MONTREAL – An enthusiastic group assembled outside Francois Legault’s office in downtown Montreal in mid-July to make an impression on the Quebec chief: his administration can’t constrain them to wear masks in indoor open spaces to fight the spread of COVID-19.
“Long live freedom without a fight,” read one sign at the rally, which drew a few dozen individuals. “My body, my choice” read another, nearby a drawing of a clinical veil with a line across it.
The anti-mask movement isn’t exceptional to Quebec, nor are masks the main wellspring of contention in the nation with regards to public health directives around the novel coronavirus. But the issue is one of several at the heart of a growing online movement of disinformation around the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada.
Researchers say conspiracy theories about COVID-19 are spreading at an alarming rate across the country – and they warn misinformation shared online may lead to devastating consequences and push Canadians to shun important safety measures.
“I think that people should be enormously concerned,” said Aengus Bridgman, a PhD candidate in political science at McGill University and co-author of a study published last month on COVID-19 misinformation and its impact on public health.
The study found the more a person relies on social media to learn about COVID-19, the more likely they are to be exposed to misinformation and to believe it, and to disregard physical distancing and other public health guidelines. About 16 per cent of Canadians use social media as their primary source of information on the virus, Bridgman said in a recent interview.
His research team surveyed nearly 2,500 people and examined 620,000 English-language Twitter accounts, but Bridgman said COVID-19 misinformation also spreads on other social media platforms, including Facebook, YouTube, Reddit, Instagram and Tumblr.
For example, a Facebook group called “Against mandatory mask-wearing in Quebec” has over 22,000 members to date, while another group with a similar mission has nearly 21,000 members.
The posts on these pages vary, from questioning the science behind wearing masks and lambasting Horacio Arruda, Quebec’s public health director, for the mandatory mask rule, to accusing the World Health Organization of bias and Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates of creating the virus.
Protests have taken place across Canada since the provinces put COVID-19 lockdown measures in place earlier this year, from Vancouver, to Toronto and Quebec City, where hundreds rallied at the provincial legislature July 26 against mandatory mask-wearing.
Alison Meek, a history professor at Western University, said there are similarities between COVID-19 conspiracy theories and the anti-vaccination movement. Misinformation intentionally spread about COVID-19, she added, is also comparable to the conspiracy theories that circulated in the 80s and 90s during the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Governments have had to adapt their public health directives to keep up with rapidly evolving science about the virus.
Public uncertainty around the scientific process, combined with mounting frustrations with lockdown measures and a struggling economy has created a perfect storm in which conspiracy theories can flourish, Meek said.
“All of those things are coming together right now to make these conspiracy theories a real public health crisis that’s getting more and more difficult to deal with.”
News source: The Canadian Press