COVID-19 conspiracies creating ‘public health crisis’ in Canada, experts say

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A lively crowd gathered in front of François Legault’s office in downtown Montreal in mid-July to send a message to the premier of Quebec: his government cannot force them to wear masks in indoor public spaces to fight the spread of COVID 19.”Long live freedom without a mask,” said a sign during the rally, which drew dozens of people. “My body, my choice” read another, alongside a drawing of a medical mask with a line across.

The anti-mask movement is not unique to Quebec, and masks are not the only source of conflict in the country regarding public health guidelines around the new coronavirus, either. But the problem is one of many at the heart of a growing movement of online disinformation around the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada.

Researchers say COVID-19 conspiracy theories are spreading at an alarming rate across the country – and they warn that disinformation shared online can have devastating consequences and cause Canadians to avoid important security measures.

“I think people should be extremely worried,” said Aengus Bridgman, a doctoral candidate in political science at McGill University and co-author of a study published last month on disinformation about COVID-19 and its impact on public health.

Social media can generate disinformation about COVID-19: study

The study found that the more a person relies on social media to learn about COVID-19, the more likely they are to be exposed to and believe in, and disregard disinformation. physical distance and other public health guidelines.

About 16% of Canadians use social media as their primary source of information about the virus, Bridgman said in a recent interview.

Her research team polled nearly 2,500 people and examined 620,000 Twitter accounts in English, but Bridgman said disinformation about COVID-19 was also spreading to other social media platforms, including Facebook, YouTube, Reddit, Instagram and Tumblr.

For example, a Facebook group called “Against the compulsory wearing of masks in Quebec” has more than 22,000 members to date, while another group with a similar mission has nearly 21,000 members.

People are dying because of these conspiracy theories and we have to stop them.– Alison Meek, professor of history at Western University.

The articles on these pages vary, ranging from questioning the science behind wearing masks and criticizing Horacio Arruda, Quebec’s director of public health, for the mandatory mask rule, to accusing World Health Organization bias and Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates for creating the virus.

Another study published in May at Carleton University indicated that 46 percent of Canadians believed at least one of four unfounded theories about COVID-19: the virus was engineered in a Chinese lab; virus spreads to mask effects of 5G wireless technology; drugs such as hydroxychloroquine can cure patients with COVID-19; or rinsing your nose with saline solution can protect you from infections.

Bridgman said the speed at which these conspiracy theories are circulating online makes it difficult to verify their origin.

And while some right-wing groups in Canada are pushing these lies, Bridgman said people from all political backgrounds are vulnerable to them.

“It’s a Canadian challenge,” he explained. “People of all levels of education, of all age groups, of all political persuasions, are all vulnerable to disinformation online. It is not a phenomenon specific to a particular community.

COVID-19 protesters echo anti-vax movement

Protests have been taking place across Canada since provinces implemented COVID-19 lockdowns earlier this year, from Vancouver, Toronto and Quebec City, where hundreds have gathered in the provincial legislature July 26 against the compulsory wearing of a mask.

Alexandre Barrière was one of dozens of demonstrators denouncing the mask rule on July 19 in front of Legault’s office in Montreal.

He compared wearing a mask to a dog muzzle and said he doesn’t believe the COVID-19 pandemic exists.

“We live to be free. We are not in the world to be controlled like animals, ”the 29-year-old said in an interview.

Another protester, Antonio Pietroniro, 65, said the pandemic was “canned” and warned that after making the masks mandatory, the government would force people to get vaccinated against the virus.

“They are going to say that you have to take the vaccine even if it has not been proven to be safe,” he said, echoing the anti-vaccination movement which has grown in importance in Canada, the United States. and in other countries in recent years. .

As people emerged from COVID-19 isolation in their homes, several cities have implemented mandatory mask policies for indoor spaces, including stores, where physical distancing is difficult. (Evan Mitsui / CBC)

Alison Meek, professor of history at Western University, said there are similarities between the COVID-19 conspiracy theories and the anti-vaccination movement.

The intentionally spread misinformation about COVID-19, she added, is also comparable to conspiracy theories that circulated in the 1980s and 1990s during the HIV / AIDS epidemic.

“When you’re scared, when you’re frustrated, you want someone easy to blame… we want to point the finger at someone and say, ‘Aha! It’s you – there’s a bad guy here who did it ‘as opposed to’ this is how these pandemics work ‘, “Meek said in an interview.

Governments have had to adapt their public health guidelines to keep up with the rapidly evolving science on the virus.

Public uncertainty around the scientific process, combined with growing frustrations with foreclosure measures and a struggling economy, has created a perfect storm in which conspiracy theories can flourish, Meek said.

“All of these things come together right now to make these conspiracy theories a real public health crisis that is getting harder and harder to deal with. ”

She said conspiracy theories should be countered with facts and evidence, adding that people should be encouraged to think critically about where they get their information.

She and Bridgman praised social media companies like Twitter and Facebook for removing videos and other posts that spread misinformation about COVID-19 – but the two academics also said more needed to be done.

“People are dying because of these conspiracy theories and we have to stop them,” Meek said. “We have to somehow figure out how to challenge them. “

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