The anti-mask movement will hit Guelph on Sunday with a planned gathering at Riverside Park from 1 pm to 4 pm. Seemingly organized by four area residents, a Facebook event page was posted on Monday followed swiftly by an event page for a counter-protest. The moves make Guelph the latest battleground in the intersection between public health orders, conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic, and yes, QAnon.
The anti-mask event is called “Guelph A Celebration Of Life In The Park”. The Facebook page encourages people to “Bring Chairs, Blankets, Signs, Snacks” and that there will be “Kids Activities, Truth Speakers, Music and Snack “(sp?). The page also uses the terms “End Human Trafficking”, “Stop Pedophilia” and “Save Our Children”, and then at the bottom of the list are terms like “My Body My Choice”, “Civil Rights and Freedoms”, and “Hugs Over Masks.”
The Venn diagram of combining anti-mask protests, and anti-human trafficking protests is not a new tactic. Earlier this month in Kitchener, there was a similar “Hugs Over Masks” event in Victoria Park that advertised on Facebook as two different gatherings, one was called “Celebration of Life Festival” and the another was called “Standing up to HUMAN TRAFFICKING”. Both events were posted for the same time, and at the same location, and one person was attached to organizing both events.
A recent investigation by NBC News reported that holding protests against human trafficking has become a common tactic for supporters of the erroneous conspiracy theory called QAnon, a rambling mess of assumptions about how a U.S. intelligence agent called Q is helping U.S. President Donald Trump fight a global cabal of Democratic politicians and Hollywood celebrities who, among other things, traffic children for the purposes of sex.
According to NBC, QAnon Facebook groups have been responsible for 70 per cent of the interactions in August using the hashtag #SavetheChildren, and that number increases to 75 per cent on Instagram, which is also owned by Facebook. The increased use of the hashtag forced the organization Save the Children, a humanitarian group that’s been combatting child exploitation for over 100 years, to issued a statement disavowing people who “may choose to use our organization’s name as a hashtag to make their point on different issues.”
“This is not about pedophilia,” Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University and co-author of the book, You Are Here: A Field Guide for Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories and Our Polluted Media Landscape told NBC. “This is not about child protection. This is about a conspiracy theory that’s trying to couch itself in other terms to get more people involved and sympathetic.”
Anti-mask protests and QAnon groups have come under increased scrutiny in recent weeks. In the United States, several congressional candidates who are avowed believers in the false QAnon conspiracy are on the November ballot, and in Canada Brian Kidder was detained by police at the gates of Rideau Hall last month for trying to place Prime Minister Justin Trudeau under citizen’s arrest for a variety of charges, including pedophilia.
Kidder’s part of a group that has been camped out near the National War Memorial in Ottawa called the Canadian Revolution. This group says they’re trying to put “legislative power back into the hands of Canadians through a Complete Overhaul of Parliament and Systemic Reform,” but have come to be more associated with QAnon-like thinking. In fact, another member of the group reportedly presented documents to the American embassy to ask Trump to investigate Trudeau for “pedophilia, child trafficking, using COVID-19 to seize power, intentionally repealing laws, and corruption within the worker’s compensation program,” according to Vice.
Here in Guelph, the “Celebration of Life” is being organized by by Matt P Sunny, Thomas Anderson, Lillian Marko, and Amy McDougall. A brief scan of their individual Facebook pages reveal that they seem to be sharing a lot material, links, and memes that are not dissimilar from QAnon, the Canadian Revolution, and other groups that have conflated anti-government sentiment, paranoia concerning the COVID-19 response, and portions of disproven conspiracy theories about child trafficking.
In an upcoming episode of the Guelph Politicast, University of Guelph professor Maya Goldenberg, who studies matters of public trust in medical expertise, notes that while there has historically been some resistance to wearing masks in past pandemics, the internet has amplified those points of view and created community.
“The internet drives things from zero to 10 in like two seconds,” said Goldenberg who’s studied this phenomenon with the vaccine hesitancy movement, what people pejoratively called “anti-vaxxing.”
“What’s new about contemporary vaccine hesitancy is that they have the internet as a major way to amplify vaccine sceptical views and really get them out there,” Goldenberg explained. “It is not the case that everyone believes everything they read on the internet, but it’s out there, it’s part of the immediate environment and, and it will have some influence.”
Goldenberg also noted that the beliefs of people protesting vaccines and the people now protesting masks both come from the same place. “The similarities are that it starts with dissatisfaction with government and the government response to a health issue,” she said.
“Masking seems to scare people, at least in countries and cultures where masking is not done routinely,” Goldenberg added. “We know that in Asian countries they already have a culture of masking, and that’s actually seen as a kind thing to do because you may not get other people sick. When we saw people showing up wearing masks in the Canada it’s scary to see a person in a mask, and it seems to bring up a lot of anxieties.”
So far, only a handful of people have responded to the Facebook page to say that they will be either interested in attending the “Celebration for Life” or that they intend to be there.