Quebec conspiracy theorists feed on fears and frustrations: study

The researchers say the pandemic has given conspiracy theorists an opportunity to “make alliances in order to advance their political agendas”.

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Some of Quebec’s most popular conspiracy theorists have taken advantage of people’s fears and frustrations during the COVID-19 pandemic to drive their own political agendas, according to a new study.

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At the same time, he warns, leaders from different areas where conspiracies are known to take hold — including far-right groups and some religious and spiritual communities — have found common ground during the pandemic and are now more intertwined than before.

“Many of these groups are politically far-right and also influenced by religious beliefs,” said Martin Geoffroy, director of the program behind the study, on Monday.

“What has changed is that before the pandemic most of them were in their own little sphere. But the pandemic has presented them with the opportunity to forge alliances in order to advance their political agendas.

The study was published Monday by the Center for Expertise and Training on Religious Fundamentalism and Radicalization (CEFIR), which operates from CEGEP Édouard-Montpetit in Longueuil. Researchers examined nearly 500 videos posted online by some of Quebec’s most popular so-called “conspirators” between November 2020 and January 2021.

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Globally, the study suggests those pushing conspiracy theories and disinformation in the province can be divided into two “ideological matrices”: the far right and religious or spiritual movements.

Those who fall into the far-right category, he says, include people from nationalist and identity groups, as well as sovereign citizens and survival movements. On the religious and spiritual level, the study also identified three main components: the New Age movement, Catholic integralism and Protestant fundamentalism.

Many of the influencers mentioned in the study were already spreading conspiracy theories and anti-government sentiment before the pandemic. But with people spending more time online and growing frustrations, they’ve seen their popularity – and influence – grow over the past two years.

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For Geoffroy, that was to be expected.

“All groups that rely on far-right populism capitalize on fear, and the pandemic has been a great opportunity structure to create fear,” he said.

“Times are tough, a lot of people have lost their jobs, so they come with the magic solution to all your problems. They’ll say, ‘Isn’t the pandemic over? We will end it by overthrowing the government,” he added. “It’s not going to happen, but they’re taking inspiration from it to push their agenda forward.”

Geoffroy cited as an example this weekend’s convoy demonstration in Ottawa.

Although the convoy was promoted as a protest against vaccination mandates for truckers, it has since morphed into a call for all public health measures to be lifted. People with ties to far-right and white supremacist groups, including several that the study focused on, also participated. Over the weekend, at least one truck displayed a Confederate flag and Nazi symbols and slogans were seen in the crowd.

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“It was very difficult this weekend to know who represented this movement,” said Geoffroy. “But basically all these types of groups were there.”

Among those whose online activity researchers studied was Mario Roy, a former member of the right-wing groups Storm Alliance and La Meute who called on members of the National Assembly to be arrested for “high treason” on the pandemic measures. As well as François Amalega Bitondo, an anti-mask protester who is under a court order to stay away from Prime Minister François Legault.

Also mentioned in the study is Alexis Cossette-Trudel, another key Quebec conspiracy theorist. Cossette-Trudel, who has a large online following, argued the pandemic was part of a “deep state” plot to undermine former US President Donald Trump – a plan he believes Legault is part of.

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On the religious side, the study details how a Montreal pastor, who openly defied health measures, began collaborating with a well-known far-right activist during the pandemic. The report says the pastor frequently equated health measures with “Satanism promoted by atheistic communists” seeking to “take control of the planet.”

The study also looked at the influence of some Quebecers who identify with the New Age movement, a network of people who generally subscribe to various beliefs about spirituality and natural health. During the pandemic, however, the report says their rhetoric has become more conspiratorial, often blaming modern medicine for COVID-19 and spreading debunked theories about the dangers of the vaccine.

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To illustrate this point, the study cites an influencer with thousands of subscribers on her various online platforms.

“You have to consider it as a gift when you have an illness. Even if you have a small acute illness like a cold, or like COVID — okay, the imaginary COVID,” she said in November 2020. “It’s a cleansing illness. Acute illness with what I call cleansing symptoms.

Geoffroy said it can be difficult to tell, at times, which of these people actually believe what they say and which are only doing it for personal gain. And, he added, he understands how some would label conspiracy theorists as unhinged people who just spread nonsense.

But that’s exactly what the study advises against doing, he said.

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“Some of them might be, but most of them are just using conspiracy theories to advance their political agenda, which is a far-right agenda,” he said. “And people don’t always realize that.”

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