I never craved information as much as I did those first few weeks when North America woke up to an existential crisis. I was in D.C. for work when the new reality dawned, one that would demonstrate just how divergent worldviews could cleave a single society in the months and years that followed. Sure, there had been a steady drip of coverage for a few months about quarantined cruise ships and outbreaks here and there, but it was interspersed between more common news stories as if this virus was spreading offshore. It seemed easy to ignore, at least for most people.

Nonetheless, this trip worried me. The cab from the airport played a local radio station, which urged hundreds of parishioners from a prominent Georgetown church to stay home after the rector, who had just delivered four services and communion, tested positive for COVID-19. The driver shrugged off the situation easily, this being the first confirmed case in D.C. My stomach sank. I was visiting the think tank where I’d started working a dozen weeks before, with few friends yet in the American capital. Catching the new virus was a growing concern, but I was also worried about returning to Canada.

Just days before I left, the Prime Minister claimed the government had no plans to ban travelers from entering the country, but by the second day of my trip, he slipped an alarming post into his usual Twitter feed of selfies with people he met and greetings for various holidays: he tweeted that he spoke with heads of our major airlines about the crisis.[1] The next day, the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, and Justin Trudeau announced a massive crisis response package.[2] It might not have been the most obvious of signals, but to someone working in security, it seemed only a matter of time until the borders would close. I checked my phone constantly, concerned about flight cancellations.

It took another week or so before the borders closed (sort of, it turns out a lot of it was more suggestive than mandatory and open to interpretation).[3] I made it home with a few days to spare before our province of Ontario went into its first hard lockdown. That’s when the need for information really peaked.

While the rational part of my brain knew the situation was grave and we weren’t coming out of lockdown for a long time, some minuscule well deep down inside sprung pointless hope that the world would emerge in time for a trip we’d been planning for months with friends. I demanded flash briefings multiple times a day from the otherwise useless virtual assistant technology that pervaded my house, checked all the news sources I could, and doom-scrolled several social media feeds. None of it was satisfying. We were falling deeper into what Timothy W. Coombs referred to as a crisis-induced information void, which would be filled with whatever information emerged.[4] In most modern information ecosystems, such voids can be filled by almost anyone with access to the internet. Various forms of digital media enable everyone with a smartphone to create content, and some of it is just information pollution or low-quality content that degrades the information environment, making it harder for people to find accurate and reliable sources. Into this void poured content like the so-called TikTok toilet seat licking challenge, which some young influencer claimed was her way of trolling media during a global pandemic, gaining international coverage for it too. In those early days, even if the experts could tell us concretely what was going on, they were drowned out in speculation and news coverage that verged on gossip, like media outlets speculating on the kind of relationship Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, had with then-President Donald Trump. The ability of health officials to cut through this noise only worsened as some politicians decided bureaucrats were fair game in politics and began undercutting their credibility, as Trump would eventually do to Fauci.[5]

I wasn’t alone in needing to know something. Our brains are hard-wired for this response. The amygdala triggers our innate reaction to threats, driving us to fight, flee, or freeze when faced with danger. This part of the brain also reacts when people find themselves in ambiguous situations, like an emerging pandemic when science can’t keep pace with the speed at which the crisis unfurls.[6] It’s only natural that people seek information to alleviate our brains’ automatic stress response to uncertainty. Unfortunately, that information doesn’t need to be accurate, and humans tend to make up explanations where none can be found, adding more pollution into the information void. What’s more, not only do we have a strong desire to seek out information, we are also more susceptible to magical thinking in uncertain situations.[7] The fact that 5G cellular technology was rolling out alongside the pandemic, following a year of media coverage driven by fears of using China’s Huawei technology to do so, was enough for some to believe mobile infrastructure was the cause of COVID-19.[8] Such theories gained traction when amplified by celebrities who might also genuinely believe them, journalists who cover the conspiracies even if just to debunk them, and others who capitalize on the situation, like adversarial state-backed media and crooks.[9] But our response to uncertainty doesn’t stop here.

