Disinformation and hate during the COVID-19 era

covid 19 disinformation bottle

When the truth is exactly what we need most

In 2008, epidemiologists developed models to describe how a pandemic may also cause a parallel epidemic of fear. We call this interaction a syndemic, and the one we’re facing right now has created a perfect storm for the far-right to scare, groom, and recruit using COVID-19 conspiracy theories as an introduction.

From day one, the COVID-19 conspiracy movement has been latched onto by every hate group, network, and propagandist we monitor. This isn’t only a hypocritical attempt to recruit, they are true believers in the COVID-19 conspiracies, already conditioned to distrust the media and government, and swallow misinformation and disinformation that blames “globalists,” Liberals, the left, or racial groups for their perceived grievances.

Their early adoption of COVID-19 conspiracies fits a longstanding pattern of the far-right adding new issues and grievances to put them in contact with larger and larger audiences.

Canada’s modern day far-right movement first successfully took to the streets in 2017 in response to M103, the government’s motion to condemn Islamophobia. It was not only critical of Islam, but explicitly racist towards all Muslims. When M103 passed and the sky did not fall, they went into a slump.

Then came Yellow Vests Canada. Anti-austerity protesters in France were holding massive demonstrations, and took on a yellow vest as their uniform. Our far-right movement was inspired by their heated protests, and stole the trademark vest, calling themselves Yellow Vests Canada. They started Facebook pages, and had hundreds of thousands of followers overnight. They also added new grievances. It wasn’t just about Muslims, but oil and gas, as well as western separation. This was, of course, a fig leaf. Yellow Vests Canada Exposed and ourselves (the Canadian Anti-Hate Network) documented hundreds of examples of death threats, anti-Muslim racism, and antisemitism in the groups. But, for a time, they had the media confused, and successfully recruited a whole new audience.

Now it’s the pandemic, which is like manna from heaven for the far-right. People were and are socially isolated, extremely online, and afraid. The far-right is fully invested in this space as a fruitful recruitment ground.

That’s not to say that every anti-masker is a racist or a neo-Nazi—they aren’t, but a significant number of that new audience will adopt more and more far-right beliefs, up to and including racism and other forms of identity-based hatred. Calls for a insurrection and the murder of politicians and public health officials are commonplace.

Perhaps most concerning are the networks of young people leveraging the pandemic to groom and recruit—and they have been alarmingly successful. One Canadian streamer even joined an infamous American white supremacist to protest a hospital in New York.

It’s been established that the pandemic poses a substantial risk to children—who are already at risk simply by being online—for grooming into hate ideologies. Further, recent data from Statistics Canada shows that youths, specifically teenage boys, are responsible for 23 per cent of hate crimes.

The new battleground to combat hate and disinformation is the classroom and the dinner table. In order to help, the Canadian Anti-Hate Network (CAHN) has developed the Confronting Hate in Canadian Schools toolkit. It isn’t intended to replace anti-racist curriculum or programs. It is a supplementary support aimed specifically at identifying and attempting to deal with involvement in far-right social movements potentially leading to violence.

The toolkit provides suggestions and practical advice to education workers, staff, parents, community members, and students themselves, on how to deal with kids being groomed into hate movements and how to safely intervene before the problem becomes violent.

Everyday conspiracies

While some criticism of government response to the pandemic is legitimate, the COVID-19 conspiracy movement is dangerous. It’s not just a public health menace, but is bringing everyday people into an ecosystem rife with hate ideologies. It simply does not stop at protesting lockdowns, masks, or vaccines.

Our responsibility is to construct a democracy where everyone has value. If we can model that for each other in our everyday environment, it will be easier to translate to other parts of our lives. By working with all stakeholders to handle these situations thoughtfully and incrementally, we can push back hate-motivated movements and groups in all facets of our community.

How we do so is critical. While the tactics may differ slightly between confronting hate and confronting conspiracy, there is much overlap. These are grievance-based ideas, and as such, the underlying grievances need to be addressed.

Many of the tactics mentioned below are worthwhile to attempt with our colleagues, friends, and family members. Remembering that developing conspiracy thinking is rooted in grievance and anxiety allows us to approach these situations with empathy and compassion.

It is easy to write off people who believe in conspiracies as unwell, or quirky. The truth is much more complicated. People are naturally predisposed to looking for answers to the toughest questions and sometimes they turn to unfounded untruths to make sense of the complex world around them.

It is always within your right to not engage, and to enforce boundaries with people who are looking to share conspiracy propaganda. However, it doesn’t move the conversation forward in a way that provides them a soft landing should they choose to ask for help. It’s in that spirit that we provide some ideas on how to have these difficult conversations.

