Alberta MLA lends credence to COVID-19 'concentration camps' misinformation
Health expert says those with high profiles can rapidly escalate spread of conspiracy theories
Banff-Kananaskis MLA Miranda Rosin on Tuesday reassured a constituent that the provincial government would never create COVID-19 "concentration camps" — but added that if the "rumours" were true, it would involve the federal government.
In doing so, Rosin helped to spread a misinformation campaign that has been been circulating on social media for weeks, says a health policy expert.
"It's a pretty hardcore conspiracy theory," said Timothy Caulfield, a Canada Research Chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta. "It's extremely disappointing to have government officials, elected officials, helping spread this disinformation."
In a comment posted to Rosin's Facebook page, a constituent requested that government "STOP the COVID concentration camps."
In response, Rosin commented that, "If the rumours are true, those are being set up by the federal government, not us."
"Rest assured we would never create such a thing," she wrote.
Earlier this week, health officials pushed back against the spread of the misinformation, the crux of which claims that the federal government is preparing to forcibly send Canadians to quarantine sites.
Funding has been announced for voluntary quarantine sites for homeless Canadians, and the federal government has plans to expand the number of sites available for international travellers who need to self-isolate but do not have space to do so.
But a spokesperson for Health Minister Patty Hajdu told CBC News earlier this week that no one will be forced to leave their homes to go into a "COVID camp."
Speaking Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he had to tell a young woman that the government would not remove Canadians from their homes to put them in facilities.
"There is a tremendous amount of noise and harmful misinformation about [the pandemic] on the internet.… We need to hold together and resist people who would sow chaos within our communities and our democracy," he said.
MLA says she received hateful correspondence
In an update posted on Facebook , Rosin said Thursday that she should have denounced the constituent's use of the term "concentration camp."
"Yet in the moment, I quickly responded to him that the leak was but a rumour at this point, and that if such facilities were being set up, they were not being done so by our provincial government," Rosin wrote.
"We have worked hard to reopen Alberta's economy, and we aren't moving backwards."
Sharing an email purportedly received after the post, Rosin wrote that she had been insulted and called names typically used to denigrate women.
"As a society, we can and we should behave better. I believe in a world where we can all treat each other humanely no matter how much we may disagree on things. Politics don't need to divide us like this," she wrote.
Rosin was not immediately available to provide additional comment on Thursday.
In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson for Premier Jason Kenney's office referred CBC News to a recent interview with the premier by Alberta talk radio host Danielle Smith.
"I think a certain conspiracy theory has developed around this," Kenney said on the radio show. "My understanding was that it was basically for hotel rooms for arriving international travellers."
Kenney said Alberta has taken similar steps, such as when the province saw large outbreaks in meat-packing plants earlier this year.
"We offered to put a number of those people up in hotels during the quarantine period," Kenney said. "I think that some of this is turning into, unfortunately, a conspiracy theory. No government is going to engage in mandatory quarantine of people."
Expert says misinformation can erode trust in health policy
Caulfield said that when high-profile individuals in society like politicians, sports stars or celebrities spread misinformation, it can help conspiracy theories take flight.
"There's a good body of research emerging on exactly that," he said. "Even if you don't necessarily align yourself with that individual, just their ability to get that misinformation out there causes it to spread. There's been research that has backed up exactly that."
Caulfield said that those who align themselves with misinformation and conspiracy theories are less likely to adopt appropriate precautions, such as wearing masks or following physical distancing rules.
"So when we have politicians making irresponsible statements, you're really contributing to a public health crisis," he said. "The other thing that is fascinating about this story, is this is a pretty hardcore conspiracy theory. This is not something that is even rational.
"It demonstrates the incredible traction that misinformation can have."
Speaking Tuesday, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, said it was up to every Canadian to fight the spread of fake news and fight back against false information.
"That is a dual challenge, for sure. Misinformation, disinformation, does not help public health officials," she said.
WATCH: Dr. Theresa Tam is asked about bogus COVID-19 claims:
With files from John Paul Tasker