How we went from banging pots to picketing hospitals
Populism fuelled by misinformation is a scourge on democracy at the best of time, and it was naive to think it would be different during a pandemic election
Phaedra de Saint-Rome is a graduate student at the Max Bell School of Public Policy where she is also co-editor of The Bell. She currently works as a research assistant at the Centre for Media, Technology, and Democracy, where she has been involved with the Canadian Election Misinformation Project at the Media Ecosystem Observatory. She is a dual Finnish-Canadian and is interested in the challenges and opportunities of policymaking at the global level, with a particular focus on digital technologies and geopolitics, platform governance, and mis-/dis-information. Write us at email@example.com
Protestors marching against vaccine passports and mandatory COVID-19 vaccines for health care workers in Vancouver in early September. (Source: CBC News)
ONLY TWELVE MONTHS AGO, videos of citizens banging pots and pans from their apartment balconies filled our newsfeeds. The commotion was a show of gratitude to healthcare workers who were on the frontlines of a still very new pandemic; images circulated of medical professionals covered in bruises from strapping goggles and masks to their faces. We read about ICUs at capacity, and nurses, doctors, and support staff isolating themselves from their families in order to avoid bringing the virus home. In some instances, we learned of healthcare professionals, like Dr. Karine Dion, taking their lives because of the overwhelming distress caused by trying to care for COVID-19 patients.
These days, we read about protestors demonstrating outside of medical facilities across Canada to oppose the health measures put in place to curb the ongoing spread of COVID-19. We see images of adults demonstrating outside of schools to this same end. And while the majority of Canadians agree on the need for widespread vaccination, among other measures, to curb the pandemic, a vocal minority claim to “reject tyrannical government overreach,” while they block ambulances from accessing hospitals.
A pandemic election was always going to be different from the elections we were used to. But I don’t think many (if any) of us in the mainstream expected the Liberal leader to be met with chants to “lock him up,”to have gravel thrown at him, or, in one instance, lead to a speaking event being cancelled because of a threat of violence. In the case of Liberal candidate Marc Serré, the threat turned real when he was assaulted in his campaign office.
The People's Party of Canada and misinformation are tangible factors in this election in ways they never were before to this extent. They have each contributed to the new realities described above, relating to one another in important though not necessarily obvious ways. The former has succeeded in implicitly making itself the party of the anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers by preaching values of populism and libertarianism, attracting those who accuse the government of “tyrannical overreach,” and playing to the growing distrust in experts, traditional media, and institutions in Canada.
At the same time, misinformation during the pandemic has spread online like wildfire. Last year, researchers at the Media Ecosystem Observatory (which, in the interest of full transparency, is where I work as a research assistant), described the phenomenon as a, “worldwide infodemic where unprecedented levels of misinformation have contributed to widespread misconceptions about the novel coronavirus.”
The combination of pandemic-isolation and the scourge of misinformation plaguing social platforms means there is a correlation between COVID-19 misperceptions and the rise of anger, hate, and even violence during the election. At a time when anger and fear are seen as electoral currency, it is a slippery slope from populist libertarianism to the vitriol and the violent behaviours we witness from some on the right in the United States. Though pundits like to take issue with this idea, emotions -- not political platforms -- drive voter preferences in an election.
It was a mistake to assume that a snap election in Canada would be free of the forces we watched influence the discourse around the 2020 presidential election in the United States. To use mail-in ballots as an example because they were the “hot” topic next door: As in the US, in Canada trust in mail-in ballots falls along party lines, meaning partisans of certain parties are more likely to vote by mail than others. Because of the spike in absentee ballots requested this year, as well as the fact that Elections Canada counts votes by hand and won’t start the counting until voting closes on Election Day, we likely won’t know the results of the election for at least a few days. As we have seen in other countries, this delay in reporting official results is a prime environment in which misinformation spreads, which can sometimes lead to real-world consequences.
During an election, anything can happen. In 2015, that meant that a party in third place in the polls won a majority government. In 2021, that means that a newly-formed political party on the far right has emerged from obscurity, galvanizing the anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers and joining them with populists and extremists under one big, purple umbrella.
Cynics might say that Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party expected all of this when they dissolved parliament, and that a rise in support for the PPC would benefit the Liberals electorally by drawing voters away from the Conservatives. No matter the thinking, a pandemic election was bound to be a crucible of misinformation, populism and disruption, and there was perhaps an element of naivete in the Liberal belief that good polling would necessarily lead to a majority win (at the time of publication we seem on track to elect another minority government).
But the bigger, more long-term idea that we need to come to terms with is that misinformation is a potent force upending western democracies, and is an issue we need to seriously address in Canada. Once these ideas are unleashed and take hold, a citizenry becomes divided along lines of those who believe in facts and those who do not, creating information silos among a populace where mutual understanding and a shared basis of knowledge cease to exist.
Lowering the voting age to 16 could be a means of reinforcing Canadian democracy. Perhaps not an obvious solution, lowering voting eligibility to an age when young Canadians are still in school could tackle the erosive effect of misinformation on democracy. If Canadians’ first experience voting is at a time in their life when they are receiving formative instruction, not only can it instil in them a greater habit of civic duty over their lifetime, but this way, schools -- as institutions still broadly trusted by Canadians -- can also serve as key channels to deliver basic, factual information about how voting in our country works. According to a survey fielded by the Media Ecosystem Observatory, Canadians of all political stripes are generally unaware of how ballot counting takes place in Canada. Schools already play a key role in building mutual understanding and shared knowledge. Communicating civic information as a way of tackling the rising tide of misinformation and bolstering democracy could be an obvious next step. (PdS-R)
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The Bell is edited by Jaclyn Victor, Jason Kreutz, Shweta Menon and Phaedra de Saint-Rome of the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University.