When confronting conspiracy, it’s important to take a number of steps, which vary depending on the environment. With students and youth, try to meet them where they are at. Debating them, or attempting to win them over with facts, will likely be unsuccessful. Instead, engage them on how these ideas make them feel. What makes them believe these ideas you know to be untrue? What anxieties do they have that have led to these ideas? Unpacking those anxieties, and allowing the student to feel heard, may organically lead to the student being open to other answers to their questions. Without enabling them, allowing them a safe space to unpack those anxieties may be the launchpad to help them leave those ideas behind.

In the classroom, establish boundaries if needed, in discussion and in their work. Don’t allow citations from conspiratorial sources, and limit project topics to those that will not enable them to incorporate far-right propaganda.

Don’t allow other students to dogpile them, as it may just lead to the student being further entrenched in their baseless beliefs, and it will be harder to reach them. Kurt Phillips, an educator who has studied the far right and racist right for over 20 years, and who now serves as a board member for CAHN, has seen this play out in classrooms based on his experience and that of his colleagues around the country.

Even when the views that the student has come to hold are proven to be erroneous and based on discredited conspiracies, a student who feels they are being set upon may continue to defend those ideas even more rigorously if for no other reason than they feel they are personally being attacked. Once the initial anger from feelings resulting from the perceived attack has passed, the idea often remains firmly in place because of a conviction that “woke” teachers are afraid that the student has been “red pilled” (a term used to describe a dramatic shifting of viewpoints, usually toward hate ideologies).

Confronting hatred with young people

With a new story hitting the media every few weeks about a hate incident in Canadian schools, the issue has never felt more urgent. We are in a crisis, fueled by the pandemic, and social media.

Young people spend an enormous amount of time on social media, and are exposed to many different platforms that carry the potential for hate movements to recruit and organize. YouTube, for example, was cited as the primary cause of “red-pilling” in far-right and fascist group chats.

Youth may be “irony-poisoned,” a term describing the process in which they are exposed to so much ironic and bigoted humour that it eventually ceases to shock them, and they may adopt those views unironically. For example, they may engage in racist language online at first because it’s transgressive; over time they take racism to heart.

All youth seek a sense of identity and belonging. Hate-promoting movements and groups know this and look for ways to connect with young people in order to grow their base and influence. It takes vigilance on the part of students, educators, staff, administrators, parents, and caregivers to ensure that all members of a school community feel connected in positive ways and are not left vulnerable to toxic and bigoted rhetoric or recruitment.

The toolkit deals with specific examples and actions to take in order to keep students safe, as well as provides general best practices to incorporate in a school environment, but here we want to talk about some practical steps to take to counter hate as it occurs in class and conversation settings.

A question we received regularly from education workers when we reached out asking for their experiences was how to deal with on the spot situations as they arise. These incidents can be varying in severity, from arguing in favour of far-right policies, to defending racist history like Canada’s genocide of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples, to overt bigotry and racial slurs.

Educators can build a personal library of resources to have on-hand for situations which require a more immediate and on the spot response. If educators don’t know the answer right away, a personal library will assist with finding it so it can be addressed at the time. Good places to start include the Anti-Defamation League’s education resources, Learning for Justice, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s education arm, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for trusted facts on the Holocaust.

We are also available to be consulted at any time, for free, at info@antihate.ca.

Ensuring students know immediately that hateful behaviours and remarks are not acceptable, and are harmful, and explaining why is critical. Remember that the student’s information may be coming from a place of ignorance rather than malice.

Similar to suggested approaches for dealing with conspiracies, try to pinpoint where the anxieties are rooted. When confronting hate, use facts to dispute harmful untruths, and allow for discussion that is fact-based.

Not allowing students to dogpile, and addressing it as soon as possible are key. Not addressing immediately sends a negative message to students harmed by the behaviour that they are not important, and will give students the false impression that it is ok.

Hate and disinformation are two sides of the same coin. Hate, at its core, is disinformation, and founded in conspiracy. To combat one is to combat the other. As the pandemic has laid bare, each will be used to promote the other.

The Canadian Anti-Hate Network (CAHN) is a nonpartisan, non-profit organization with the mandate to counter, monitor, and expose hate promoting movements, groups, and individuals in Canada using every legal, ethical, and reasonable tool at our disposal. You can reach the CAHN at info@antihate.ca, and you can follow its work at www.antihate.ca, on Twitter at @antihateca, and on Facebook. It also publishes a weekly email newsletter, which you can sign up for on its website.

Elizabeth Simons works for the Canadian Anti-Hate Network as Deputy Director.

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