Push to reopen the economy fuelled by disinformation, political gaslighting

    May 13, 2020

    OTTAWA—Donald Trump’s gaslighting of America is rapidly turning into Canadian policy. This is being orchestrated through an aggressive disinformation campaign, controlled and co-ordinated by the White House.  

    On May 11, thousands of children in Quebec returned to school after an eight-week absence as a result of measures undertaken to stop the spread of COVID-19. Quebec was hit particularly hard by this virus, resulting in a high of 1,110 new cases on May 1, bringing its total to 38,469 cases as of May 11. In fact, coronavirus cases in Canada reached a milestone on that day with the death toll reaching 5,000, with most of these deaths in—you guessed it—Quebec. 

    Must be nice to be top shotta of the “reopen the economy” mafia, because that’s what the band of provincial premiers who are moving ahead with such plans, who appear to be doing the most to ensure that people’s lives are endangered for the good of the economy, are. 

    Quebec Premier François Legault. The province re-opened elementary schools and daycares on May 11. Photograph courtesy of François Legault’s Instagram

    Speaking of organized crime, the recklessness with which many premiers are opening the economy is not only the fault of their short-term, callous thinking, it originated as an orchestrated movement whose media manipulation tactics and disinformation techniques lie squarely at the heart of the White House. 

    The term “misinformation” is false information that is shared about a specific subject; disinformation is misinformation created to intentionally spread to confuse, deny, and lie to mislead the recipients of that information. In 1923, Russia established a special disinformation office, used by the then-precursor to the KGB as a tactical weapon for political warfare to influence the course of global events and tilt the analysis of those events in Russia’s favour. 

    Today, the purpose remains the same, but is mostly done through social media, a fact uncovered by Buzzfeed News in their story on Russian disinformation campaigns after their invasion of Crimea: “The bizarre hive of social media activity appears to be part of a two-pronged Kremlin campaign to claim control over the internet, launching a million-dollar army of trolls to mold American public opinion as it cracks down on internet freedom at home.” These troll farms were instrumental in the shaping of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

    The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence tabled a report in April of this year entitled, Report of the Select Committee On Intelligence United States Senate On Russian Active Measures, Campaigns And Interference In The 2016 U.S. Election, that laid out the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the Russian government’s attempt “to access election infrastructure” with a campaign that “sought to polarize Americans on the basis of societal, ideological, and racial differences, provoked real world events, and was part of a foreign government’s covert support of Russia’s favored candidate in the U.S. presidential election.” Hence the rancour of the public and politicians directed at the social media giants. Also, hence the Mueller Investigation. 

    Enter the Trump White House, which has never been ride or die for the truth, or facts, or information, for that matter—however, as the masters of media manipulation, that doesn’t really matter. 

    Misinformation that turns into disinformation campaigns and the irreverent use of Twitter are what make U.S. President Donald Trump particularly effective at galvanizing his fan base to organize the spread of his “fake news.” In this sense, the president of the United States runs his own informal troll farm, using Fox News as its public relations arm. It’s quite brilliant if you look at this ecosystem of mendacity through a dispassionate lens. What he has learned is a tenet of today’s digital media environment: a platform is power, and an engaged base provides inexpensive and inexhaustible ways to transmit your message, rapidly. 

    Enter mainstream media. 

    The problem with disinformation is that it is no longer confined to the anus of the internet or even social media; conspiracy theories that used to live there are now being platformed by media we rely on to tell us the truth and the politicians we rely on to make policy decisions. And let’s be real, these are politicians whose oxygen supply is connected to the latest poll, so in that sense, media becomes instrumental in framing an issue and presenting it through a lens of critical analysis. (George Lakoff, a professor at UC Berkeley explained the taxonomy of Trump’s tweets as an effort to control the news cycle.)

    What we have, instead, is a media that mainly transcribes Trump’s messages, rather than challenging them for credibility or accuracy. In addition, just to make sure selected politicians stuck with the program, right-wing groups co-ordinate “protests” to pressure government officials to do their bidding. And that’s exactly what happened with the “re-open the economy” debate: we got played. 

    Let’s look at how this played out. 

    March 24: Trump states that he wants the economy open by Easter; this year, Easter Sunday was on April 12.

    April 7: 42 states implemented lockdown or “shelter-in-place” restrictions.

    April 12: Anti-lockdown protests in Canada began in Vancouver and Vernon on April 12, the same day as protests happened in Ohio and the same day as Trump’s deadline to reopen the U.S. economy.

    April 15: One of the first large-scale “anti-lockdown protests” was held in Michigan. It was organized by a Facebook group, “Operation Gridlock,” created by the Michigan Freedom Fund, and they spread like wildfire. Protesters in multiple other states cited Michigan as an inspiration and used similar material on their own websites, Facebook groups, and Reddit pages to promote their protests. Interesting fact, the Michigan Freedom Fund was bankrolled by the deVos family. You know, Betsey deVos, the Secretary of Education. 

    April 17: 

    No one: …


    A protestor pictured along Laurier Ave. W. outside Ottawa City Hall on April 22. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

    In the next few weeks, the news cycle in Canadian media had turned this into a debate between reopening the economy or not, as though the choices had equitable outcomes. This is not a coincidence, it’s co-ordinated; it is intended to fit into Trump’s re-election strategy, predicated on a robust economy. 

    However, a pandemic can only be controlled so much and is often unpredictable, much like Trump himself. The U.S. is a ticking COVID-19 time-bomb with the latest death count as of filing deadline at 82,555 and 1,395,026 infected. That’s bad news for Ontario, sandwiched between tweedle dee and tweedle don’t, whose early COVID-19 infections came from across the 49th parallel.

    It is unfortunate for us that the push to reopen the economy comes at a time when we are yet to have proper personal protective equipment (PPE) for health-care workers, long-term care facilities are exploding with the virus, Ontario’s cases are beginning to increase again, we don’t yet have a vaccine, and we are being consistently told by the Conservative Party how lazy we are because we are taking proper precautions for an unprecedented pandemic.

    The fact that is most terrifying, though, is that those countries (South Korea, Germany, China) who seemed to have a handle on this virus, and who have reopened their economies, are now seeing new virus outbreaks, demonstrating that without these lockdown procedures, we could be right back in the same place we were in March. 

    This pandemic is not just a mere inconvenience, it’s literally life and death, yet we have politicians gaslighting us into believing otherwise. What a dystopian nightmare of epic proportions. 

    Erica Ifill is a co-host of the Bad+Bitchy podcast.