Not too late to combat conspiracy theories, despite Qanon's spread in Canada: expert

The presidency of Donald Trump will come to an end on Wednesday, an expert told CTV News she believes the conspiracy theories he inspired and sometimes encouraged will likely continue to spread.

But as social media companies have cracked down on adherents dedicated to spreading the word of the widely debunked conspiracy theory known as Qanon, Ghayda Hassan, a clinical psychologist and professor at UQAM, said she believes there is a way forward.

“It's a long process. A lot of things have to be put in place at the same time. We have to understand that we have to do prevention,” she said. “We have to implement several measures that can prevent (spread) in the general public.”

Qanon devotees were among the Trump supporters who stormed the United States Capitol building on Jan. 6. The conspiracy theory is built around the anonymous Internet postings of Q, who followers believe is a high-level government official. Devotees believe the world is controlled by a cabal of elites who engage in widespread abduction and torture of children, who are harvested for chemicals in their blood, and that Trump has been fighting a secret war against these evil-doers.

The theory has especially flourished since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The most common factor we observe is the confluence of a crisis, hyper-skepticism, a form of lack of trust or feeling they're being persecuted, connected with a feeling of powerlessness, helplessness or feelng controlled or represeed and then trying to find an explanation to extraoridnary events that are difficult to explain, like COVID.”

While it originated in the U.S., the belief system has spread internationally. According to experts, Canada is one of the five largest hubs for the conspiracy theory.

“In a way, it's not surprising due to our proximity to the U.S. but also Canada, generally, has historically been home to extremist and conspiracy groups,” said Hassan. “It's not strange or new to the history of Canada.”

Hassan, who also works as director of the Canadian Practioners Network for the Prevention of Radicalization and Extremist Violence, said she believes that while the banning of Qanon groups from social media giants such as Twitter and Facebook was a needed step, it may have come too late to truly stem its spread.

“It's too early to know if it's had impact. Generally speaking, we know limiting the accessibility to conspiracy theories is one, but only one, minor solution,” she said. “Of course, I think something should have been done since the beginning to limit the reach of these kinds of theories to the general public. It's too late and the problem is it will only put more oil on the fire for the more entrenched individuals and feed into their hyperskeptical thinking that this is just another gesture from a repressive, corrupt institution that is trying to silence them.”

But Hassan said she believes that even for those who have gone far down the rabbit hole, it's not too late. She believes government needs to play a role in limiting conspiracy theories' spread online, but that widespread media literacy education will also play a key role.

“We have to be careful, I'm not saying we have to limit freedom of speech,” she said. We have a role to play in limiting speech that calls for social disruption and violence. This is something clearly outside the boundaries of freedom of speech.”

“We can also intervene in assisting individuals, to learn how to check sources of information and how to continue to have positive critical thinking but learn how to question the source of information.”

Watch Ghayda Hassan's complete interview above.  

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