A quarter of Canadians believe in online conspiracy theories, expert says

A quarter of Canadians believe in conspiracy theories online, a radicalization and terrorism expert told a parliamentary committee on Thursday.

David Morin, a professor at the University of Sherbrooke, said a poll conducted for an upcoming report he is preparing for the Quebec government found that 9-10% of Canadians firmly believe in conspiracy theories, while 15 % believe in it moderately.

Morin told members of the Public and National Safety Committee that some of those who believe in conspiracy theories – “but not all” – have “a sympathy for violence”.

The survey, conducted by the marketing firm Léger, was conducted online from May 19 to June 6, 2021 with 4,500 respondents over the age of 14. A comparable margin of error for a probability sample of the same size would be +/- 1.5 percent. points, 19 times out of 20.

The poll asked 33 questions, including questions about pandemic conspiracy theories.

The report must be submitted to the Quebec government in the coming weeks.

Morin’s testimony came as the committee Thursday continued its study of ideologically motivated violent extremism (IMVE) in Canada.

Morin, who was named last month to a federal government advisory group on rules to combat harmful content online, said IMVE is a complex phenomenon driven by converging and diverging factors, including the far-right extremism, anti-government movements, misogyny and conspiracy theories. .

Morin said there has been a 250% increase in violent protests in Western countries over the past five years. Canada saw a 25% increase in hate crimes in 2020.

The changing nature of far-right extremism

Morin said there are a number of reasons for the increase in polarization: a loss of trust in institutions and the effect of social media and alternative media, as well as local and global contexts such as the pandemic, economic crises, migration crises and climate change. .

The nature of right-wing extremism has also changed over time, Morin said. Decades ago, he added, far-right extremists might have been neo-Nazis.

“The far right has evolved,” Morin said. “The far right today is also people in suits and ties.”

The far right has also adopted a populist tone, presenting itself as a movement defending ordinary people against elites, Morin said.

Police detain far-right protesters during a demonstration in Montreal on March 4, 2017. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Morin said it would be a mistake to underestimate the risk of FVI or to take the health of Canadian democracy for granted.

“Doing nothing is no longer an option,” Morin told MPs. “What to do is another problem. History teaches us that it is majorities and not minorities that overthrow democratic regimes.”

Morin also warned politicians of the dangers of partisanship and tries to score political points on the threat of extremism.

“It’s like walking around with matches in a dynamite warehouse,” Morin warned.

Intelligence agencies should infiltrate the far right: Morin

Morin said misinformation and disinformation is a major problem and countries seeking to interfere with rival nations use social media to exacerbate existing divisions in society.

He said regulations are needed and while the government has been monitoring potential foreign interference in the election, Morin said he should also extend that monitoring to the period between elections and do more to educate Canadians.

Morin also recommended that Canada’s intelligence agencies reinvest in infiltrating far-right extremist groups.

Carmen Celestini, a postdoctoral fellow with the Simon Fraser University Disinformation Project, told the committee that conspiracy theories play a critical role in social political movements and the spread of extremism.

“QAnon has gone from the online world to real-world violence and is, at present, a global phenomenon,” Celestini told MPs.

“The conspiracy spreads primarily via social media platforms. QAnon conspiracy adherents are not limited to any geographic range, with adherents and supporters found around the world, including Canada.”