How Canada became one of the world's biggest hubs for QAnon conspiracy theories

On a sunny mid-September day, thousands of anti-maskers paraded through downtown Montreal, flying a variety of flags. Like protests for any cause held in the city, there were the standard Quebec flags. The Canadian maple leaf made appearances – surprisingly, so did the stars and stripes of the United States.

And dotted among the crowd were signs with a large Q, belonging to adherents of the sprawling, complex and often confusing conspiracy theory that has become known as QAnon.

Founded in one of the internet's most controversial message boards in 2017, QAnon has since spread to mainstream social media sites and become a highly visible force in the United States – several candidates for national office in Tuesday's American election have expressed at least a passing adherence to its tenets. But while much of its intricate web of far-fetched intrigue centres on American political figures, its influence has also gone international – experts say there is a QAnon presence detectable in at least 75 countries and Canada, by some metrics, has one of the largest communities.

“I don't think we're that protected from it. We just might not have as large a population as the U.S.,” said Marc-Andre Argentino, a PhD candidate at Concordia University whose research focuses on extremist groups and technology. “When I looked at social media groups, there's no way to confirm everyone in a QAnon Canada group is Canadian, but numerically, Canada was either fourth or fifth, depending on the month.”

WHAT IS QANON?

Over the past three years, the QAnon mythology has expanded into widely divergent areas. COVID-19 denialism is common, but some believers venture into even more fantastical territory: one widespread belief is that global elites are not just engaging in rampant sexual abuse of minors, but are harvesting a chemical called adrenochrome from their blood. Some of the more outlandish claims don't even get widespread acceptance in QAnon circles: one wing believed that John F. Kennedy, Jr. faked his death in 1999 but would re-emerge in 2020 as U.S. President Donald Trump's running mate. The basics of the belief system are that a secretive cabal of elite politicians and celebrities engage in widespread child trafficking and sexual abuse, but that Trump is engaged in a life-and-death secret war with them. Clues to this war are dropped on the Internet message board 8kun by a figure known as Q, who claims to be a high-level American government official.

Despite Trump's central role to QAnon beliefs, the conspiracy theory began spreading overseas soon after Q began posting.

“There has been an international presence of QAnon since at least 2018,” said Travis View, co-host of the QAnon Anonymous podcast. “One of the biggest QAnon promoters on social media is Canadian.”

“The core followers of QAnon are hyper populist in the sense they have intense distrust of institutions, of mainstream media,” he added. “That kind of populism can be popular in any country. Q provides a sort of story where people doing their own research can expose the truth and topple mainstream media. That broad sort of story can be appealing to anyone.”

While most of the actual Q drops focus on the United States, whoever is writing them has occasionally name dropped political figures in other countries.

“There's been several drops that mention Canada or the prime minister,” said Argentino. “Though the majority of the stuff is American, you've seen references to most countries in the world in Q drops. And if not, it's easy to extrapolate. Geopolitically, the U.S. is involved in multiple countries. It's not very difficult to link it to military operations or political visits.”

WHAT DOES QANON LOOK LIKE IN CANADA?

As QAnon has spread to other countries, the belief system has adapted to each location's political reality. One post, shared to a now-defunct Canadian QAnon Facebook group, combined COVID-19 denialism with conspiracy theories about Canadian political leaders: that new Conservative Party leader Erin O'Toole testing positive for COVID-19 was actually code, indicating he had been arrested for his role in the child trafficking ring and was co-operating with police. Quebec Premier Francois Legault, who was awaiting his own COVID-19 test results at the time, was a person of interest.

Many of the group's posts were not specifically Canadian: many cast doubt on the COVID-19 pandemic in general or the use of masks specifically. Others echoed more mainstream talking points about Trump's effectiveness as president. Still, many did centre around Canadian figures who would be obscure in the United States, such as Quebec public health chief Horacio Arruda or Canadian Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam. 

In July, a Canadian Armed Forces reservist who had posted about QAnon on social media allegedly rammed his truck through the gates at Rideau Hall as part of an effort to confront Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“You have two veins, either there's a single cabal that controls all the world and the U.S. is the first country to fight against it and Donald Trump was selected to lead this fight. The other one is that there's multiple Deep States around the world and the U.S. was the first country to awaken,” said Argentino.

Argentino said the QAnon scene in Canada can be broken down into two communities: Quebec and the Rest of Canada. He pointed to Quebec conspiracy theorist Alexis Cossette-Trudel, whose Radio-Quebec channel was removed by YouTube and whose Facebook page was taken down, as an influential figure in QAnon circles around the world.

“He played a huge role not only in the Quebec anti-mask movement but his content was exported to countries like France and Belgium and Switzerland. His content was even translated into Spanish and Italian. QAnon Canada is closely associated with QAnon U.S.A. and U.K. and New Zealand.”

The growth of QAnon in Canada has been helped by the pandemic. Argentino said he has yet to see a pattern in adherents beyond a feeling of insecurity in a chaotic world.

“I've seen doctors and lawyers and politicians and people in positions of power all the way to your blue collar and white collar individuals,” he said.

Marie-Eve Carignan, an associate professor at the University of Sherbrooke, recently published a study finding Canadians are less likely to believe in COVID-related conspiracy theories than Americans. But she noted that not much research has been done on whether Canadians are less susceptible to QAnon. She noted there's a correlation between how insecure somebody feels about the pandemic and their likelihood to believe in conspiracy theories, as well as a link with education level and use of social media as a news source.

WHAT HAPPENS AFTER TUESDAY?

Carignan said she wants to see the government mandate media literacy education to help combat the spread of conspiracy theories.

“Education is a big factor. Also, I believe the government has to review how they will finance traditional media. The pandemic has accelerated the problem that was already there. Media was in a big financial crisis but with the pandemic, that crisis went deeper,” she said. “After the pandemic, if you want to have that type of fact-checking that brings true information separate from fake news, we have to find new ways to finance the media.”

In early October, Facebook announced it would crack down on QAnon content, banning numerous groups that hosted conspiracy theory content. Among those groups were Canada-oriented pages with thousands of members. While View said he believes the crackdown will help limit its spread, Argentino sounded a more pessimistic note, arguing that there are many other alternative platforms.

“A lot of influencers are saying 'Follow me on Parler, follow me on Gab,'” he said, referencing two niche social media sites that have been heavily criticized for hosting conspiracy theories, alt-right views and other content that's been targeted by more well-known sites. “They're showing people how to join these platforms. It's not very hard to join them. The message has already gone in these communities that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube are part of the Deep State.”

On Tuesday, the American public will have its final say on whether Trump gets another four years in office. But even Trump's political career comes to an end, View doesn't believe the same will happen to QAnon, whether in the U.S. or abroad.

“QAnon followers will see it as the Deep State striking back. But they'll probably see it as losing a battle, not the war,” said View. “Many of them are far too invested to give up now.” 

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