CALGARY—As we round out the end of this traumatic year and look forward to a depressing Christmas and New Year’s, we are reminded that the appearance of a COVID-19 vaccine has brought with it one of the most insidious villains of our time: disinformation.
Jane Lytvynenko of Buzzfeed News, whose reporting on misinformation, disinformation, and fake news has been nothing less than stalwart (makes me wonder where establishment Canadian media has been for the past six years on this issue), called 2020 the “year of the infodemic. Month after month, self-serving social media companies have let corrosive manipulators out for dollars, votes, and clicks vie for attention, no matter the damage.”
Indeed, and now the official opposition has decided to get in on the short-term political largess that comes in the form of white, male rage that froths at the mouth at the very thought of small- and big-L liberals. It’s a cynical calculation, but one that has the potential to add legitimacy to Canada’s own cult of anti-vaxxers, anti-COVID restrictions/anti-lockdown protestors, QAnon believers, and all-round protesters of “political correctness,” which seemed to be the canary in the coal mine that morphed these groups into something resembling Jabba the Hut. Or that dude who lost the U.S. election and is now on his own disinformation campaign of non-existent fraudulent votes that won the race for president-elect Joe Biden.
On Dec. 2, Conservative Ontario MP Derek Sloan sponsored a petition by Gisele Baribeau, who also happens to be director of the anti-vaxxer group Vaccine Choice Canada, on the House of Commons website that, as described by The National Post, “suggests the way the vaccine is being approved amounts to ‘human experimentation’ and the fact it is being backed by a Conservative has led the Liberals to suggest the party doesn’t believe in science.” That’s a fair assessment by the Liberals, no matter how much the PMO mucked up the communications on Erin O’Toole’s acceptance of this disinformation campaign. O’Toole’s response, when asked about whether he thinks this petition would give anti-vaxxers legitimacy, responded to the Global News question with: “I do not agree that by asking relevant, timely questions about various COVID-19 vaccine candidates that a person is therefore somehow fuelling ‘anti-vaccine sentiment,’ as you have characterized it.” Granted, he later refined his position to affirm his belief in the vaccine, but then turned around and blamed the actions of an anti-vaxxer and conspirator, Sloan, on Liberal secrecy on the exact logistics of the vaccine rollout. In not sanctioning Sloan, he has emboldened this insidious branch of the Conservative Party. And he probably didn’t do so because he, himself, has been playing fast and loose with his own set of “alternative facts”.
In early December, O’Toole spent days criticizing the alleged timing of a vaccine—with Canadian news media taking up his mantle uncritically—that rolled out this week. In fact, O’Toole routinely claimed that Canada was at the back of the line for a COVID-19 vaccine even after the chariman of Moderna, one of the vaccine-makers, told CBC that “Canada is near the front of the line to receive 20 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine it preordered.” That didn’t stop O’Toole from continuing to parrot that line, giving Chrystia Freeland an opportunity to call him out on it during Question Period, calling his misconstructions of her words a “bad habit”. But that doesn’t stop O’Toole and the Conservatives from continuing to parrot that message as a fundraising strategy, especially since “Back of the Line” is featured on the Conservative.ca website.
Here’s where I fail to understand the argument: the Conservatives are upset that Canada is at the back of the line (which we never were) but are upset that there is a vaccine and have chosen to back anti-vaxxers in rejecting that vaccine? Did logic exit the building while I was sleeping in a home I haven’t left in three weeks?
What is clear is that the replacement of Andrew Scheer has ushered in a new crew of Conservatives with ostensibly fewer scruples than one would hope from a group vying to be in charge of the country. Jeff Ballingall, creator of Canada Proud and The Post Millennial executive, headed O’Toole’s digital strategy for his leadership campaign. Just recently, Canada Proud promoted this false Facebook post, “The government has banned Canadians from going near the National War Memorial on Remembrance Day. But Justin Trudeau is fine with attending mass protests.” Last year, the Twitter account misrepresented an interaction between Trudeau and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
While the Liberals aren’t saints, or particularly believable in their aspirational messaging, there is something sinister about the political head games, roundabouts, and gaslighting that the first 100 days of O’Toole’s reign has unleashed and platformed. If this continues, anti-vaxxers spreading lies about the COVID vaccine may be the least of our worries for 2021, we’ll have to worry about the opposition’s grasp on the truth.
Erica Ifill is a co-host of the Bad+Bitchy podcast.