Day 6

Experts warn weak pandemic guidance, lack of accountability increasing radicalization risk 

Experts tracking online chatter say that conspiracy theorists and far-right activists are using perceived weaknesses among federal and provincial governments to "garner more support for their own narratives."

For the past year, experts have warned that the pandemic anxiety could be exploited by fringe groups

Extremist groups are taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to expand their networks of hate, according to experts. (Dmytro Tyshchenko/Shutterstock)

Experts tracking online chatter say conspiracy theorists and far-right activists are using perceived weaknesses among federal and provincial governments to "garner more support for their own narratives."

"This anti-statism, this criticism of the government, fits nicely with their broader narratives, and it allows them to take mainstream grievances and concerns and make them their own and exploit that very much," said Barbara Perry, director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University.

For the past year, experts have warned that the COVID-19 pandemic could be used by extremist, militia and fringe groups to spread disinformation and muddy the waters among those who are already skeptical about the pandemic itself. 

Earlier this week, for instance, American far-right radio host Alex Jones condemned Ontario Premier Doug Ford over a recent, contentious media conference during which Ford enacted increased restrictions that would greatly enhance police powers. Following pushback, he walked back the decision.

Echoing — but also spinning — concerns from groups like the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), Jones accused Ford of enacting martial law in Ontario, attacking Ontario's premier using a string of colourful language, including comparing Ford to a "giant, demonic ferret." 

And while groups like the CCLA are clear that their goal is to advocate for civil liberties and equitable justice, Perry says people like Jones can send unsuspecting listeners "down the rabbit hole and introduce increasingly extreme and radical conspiracies and ideologies."

"It's almost a process of grooming," Perry told Day 6 host Brent Bambury. "It's not a linear process, it's not an immediate process … But I think once they've got their clutches into you, they are very effective at massaging your anxieties, your concerns to fit into their narratives."

She drew a comparison to the way that far-right groups in Canada transformed the French Yellow Vest movement — one that initially advocated for improved economic justice — into something that "wove in themes of xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment."

Yellow Vest demonstrators hold a rally in Red Deer, Alta. Ontario Tech University's Barbara Perry says the Yellow Vest movement has twisted concerns about economic justice to stoke fears about xenophobia, among other issues of bigotry. (Dave Rae/CBC)

COVID-19 the 'perfect storm for conspiracy'

Howard Ramos, a sociology professor at Western University, says that he doesn't see COVID-19 as a specific cause for action on the part of fringe groups. 

"It's a matter that it's the opportunity that's currently present," Ramos told Day 6. "It could be any other critical event, or anything that exposes politicians or leaders, that people like Alex Jones will comment on." 

Nonetheless, he said that it's important to focus on COVID-19 because the pandemic isn't a "single acute event."

"It's a crisis that is prolonged, and this gives multiple opportunities," Ramos said. "Something that's so evolving, like COVID-19, is the perfect storm for conspiracy." 

WATCH How can we identify extremists and curb hate online?

How can we identify extremists and curb hate online?

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Our panel looks into current efforts to monitor the darkest corners of the internet where hate and extremism can grow, in order to prevent attacks like the one in El Paso. 12:05

When governments implement pandemic-related guidance that is inconsistent with science, it allows fringe groups to spread skepticism more easily, while the changing science on vaccines gives those with anti-vaccination views extra ammunition, according to Ramos.

"Science is literally being conducted as we speak," he said. "With respect to policy, because of the pace of the pandemic, things are changing very quickly. That creates contradictions, that creates opportunities for people with strong views to act on."

Ramos adds that changing rules around lockdowns and restrictions can often sound like an attack on civil liberties to far-right groups.

"[These] are issues that are part of the base of support for their organizations and their views."

Science-based policies can sway those in the middle

Though extremist and fringe groups are galvanizing support through the pandemic, Perry says it's possible to ensure that critical conversations are had without leading to accidental radicalization. 

However, she said focus must be paid to the people in the middle of two camps: those who are less informed, but who are nonetheless affected by the problems associated with COVID-19.

"Those are the folks that we can continue to sway with science, if you will," Perry said.

At the same time, she said civil society organizations and governments have a "huge role to play" in terms of establishing consistent, coherent, science-based policies. 

"That's one of the things that has been missing," Perry said.

"Governments have let us down in terms of providing leadership around enhancing our understanding."


Written and produced by Sameer Chhabra.

Hear full episodes of Day 6 on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.

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