Canada

‘Kind of terrifying’: Numbers show racist Great Replacement conspiracy theory has found audience in Canada

Timothy Caulfield has spent the pandemic battling bunk science and lies.

The course of COVID-19 has seen more Canadians spiral into the realm of conspiracy theories and it’s kept the misinformation expert busy.

So busy, he says, he felt he didn’t have time to really delve into one, particular conspiracy theory that was gaining traction: the racist lie that there is a co-ordinated effort to replace white people with immigrants, in what is known as the Great Replacement theory.

But it’s becoming impossible to ignore, he says, in the wake of what he calls alarming numbers about how the theory is finding adherents in Canada.

He points to a climate in which communities of believers have become more entrenched online and in which more mainstream politicians seem intent on co-opting conspiracy theories for their purposes.

“I am worried that that a large percentage of these individuals are going to remain in these communities, because they have become communities, Caufield said. “I think it becomes much more difficult to change people’s minds once that happens.”

Research conducted by Abacus Data asked 1,500 Canadians about their stance on conspiracy theories that have become popular during the pandemic.

It found nearly 40 per cent of respondents said they believe in the Great Replacement theory — the fiction linked to the massacre of 10 Black Americans last month in Buffalo, N.Y. It also suggested that millions more have embraced conspiracy theories about the pandemic.

The numbers struck Caulfield, who has lived and breathed the world of misinformation for much of his career.

“I’ve been studying this for a long time. You see these numbers, the degree to which people are completely disconnected from reality … it kind of almost breaks your heart,” he said.

More than half of survey respondents said official government statements can’t be trusted; 44 per cent said they believe a secret cabal of elites are controlling world events; and about 37 per cent, or the extrapolated equivalent of about 11 million people, said they believe “There is a group of people in this country who are trying to replace native born Canadians with immigrants who agree with their political view.”

In response to blatantly false theories such as “Bill Gates has been using microchips to track people and affect their behaviour,” 13 per cent of respondents said they agree. Another 21 per cent said it’s possible or they’re not sure.

The data shows the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories in Canada, which the pandemic played a major part in, Caulfield says.

“I think what a lot of these polls reflect is a normalization and almost an institutionalization of conspiracy theories,” Caulfield said. “They’ve gone from being on the fringes and believed by a fairly consistent percentage of the population throughout history, to now kind of bleeding into general public discourse.”

Caulfield said it shows how more and more people are willing to accept ideas that may have once seemed implausible.

“This isn’t ‘I don’t trust the current Canadian government because I think they have too many ties with industry,’” Caulfield said. “These are conspiracy theories that are pretty elaborate and far-fetched and aren’t even mildly plausible from a rational perspective.

“Despite that, you see a huge percentage of Canadians at least open to the idea that these conspiracy theories are true,” he added. “And that’s kind of terrifying.”

How did we get here?

It’s a confluence of factors, experts say. The pandemic played a big part — more people are isolated and getting their information from sources such as YouTube and fringe news websites. But social media platforms have also created communities that rally around these conspiracy theories for validation and acceptance, serving as a constant echo chamber.

Caulfield said there’s a lot of evidence that shows a causal relationship between people who get their information from places such as YouTube and a greater willingness to believe conspiracy theories.

He added that he believes certain political groups and individuals have been pushing lies, especially about global elites, because it’s politically profitable.

Conspiracy theories are related to rumour and contemporary legends, also known as urban legends, says John Bodner, a professor of folklore at Memorial University and co-author of ‘COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories: QAnon, 5G, the New World Order and Other Viral Ideas.’

What drives rumour, legend and conspiracy theories is the concept of believability and probability. At a time when the whole world is experiencing a paradigm shift, people are wondering, ‘Why is my life harder?’ ‘Why aren’t politicians paying attention to me?’ ‘How come no matter how I vote, nothing seems to change?’

Conspiracy theories offer a convenient answer to those questions, similar to populism, Bodner said.

“Conspiracy theories are kind of like narratives that help you think about your problems … it’s a way of them puzzling through real-world difficulties,” Bodner said.

The problem is an actual solution is rarely offered to those difficulties, he noted.

It’s not hard to make a far-fetched theory seem probable, Bodner said. For example, people generally accept the idea that corporations and politicians have more power than the average person. They also know that powerful groups and even governments have done horrible things to people over the course of history.

So it doesn’t take a huge leap in logic to be convinced that those powerful groups and individuals are targeting you, especially in troubling times such as during a global pandemic.

“You think about all these unethical things that people have done to people, and you’re like, ‘Well, that did happen.’ So this is where the ‘probable’ emerges,” Bodner said.

“So when you hear about a powerful person doing harm, it sits there, in the little nest of the probable.”

Similar to populism, which provides simple solutions to complex problems, conspiracy theories tend to blame for people’s challenges on an external threat.

It’s why the pandemic is associated with the rise and normalization of the Great Replacement theory, Bodner said.

“The structure of conspiracy theories are really based upon scapegoating. They’re based upon identifying an externalized other who is threatening your in-group.”

The “in group” is your circle with whom you relate to and identify. Over the pandemic, those groups largely formed online.

The online echo chamber may make it hard to pull people out of these beliefs as the world returns to normality, Caulfield said. One thing his research has shown is that once someone buys into one conspiracy theory, they’re likely to embrace them all.

“It really has become about this basket of beliefs,” Caulfield said.

These beliefs have become part of political brands and ideology and are being pushed by individuals who are seen as credible. It’s a major concern, he said, and one more Canadians need to be paying attention to.

“You have politicians in Canada making it seem legitimate,” Caulfield said. “Are we going to see more hate crimes because of the legitimization of these conspiracy theories? I think that is an absolutely legitimate concern.”

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