On Sunday in Riverside Park there were the usual activities of people running, kids playing, families spending time together – there was even a little sword-fighting practice – but one corner of the park played host to a microcosm of one of the essential debates of our time: the effect of disinformation on conspiracy theories on the population. Two small groups stood separate but equal in their passions as internet debates were made manifest by the band shell.
“The community has been kind of dead lately, there haven’t been any events going on, and we just wanted to come together and say, ‘Hey, guys, if you want to come and enjoy the community, come on out,’ and then, at the same time, raise awareness for some things that kind of get shadow banned and pushed aside,” said Lillian Marko, one of the organizers of “Guelph A Celebration Of Life In The Park.”
“This gathering is supposed to be mostly focused on child trafficking and human trafficking, and freedom of choice. That’s all this is about,” added Morgan, who was taking part in the gathering with her small child. “We’re not QAnon, and we’re not anti-maskers. We’re not any of that.”
When a Facebook event page was posted for the “Celebration of Life”, the use of certain buzz terms like “Save Our Children” and “Hugs Over Masks” sent a different message. The announcement spurned Melody Soares to action, who organized a counter protest near a parking lot about 20 yards from where the dozen or so people were gathered for their celebration.
“I thought the turnout was going to be a lot bigger,” said Soares. “They talked about truth speakers, so I figured they were going to be preach to the crowd, and that’s the kind of thing I wanted to disrupt, but they’re just hanging out with their kids, and I’m not going to go over there and disrupt them as they’re playing games.”
Sunday’s gathering in Guelph was a far cry from a similar event in Kitchener earlier this month, which was organized under the official banner of Hugs Over Masks, with the group’s founder Vladislav Sovolad in attendance as one of the speakers. Soares wondered if the numbers were down because some of the people who might have taken part in the Riverside Park gathering might have been in Ottawa to take part in a mass event on Parliament Hill Saturday. It’s a theory that might pan out when you consider that at least one person was offering rides on Guelph’s Yellow Vest Facebook page.
Some of the people taking part in the Celebration of Life at Riverside Park also mentioned the Ottawa protest organized by a group called “The Line”, and Thomas Anderson, another one of the organizers of the event, seemed to confirm that there were people from Guelph who were part in that gathering.
The logo for “The Line”, a black circle with a red line running horizontally through the middle, was used in the banner of the Facebook event for the gathering. Marko was also wearing a button with “The Line” logo, but it seems that the Guelph event had no official connection to the group.
What is “The Line”? It bills itself as a “leaderless resistance movement” of people concerned about civil liberties who have “banded together to fight corruption, tyranny and ensure the peoples civil liberties and freedoms are maintained.” They claim to not take sides with any particular political group, and have been calling their gatherings across the country “Rallies for Freedom.” Their Facebook page says that they were expecting 200,000 in Ottawa on Saturday, but the Parliamentary Protective Service told the CBC that they did not have an estimate for the size of the crowd that did show up.
More concerning, a picture on the Ottawa Citizen article about the protest featured people with signs warning about 5G, which has long been the basis of an unproven conspiracy theory about the spread of COVID-19. The belief that people catch the virus by coming near cell towers that are part of a 5G network prompted people across Europe to destroy, or attempt to destroy, 5G towers back in April. There is presently no 5G infrastructure in Canada.
A Narcity article on the Ottawa protest also showed several people with flags supporting U.S. President Donald Trump, Canada and Quebec flags being flown upside down, and other signs that included messages like “Say No to Communism” and “The Media are a Disgrace.”
Disappointment and skepticism of the media is an idea that the protestors in Ottawa, and people gathered in Riverside Park here in Guelph on Sunday share. “I can show you clips of news media saying the same thing all over the world saying the same narrative. Where do you get that from?” Anderson said.
Anderson implied that the media refused to cover a video where a naked child was seen climbing out of a window on one of the upper levels of Buckingham Palace though he wouldn’t identify where exactly he saw the video. “I know that family is evil, look what they’ve done to my people, and you’re about to be next, all of us. We’re all going to be Natives. Quote that my friend,” he said.
But there are also conspiracies closer to home. Morgan explained that a nurse told her that “a hospial in Cambridge” was being incentivized to falsely increase the number of deaths from COVID-19 for financial gain. “They get money if they mark on the death certificate that was COVID even if the death wasn’t COVID related,” she said.
Who was paying for the faked COVID deaths?
“Big shots,” Marko added, “The people in power.”
The has been no reporting from any reputable source that “a hospital in Cambridge” is faking COVID-19 deaths, and no immediate results were found on Google when you search “Cambridge hospital fake COVID death certificate.” The facts are this: there have been 1,446 cases of COVID-19 in Waterloo Region, which covers Cambridge, and there have been 120 total deaths. According to the public health authority in Waterloo Region, there has not even been so much as a single outbreak in Cambridge’s one and only hospital, Cambridge Memorial.
For the people on the other side of the park, these, and other examples, are evidence of a concerning information ecosystem that doesn’t just seek out disinformation and conspiracies, but rapidly shares them in an echo chamber that starts to filter out anyone who tries to correct them.
“I noticed that one crazy thing that one of my friends posted was re-posted four times and if they all shared it four times then within three levels it goes to 85 people within moments,” said one woman who asked not to be identified. “It’s exponential. No wonder this stuff is taking over social media.”
This woman added that she’s seen this disinformation take over the lives of people she’s known for years, people she would once consider “reasonable, community minded types,” who know believe wholesale in conspiracies like QAnon and other online hoaxes.
“They don’t really care about losing friends and family. It’s like the mission of getting the word out, and evangelizing, is all very cultish,” added another woman who wished to remain unidentified. She said it was her wish that these people, who are so concerned about children in danger, would dedicate their time and efforts to groups like Guelph-Wellington Women in Crisis as opposed the imagined dangers of QAnon.
The real dangers presented by QAnon, which the FBI has called a domestic terror threat in the United States, is something Soares is very concerned about, and it’s why she intends to stay on top of anyone in Guelph that sounds like they’re sharing a similar ideology.
“I really want to keep an eye on that because there is a lot of underlying hatred there,” Soares said, even if that means exposing herself to online trolls. “They’re going know my name, and my face, and that is concerning, but I think it’s more important to stand up for what I believe in rather than to cower and be afraid.”
In the end, the only real confrontation was when a man came over to Soares and her group to demonstrate how someone could use a mask to cover the taped mouths of kidnapped children. “Report that,” he said the to the journalists present before he returned to his truck with his little white dog and drove away.
*UPDATE: August 31,12:45 pm – Identifying information about one of the people quoted in this story was removed by request.