dr. Fauci across the web and TV broadcasts from Feb. 27 to Friday and found that through mid-March, he was mainly praised and his comments were straightforwardly reported. Right-wing figures quoted Dr. Fauci approvingly or lauded him for his comments on shutting down travel to and from China, Zignal Labs said.

In the White House briefings on the coronavirus, he often spoke plainly of the severity of the situation, becoming something of a folk hero to some on the left. Then Dr. Fauci, who had been a steady presence at Mr. Trump’s side during the briefings, did not appear at the one on March 18.

A hashtag asking “Where is Dr. Fauci?” began trending on Twitter. Several Facebook fan groups dedicated to praising his medical record called for his return. The first accounts tweeting #FauciFraud also appeared, though their volume of posts was small, according to the Times analysis.

Two days later, Dr. Fauci put his head in his hand at the White House briefing after Mr. Trump’s remark on the “Deep State Department.” His gesture — some called it a face palm — caught the attention of Mr. Trump’s supporters online, who saw it as an insult to the president.

Anti-Fauci posts spiked, according to Zignal Labs. Much of the increase was prompted by a March 21 article in The American Thinker, a conservative blog, which published the seven-year-old email that Dr. Fauci had written to an aide of Mrs. Clinton.

In the email, Dr. Fauci praised Mrs. Clinton for her stamina during the 2013 Benghazi hearings. The American Thinker falsely claimed that the email was evidence that he was part of a secret group who opposed Mr. Trump.

That same day, Mr. Fitton of Judicial Watch posted a tweet linking to a different blog post that showed Dr. Fauci’s email on Mrs. Clinton. In the tweet, Mr. Fitton included a video of himself crossing his arms and saying, “Isn’t that interesting.” It was retweeted more than 1,500 times.

In an interview, Mr. Fitton said, “Dr. Fauci is doing a great job.” He added that Dr. Fauci “wrote very political statements to Hillary Clinton that were odd for an appointee of his nature to send.”

The conspiracy theory was soon shared thousands of times across Facebook and Twitter. It was also taken up by messaging groups on WhatsApp and Facebook run by QAnon, the anonymous group that claims to be privy to government secrets. On YouTube, far-right personalities began spouting that Dr. Fauci was a fraud.

By Tuesday, the online and television mentions of Dr. Fauci had declined but had become consistently negative, Zignal Labs said.

One anti-Fauci tweet last Sunday read: “Dr. Fauci is in love w/ crooked @HillaryClinton. More reasons not to trust him.”

Facebook said it proactively removed misinformation related to the coronavirus. YouTube said that it did not recommend the conspiracy-theory videos on Dr. Fauci to viewers and that it promotes credible virus information. Twitter said it remained “focused on taking down content that can lead to harm.”

Ms. Phillips, the Syracuse assistant professor, said the campaign was part of a long-term conspiracy theory propagated by Mr. Trump’s followers.

“Fauci has just been particularly prominent,” she said. “But any public health official who gets cast in a conspiratorial narrative is going to be subject to those same kinds of suspicions, the same kinds of doubt.”

That has not stopped Dr. Fauci from appearing on the internet. On Thursday, he joined a 30-minute Instagram Live discussion about the coronavirus hosted by the National Basketball Association star Stephen Curry.

In the session, Dr. Fauci, with a miniature basketball hoop behind him, conveyed the same message that he had said for weeks about the outbreak.

“This is serious business,” he said. “We are not overreacting.”