On Conspiracy Theories, Canadian Exceptionalism and the Responsibility of Leaders to Protect the Common Good
Special guest post by David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data
Note from Éric: I am away this week and next, so there will be no Weekly Writ until after Canada Day. But I do have some content planned for while I’m gone, including this guest post by Abacus Data CEO David Coletto:
Canadians are not that different from Americans. A shocking, surprising statement to be sure, but one that I’ve become more convinced of over the past few weeks.
Over the past 10 days, my firm Abacus Data released results from a survey we conducted in May with 1,500 Canadian adults that explored their views on the media and government, belief in the Great/ White Replacement Theory, and COVID conspiracy theories. The poll results and our analysis has gained a lot of attention – more perhaps than any poll we have released before.
A quick summary of the poll results reveals:
52% of Canadian adults agree that “official government accounts of events can’t be trusted”.
44% of Canadian adults agree that “much of the information we receive from news organizations is false”.
37% of Canadians agree that “there is a group of people in the country who are trying to replace native-born Canadians with immigrants who agree with their political views.” This is an articulation of what is commonly referred to as replacement theory.
20% believe it is definitely or probably true that “the World Economic Forum is a group of global elites with a secretive strategy to impose their ideas on the world.”
19% of Canadian adults believe “COVID vaccines have killed many people which has been covered up”.
9% believe it is definitely or probably true that “COVID was caused by the rollout of 5G wireless technology as electromagnetic frequencies undermined immune systems”.
Beyond the topline results, the survey found that those who believe these ideas tend to be on the right side of the political spectrum, are the most likely to distrust media and government, and are also the least likely to have received a COVID vaccine. Moreover, if you believe one of these conspiracy theories you are also likely to believe others.
Like Americans, we are susceptible to mistruths, conspiracy theories and misinformation. Like Americans, we are humans, who worry about the future and feel increasingly anxious about the magnitude of change impacting society, the economy and the world around us. And just like Americans, we are increasingly isolated from one another, living in bubbles and connected to networks that increasingly share our views and rarely challenge our worldviews or perspectives.
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The United States experienced an attempted insurrection and political coup in January 2021. Canada experienced an occupation of its capital city for weeks in January and February 2022. Both events are not isolated, nor disconnected. They are built on a foundation of misinformation, conspiracy theories and distrust.
What do our polling results mean for Canadian politics and the future of elections?
#1: Canadians and Canada are not exceptional. What happens in other countries to other people CAN happen here.
We must get over the idea that we are somehow immune to the forces that create and spread extremism, misinformation and distrust around the world. We did this research partly because we wanted to put a spotlight on something, while deeply uncomfortable and upsetting, that is happening in Canada.
#2: We need responsible leaders, not regulations or new laws from governments.
Many people immediately point to social media and the internet as the primary causes of extremism and misinformation. Undoubtedly, in my mind, they contribute to the spread and propagation of these ideas, but they aren’t the cause. Enterprising political leaders, businesses, and influencers are profiting from the inequality, distrust and immense change that are at the root of this social upheaval.
In our polling, those who use Twitter, Facebook or YouTube everyday are only slightly more likely to believe some of the crazy ideas we explored in our research. For example, of those who use Twitter every day (about 7% of Canadian adults) 19% think that the World Economic Forum is trying to impose their ideas on the world. The same percentage who never use Twitter believe the same thing.
Regulating the internet won’t erase the deep suspicion people have about government or the media. In fact, it may fuel it, especially if enacted by a government and political leaders who are already deeply suspect in the eyes of those who believe and spread the lies and misinformation we captured in our survey.
The reason why so many people seek their information from social media is because they don’t trust what they hear, see or read from traditional news organizations or from government. Those who use Facebook everyday are 13 points more likely to agree “that official government accounts of events cannot be trusted” and are nine points more likely to agree that “much of the information we receive from news organizations is false” than those who never use Facebook. Regulating the internet is likely to push these folks deeper into a world we cannot see nor influence and inflame their deep suspicion and distrust of public institutions.
What we do need are political, business and media leaders who recognize the power they have in shaping opinions and views and act responsibility. One-in-three Americans would not have believed that the 2020 election was stolen and invalid if Donald Trump and his surrogates didn’t repeat the lie over and over again.
#3: We can’t be afraid to ask tough questions in surveys.
In an interview about our research, one journalist asked me why we did this survey and how we had the courage to ask some of the tough questions we did. I replied by saying that we can’t be afraid to explore the more uncomfortable aspects of our thinking and beliefs. It’s important we know what we are up against and can only do that if we dig deep, explore and understand what people believe and what drives those beliefs.
My work affords me the great privilege of asking thousands of Canadians hundreds of questions every week. I’ve spent more than 15 years studying public opinion and I’m rarely surprised by what our surveys, focus groups or in-depth interviews uncover. But this work did surprise me. I was shocked, and deeply concerned by how many people believe some crazy, deeply concerning ideas.
Canada is not exceptional. We are not immune. Let’s not be afraid to keep asking the tough questions. I promise I won’t.
David Coletto is the founder and CEO of polling firm Abacus Data and a professor of political management at Carleton University.