Earlier this year, CBC Marketplace journalists attended a “$623 Mastering Vaccine Info Boot Camp.”
The session’s host was Sherri Tenpenny, a woman who has built an empire based on convincing others that vaccines are harmful. The participants were introduced to some techniques that have helped push COVID-19 disinformation so effectively.
In their article about the experience published on March 26, Marketplace calls Tenpenny the “self-proclaimed grandmother of the anti-vaccination movement.” She is portrayed as a grifter. The series does some back-of-the-serviette math on how much she likely makes for each session — aided of course by Marketplace’s own fee — and implies that for her, this is cynical profiteering.
There’s certainly some element of that, but far worse than the grift is the fact that anti-vaccine, anti-mask and anti-lockdown movements are, at their core, new mobilizations of white supremacy. When journalists fail to mention this clearly, audiences are left thinking that these movements are simply about a few people profiting off of unthinking sheep. The reality is more sinister.
Just about every weekend, anti-mask protesters gather in Canadian cities. As their movement has evolved, the evidence that they’re being driven by white supremacists has become impossible to deny.
In Quebec, many leaders from the far-right La Meute have been at the forefront of anti-COVID measures organizing. Rallies planned across the province for April 10 are even called, “For the future of our children,” an obvious call to The Fourteen Words, a global racist cry.
This isn’t just confined to Quebec. Indeed, anti-lockdown activists all across Canada have direct and indirect ties to the far right. A rally organized in Kelowna, British Columbia had racist iconography among the flags and signs. Organizers in Vancouver have used antisemitic iconography, comparing COVID-19 containment measures to Jewish persecution in Nazi Germany. The far right has been most aggressive in Alberta, harassing NDP MLAs, organizing Tiki Torch marches and being unafraid to throw a few Nazi salutes up in public.
The same is true in Ontario, where a coalition of one evangelical church, a former nurse who travelled to Washington at the time of the riots on Capitol Hill and former Progressive Conservative, now Independent, MPP Randy Hillier mobilized large crowds this past weekend in Brantford. In Toronto, the anti-mask rallies have been overwhelmingly white. One of their leaders, Kelly Anne Wolfe, went viral after a racist and antisemitic rant was filmed and uploaded online. Wolfe defended herself on Dr. Phil, and argued that being called Karen is a racist slur against white women.
Journalists fail to consistently mention these connections when reporting on these events. Rather than being the frame through which the anti-lockdown movement is analyzed, journalists are still more often than not writing about these actions as if they were covering any public demonstration, sometimes even repeating their propaganda without criticism.
Even worse, there has been no reporting that attempts to link outbreaks to anti-mask activists. For example, an outbreak in Quebec City at Mega Fitness Gym, owned by anti-COVID measure activist Dan Marino, has led to more than 190 infections and sparked at least 29 workplace outbreaks.
The outbreak helped push Quebec City’s cases to triple in a week. Schools were shut down. Marino landed in the ICU. When the overwhelming majority of people are respecting public health orders, the likelihood that there are other outbreaks that have been caused by similarly cavalier actors is high. But where is that reporting?
A movement with both overt and quiet connections to fascists that advocates the spread of a virus that has disproportionately harmed Black, Indigenous and racialized people, must be first and foremost called a white supremacist movement. Denying that COVID-19 exists, and calling for dangerous measures to be put in place that will further cause the spread of the virus, will disproportionately cause harm to racialized people.
Marketplace repeats the same mistakes Canadian journalists have been making since these movements emerged: They allow far-right conspiracy theorists to drive their own message in the hopes that average Canadians will scoff, see the disinformation for what it is and maybe learn more about how to convince their friends and families to think critically.
The problem is that this isn’t how disinformation spreads. Every time a journalist repeats lies about vaccines — even if the lies are followed by an expert saying that they are lies — they are platforming these voices. It’s a victory for the conspiracists. And worse, journalists have failed or refused to talk about what’s really driving these individuals.
Until Canadians can see the direct line between conspiracy theories and white supremacy, it will continue to be difficult to understand why their popularity seems to be growing, especially among white Canadians who have enough distance from COVID-19 that they can easily deny it exists.
The clown parade of conspiracy theorists are not just problematic because they’re grifters who prey on others. They are not just dangerous because they sew doubt and confusion among an anxiety-riddled population. They are violent. Their movement pretends COVID doesn’t exist even though thousands of people, disproportionately racialized, have died.