Melanie Paradis: Thought scams are eating our brains, and dividing our country
Conservatives need to be part of the solution. Thus far, we're part of the problem.
By: Melanie Paradis
In the face of an increasingly disastrous war in Ukraine, Russia is shutting down independent media outlets, and threatening massive punishments for anyone caught spreading “fake news.” But Russian citizens aren’t the only victims of that country’s propagandizing and disinformation campaigns: Russia, and other foreign regimes, have been pushing insidious thought scams on Canadians for years, robbing our institutions of trust and our citizens of informed thought.
Foreign bad actors have worked hard to sow conspiracy theories, distrust and division. They encouraged anger and disinformation to impact recent American elections, and they have become well-entrenched here in Canada too.
Researchers at Simon Fraser University found Russia and Iran have been “spreading disinformation around highly emotional and divisive issues to further their strategic interests” in Canada.
But let’s be clear, the foreign, state-sponsored bad actors aren’t the only ones creating fake news. Often, their most effective attempts to amplify misinformation and lies begin with stories and claims that began right here at home. In a single week last month, as protesters descended on Ottawa and tensions around the country ran high, we saw a fake death by horse-trampling, a fake Governor General registry of 3.5 per cent of Canadians to secure a vote of no confidence, a fake frozen bank account, and a fake UN reinforcements story because a plane was getting maintenance in North Bay.
Each of these examples gained massive traction on social media platforms. While holding foreign entities to account, we absolutely must also take responsibility for the role we play. And that’s something leadership candidates for the Conservative Party of Canada must take very seriously.
Conspiracies have found more fertile ground on the right. We Conservatives have a moral responsibility to call this out, not dog whistle to it. Yet as noted here recently by Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner, that’s exactly what too many Conservatives have done, with little or no consequences. This isn’t good for the party, and worse, it’s hurting our country.
For years, pollsters have been warning about the deepening trust deficit in Canada. Edelman’s Trust Barometer found approximately half of Canadians believe journalists are purposefully trying to mislead people, that most news organizations are more concerned with supporting an ideology than informing the public, and that the media is not objective. The numbers are even worse for our government. According to Proof Strategies’ CanTrust Index, Canadians’ trust in government dropped from 40 per cent in 2016 to just 22 per cent this year. Think about that. Three-quarters of Canadians don’t trust the government. That’s staggering.
Worse, this distrust has been compounded by the increasingly myopic, rabbit-hole feedback loops we find ourselves trapped within on our social media channels. This has made many Canadians vulnerable to thought scams.
When elderly, vulnerable Canadians were scammed out of their savings by fake CRA calls, we went after the call-centres in other countries to stop them. When people fell for the Nigerian Prince scam, the AARP issued a warning about it. When an even more elaborate version of the same scam was used on dating apps, we got The Tinder Swindler on Netflix because the victims wanted to warn others.
But when the same kinds of thought scams are used to destroy social cohesion and turn us against one another, we seem to lose the ability to see this poison for what it is. Instead, we react exactly as our adversaries intend, becoming hostile towards people who have fallen prey to bad-faith misinformation.
The spread of disinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines by Russia exacerbated vaccine hesitancy and limited the ability of our governments to effectively implement health measures. The Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI) found that Russian state-sponsored propaganda was behind the spread of conspiracy theories that 5G wireless technology caused health problems and somehow was responsible for the COVID-19 outbreak. Russian troll farms also amplified stories about vaccine side effects and dangers. The NCRI analyzed four million news articles on pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and Moderna, and found that since the start of 2020, known-disinformation sources produced over 500,000 of those articles. That’s one in eight articles. That’s a wild amount of content to expect Canadians to just ignore.
We must fight back against these scams of disinformation. Instead, we have been allowing for a deepening of divisions and a compounding of rage. Some Conservatives have been so quick to point to the unhelpful things Justin Trudeau says — a “fringe minority” with “unacceptable views” — and intentionally exploit that for political gain. Should he say those things? No. Are we helping the situation? Also no.
This is dangerous and unsustainable. It also demonstrates a stark difference between the people who want to build this country up and those who want to tear a political party down.
Our society has so little trust in Canadian institutions. That has been dangerously exploited by scammers from around the world. We must redouble our efforts to uphold the truth, no matter the costs, and rebuild the shattered trust of so many Canadians. It’s time to flip the script and fight back against disinformation and scams by addressing them head-on, and by remembering that the victims of them are still our fellow citizens, and that yelling at them or mocking them online doesn’t actually solve the problem. It just makes things worse.
Melanie Paradis is a veteran Conservative campaigner and strategist, and executive ghost-writer.
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