We live in the age of excess information. The dissemination of ideas occurs faster and easier than ever, and the result is not always positive. We also live in an age of misinformation and deliberate disinformation. This has become increasingly obvious, and toxic, over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The recent increase in alt-right narratives about health, government, and community safety should be extremely concerning to anyone who cares about democracy, community, and social well-being. While elected officials and public leaders have always been subject to abuse and vitriol, the normalization of violent rhetoric, false blame, and abuse of public servants (which disproportionately targets women and marginalized folks) has escalated over the last few years.
While we live in the information age, we also live in an age of increasing wealth inequality, in which our senior levels of government continue to cater to the richest among us at the expense of the most marginalized.
The election of Trump in 2016 helped usher in this new era of intentional disinformation, declining public discourse, and mistrust of people in positions of power.
In my community of Peterborough, there have been ongoing protests since 2020. These protests ostensibly started in response to public health related “lockdowns” and “mandates” but have continued even after these government policies were lifted. In a discussion between members on a local anti-vaxx Facebook group, someone commented: “we want to keep protesting, but the mandates have been lifted, so what should we protest now lol” [sic]. Such comments indicate a rampant opposition to democratically elected governments and a proliferation of general misinformation.
In August 2022, a group led by a self-proclaimed alien descended on Peterborough with the expressed intent of “arresting the Ptbo police and surrendering them to US marshals.” That people thought this was a good idea and legally possible indicates the depth of echo chamber brainwashing. It also demonstrates another disturbing trend—the bleeding into Canada of America’s worst attributes: hyper-individualism, vitriol towards scientists and medical professionals, and violent rhetoric directed at elected officials.
The impact on the community was significant. Our police and first responders were unable to respond to emergencies, such as domestic violence calls, break-ins, and overdoses. They were prevented from serving their own community because they had to deal with the fuckwads who invaded our town with the explicit purpose of causing chaos and harm.
It also cost the community through budgetary constraints—having to call in off-duty officers and pay extra for additional security adds to an already strained municipal budget. Unfortunately, the group of “protestors” fulfilled their stated purpose, creating disruption and violence, and faced few consequences for their actions.
There are myriad reasons why the convoy movement attracted such attention. While we live in the information age, we also live in an age of increasing wealth inequality, in which our senior levels of government continue to cater to the richest among us at the expense of the most marginalized. Tax cuts for the rich, service cuts for the poor.
In today’s political climate, there is an extreme polarization between the far right and the far left. It is not enough to simply examine the viewpoints of various groups regarding any set of issues or the fundamental beliefs encompassed by either side of the political spectrum. Often, mass media and the individuals that promote extremism are far removed from the shared common values and concerns of the majority.
We should ponder the effect that this exposure and conditioning will have on communities in the future, where citizen involvement, faith in local government, and active community members will be key to high-functioning participation and healthy engagement.
The far-right nationalists behind the various “events” appear to be seeking notoriety and recognition, and nothing more. Misinformation through ignorance, and disinformation through malice, will continue to plague our communities and country until there are meaningful repercussions for the perpetrators. A lack of informed, educated, civil discourse in any society is a death knell to democracy and social cohesion. No longer can we ignore the deeply embedded problems in our society; the problematic behaviours—such as hurling abuse at elected officials and public servants—that continue to escalate.
I wonder, for the sake of our communities and future generations, who is watching, who is listening, and just what they are learning?
As a former mayor who saw what this type of incursion did to my community—and how powerless we were to stop it—I hope we learn these lessons before our democracy falls casualty to it.