Modern Hell #17: Maple-flavoured paranoia
American-style discourse has infected Canada through social media. Now what?
“Canadian politicians, MPs, you guys are wearing panic buttons. That says a lot. When a government is afraid of its own citizens, they are not long for this world,” prolific Tik Tok-er tomtheproudcanadian21.2 ranted a couple of days ago, before quoting the 5th of November poem about the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. “It’s almost as if our government completely forgot that 1776 happened. It’s almost like they forgot why it happened,” he continued, mixing his national histories. Among the many hashtags he added to his video was #patriotswithoutborders, a portal into an endless chaotic library of wild-eyed first-person warnings from both sides of the border about social collapse and vague allusions to a plan set in motion by “the powers that be.”
It’s always been impossible for Canadians to avoid America’s influence. Cross-border culture war seepage has been a concern ever since the threat of actual war dissipated near the end of the 19th Century. The internet didn’t create Canada’s absorption of American political and social habits, good and bad, but something has changed since the social media era. What happens in America now resonates in a different way. People have begun to hear things differently, interpreting U.S. culture within a new mental framework. Whereas worry has long driven Canadian interpretation of American culture, what’s driving people here now is something more profound, and more distinctly American. Paranoia.
Social media is an accelerant for conspiracy thinking, but does misinformation cross borders? Last year, a study led by McGill University used data from Twitter to examine the spread of Covid-19 misinformation across the border between the U.S. and Canada. Unsurprisingly, they found Canadian users typically follow more Americans than Canadians and also reshare a lot of American tweets – 45% of the accounts they looked at shared U.S.-based content. As for “the relationship between exposure to U.S.-based information and direct propagation of Covid-19 misinformation”? “We find that exposure to U.S. Twitter accounts is associated with more direct engagement with Covid-19 misinformation on social media,” as well as with actually posting tweets containing COVID-19 misinformation. “Social media exposure is related to Covid-19 misperceptions in large part because of its capacity to amplify the impact of content coming from the U.S. information environment,” the researchers found.
There’s correlational evidence elsewhere that long-term exposure to this tainted southern infostream is gradually warping our northern brains. In 2016, Angus Reid polled Canadians to gauge their belief in conspiracy theories. At the time, 33% of respondents said the statement “a secretive power elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to rule the world through an authoritarian world government” was either definitely or probably true. It doesn’t look like Angus Reid refreshed their study more recently, but in June of this year, 44% of respondents told Abacus Data they agree that “big events like wars, recessions, and the outcome of elections are controlled by small groups of people working in secret against us.” The two statements aren’t the same, but the basic idea is similar. And more people are willing to not only believe it, but – crucially – proselytize.
This is a key marker of a paranoid discourse. In 1964, when Richard Hofstadter famously labeled the “paranoid style” of American politics, he linked it directly to a longstanding belief in conspiracy theories, and noted how its participants didn’t simply believe for themselves in grandiose false narratives, but intentionally spread them. “As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader,” Hofstadter wrote. Convinced they are one of the few who sees things clearly, these militant conspiracists see only a zero-sum game in every facet of society, in every culture war. “He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician,” Hofstadter wrote.
The last half-decade or more in the U.S. has been an experiment in seeing what happens when working politicians become militant conspiracy theorists. In Canada, we appear poised to run the same program here, too.
In its June survey, Abacus found that 20% of Canadian respondents believe that the World Economic Forum has a “secretive strategy to impose their ideas on the world.” (Another 37% said that it was possible, but they weren’t sure.) Anticipating a potential economic downturn from Covid-19, in 2020 the WEF launched its “great reset” initiative, which imagined that out of the crisis a new kind of capitalist system could be created – one that had fairer market outcomes, encouraged investments that promoted equality and sustainability, and that harnessed innovations to address health and social challenges. The phrase quickly became short-hand for a theory that the WEF was trying to impose socialism across the planet.
“I’m against their proposals,” Conservative Party leadership front-runner and Canada’s most terminally online politician, Pierre Poilievre, said of the WEF earlier this year. “I’m against their socialist agenda.” In 2020, Poilievre tweeted a quote purportedly from the WEF (that doesn’t actually seem to appear anywhere) that verged on endorsing the idea that the Covid-19 pandemic was deliberately orchestrated, or planned.
Meanwhile, after having received exactly one access-to-information request prior to 2021 regarding the WEF, the government has now received 16 in the last 18 months, including one that requested communications between Elections Canada and the WEF and another seeking “contracts” signed between the federal government and the WEF, neither of which turned up any documents. But people are looking.
Two years ago, on July 2, 2020, Corey Hurren drove his truck through the main gates at Rideau Hall, the Governor General’s official residence in Ottawa. Inside the cab were five loaded guns. The words ‘Event 201’ were spray-painted on the side of his truck, a reference to a 2019 global pandemic simulation run by Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and— you guessed it—the WEF. In reality, Event 201 was a test-run to plan a coordinated policy response in the event of a real pandemic. In conspiracy land, it was evidence that Covid-19 had been created so Bill Gates could plant microchips, etc.
“Shortly before his attack, [Curren] posted about Event 201 on his social media,” the National Post reported. “Hurren said the conspiracy theory ‘indirectly aggravated’ his urge to attack. It showed Covid was preventable, he said, which means all the misery it unleashed in his life didn’t have to happen.” Financially distraught, Curren said he felt as if he were under “house arrest” during the Covid-19 lockdowns, “and believed it would continue for more than a year longer, because the Event 201 simulation had an 18-month timeframe.” In a note he’d written that police found in his truck after his arrest, Curren had written: “I could no longer sit back and watch this happen. I hope this is a wakeup call and a turning point.”
Ahead of Canada Day this week, Pierre Poilievre showed up at the last leg of the so-called “march for freedom,” a cross-Canada walk organized ostensibly to oppose vaccine mandates (most of which are now lifted), but that has attracted to it a similar anti-government and anti-vaccine groups whose adherents occupied downtown Ottawa for weeks this past winter. After walking alongside the march, Poilievre tweeted: “End all mandates. Restore our freedoms. Let people take back control of their lives.”
Just as it is in the U.S., the paranoia is mainstream here now, too. Curren said he wanted a wakeup call, a turning point — a broader shared acceptance of his skewed worldview. Whether we’ve passed a point of no return into a fully paranoid-driven society, I don’t know. But for those of us who still expect both working politicians as well as everyone else to mediate and compromise, to inhabit a clear-headed reality — to not be totally fucking paranoid — our wakeup call can’t get much louder.