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The middleman of conspiracy theories

by Matias Brunet-Kirk January 19, 2021
The middleman of conspiracy theories

How COVID-19 skepticism could lead to the growth of QAnon in Québec

Dominick Jasmin describes himself as an ordinary guy. At first glance, the father of two and a family man, from the off-island Montreal suburb of Repentigny, seems to be just that.

Jasmin begins to seem less ordinary when you look at the Facebook page he runs, Actualité Politique du Québec, where he shares his views on provincial politics and, more importantly, his objections to COVID-19 sanitary measures.

Jasmin is part of a growing media ecosystem based on disinformation that many say is leading to a growth in radicalization. According to a recent CROP poll, nearly a quarter of Quebecers believe in some sort of COVID-19 conspiracy theory.

Previously publishing fairly benign political commentary, his content took a sharp turn with the advent of the pandemic. Jasmin doesn’t think COVID-19 is dangerous, saying, “There should be ten times more deaths to justify these measures.”

Jasmin has no scientific training and bases his claims on what he calls common sense. Nonetheless, Jasmin is not your run-of-the-mill conspiracy theorist. “I don’t believe in a New World Order,” he said, also adding that not all vaccines are bad.

Regardless, it is clear that platforms like his are playing an increasingly crucial role in the spread of disinformation that kickstarts online radicalization.

Falling into the abyss

Casey Babb, a Ph.D. student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs of Carleton University, is currently researching “How malicious actors are exploiting the pandemic to their advantage.”

“I might call them passive conspiracy theorists,” said Babb, talking about people like Jasmin. He explained they don’t necessarily buy into the QAnon worldview but are inherently distrustful of the government and mainstream media, showing there is an increasingly blurred distinction at play.

But Babb said this didn’t make them any less dangerous in the “slow, gradual process,” of radicalization. Someone may at first see a seemingly benign tweet that resonates with them, but quickly fall into a cascading conspiratorial rabbit hole. “Next thing you know, they’re on the 8kun or QAnon website,” said Babb.

The process is compounded by the mechanics of social media’s suggestion algorithms, which feed users increasingly extreme content. This is made evident on Jasmin’s page, where Facebook automatically generates recommendations to more extreme pages like that of Lucie Laurier, renowned Quebec conspiracy theory and QAnon influencer.

Part of the plan

The Counter Extremism Project, based in Berlin, Germany, recently released a study indicating that right-wing extremist groups were leveraging the pandemic to their benefit.

The study showed that these groups use frustration over sanitary measures and pre-existing anti-vaccine sentiment as a gateway to recruitment. COVID-19 is allowing “the extreme right-wing to strengthen its mobilization around anti-government conspiratorial narratives, aimed at criticizing the lockdown measures,” stated the report.

Therefore, previously marginal extremist groups can sell themselves as an anti-mainstream source of information and gain credibility and adherents, according to the study.

Screen capture of far-right Forza Nuova affiliated group posted to Jasmin’s Facebook group.

Jasmin’s page is a direct example of this, where content by users is often taken directly from right-wing extremist groups. For example, one of the anti-lockdown videos posted to the group was initially published by Forza Nuova, a right-wing extremist political group based in Italy that holds openly racist views and promotes violence.

Made clear with the recent storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, online conspiratorial beliefs are now causing real-world consequences. Just this summer, trucker Philippe Côté was arrested for threatening to kill Quebec Premier François Legault and Public Health Director Horacio Arruda, and further found conspiratorial theories on pieces of paper in his truck.

When asked whether he may be contributing to people’s radicalization via his Facebook group, Jasmin said he felt no responsibility for the misinformation he was spreading. “People can believe what they want,” Jasmin said, choosing instead to deride what he sees as an attack on free speech.

Regardless, Jasmin has not seen any form of censorship on his platforms.

Climbing out of the rabbit hole

But deradicalization is possible. According to Margaux Bennardi at the Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence, it is essential not to ostracize or judge the people who believe in these theories, as it may entrench them further into their beliefs.

“Calling people covidiots does not help,” said Bennardi.

“We reinforce the productive factors instead of targeting the things that are not working,” said Bennardi. This could lead to encouraging them to spend more time doing something that may expose them to a different viewpoint.

Nonetheless, complete deradicalization is tricky, said David Hofmann, a researcher in right-wing extremism at the University of New Brunswick. “It has to happen on an individual basis,” Hofmann said. “Something has to shake their entrenched worldview.”

According to Hofmann, the individualistic argument for ignorance seems to be a common thread among conspiracy theorists and especially with COVID-19 skepticism. The ‘I haven’t seen it so it mustn’t be true’ viewpoint.

For Jasmin, it was clear that the event had not yet occurred.

 

Photographs are screenshots from social media videos

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