Uncertainty also causes people to want to fit in with others more, encouraging greater group cohesion in the short term.[10] At the same time, as some of us in Canada were under strict lockdowns, we also felt a stronger need to feel like part of a group. In the early days of the pandemic, some of us weren’t allowed to see people in a traditional sense, and at best, it was in very small numbers outside at a two-meter distance. Naturally, we turned to communication technologies to keep us connected with those we knew and forge new connections. In essence, it was a perfect storm. Driven to seek answers, those who might be more open to accepting unproven causes for the pandemic, like a secret plot to microchip the population, could form groups around those beliefs. Similarly, people who were already skeptical of authority coalesced around shared concerns, such as those who leaned more towards libertarianism and believe the government shouldn’t be able to impose lockdowns, mask mandates, or vaccinations. Canadians who are skeptical of authority are hardly fringe. For the past few years, Edelman, an American public relations firm, has surveyed public trust. From 2018 to 2023, Canadian trust ratings have hovered around the fifty per cent mark for government and media. It’s not the worst, but it isn’t the best.[11]

A major fault line, though, was vaccine mandates. Vaccine hesitancy isn’t new. When the British government introduced compulsory smallpox vaccination in 1853, more than fifty years after the first vaccine was developed, riots broke out in some UK towns.[12] I saw what vaccine hesitancy could do in the mid-aughts working in Nigeria, where boycotts on polio vaccines led to a resurgence of a disease that for most of my life had been all but eradicated.[13] Instead, young men in Lagos with bodies disfigured by polio pulled themselves along on skateboards in traffic jams to ask drivers for alms. In the decades leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccine hesitancy was leading to new outbreaks of other heretofore well-managed childhood diseases such as measles and whooping cough. And in fact, many of the conspiracy theories surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine follow those of the past, such as claims that the vaccine causes harm, simply doesn’t work, or is part of a larger conspiracy.[14] Pre-existing communities skeptical of vaccines welcomed others who felt the production of COVID-19 vaccines was moving too fast.[15]   

As Canadians coalesced in often virtual groups around various issues, feelings of us-versus-them were exacerbated. This was especially the case when a person’s beliefs were incompatible with those held by others in their existing social network. People who bought into conspiracy theories felt dismissed and ridiculed by family. Canadians wary of the vaccine felt pushed towards an anti-vaccine stance as others around them advocated for adoption, as they saw mass vaccination as a way out of the pandemic. In some cases, family ties were severed over vaccinations. A close friend of ours fell out with their sibling after learning they had rejected vaccinations and were advocating that their grandchildren not be given standard childhood immunizations. Both sides are reacting to threats, one based in science on the known outcome of not vaccinating children, and the other to a perceived threat of what might happen if a child’s vaccination goes wrong. As one former anti-vaxxer put it, “sometimes doing nothing is easier because you don’t feel as responsible for the outcome.”[16] To make matters worse, during the pandemic, these rifts were often occurring through exchanges on social media as friends and family members debated issues, hoping to change the other’s mind or at least prevent others from adopting similar views. As camps around beliefs formed, an information competition started, culminating in a countrywide protest movement that occupied the nation’s capital for weeks.

The movement called the Freedom Convoy grew out of malcontent for COVID-19 health measures. The various concerns that galvanized members ranged from vaccine mandates, vaccine passports, and contact tracing programs to beliefs that the Trudeau government was authoritarian and must be dissolved.[17] Protestors mobilized across the country into a caravan convening in Ottawa on January 29, 2022, until authorities shut down the occupation more than three weeks later. The protest attracted an interesting mélange of participants from the right and left of the political spectrum. At least one of the organizers, Pat King, would later be found to have posted racist videos online.[18] Nazi and Confederate flags were seen at the event, although organizers would claim that those in opposition to the protest planted them.[19] The protest attracted the religious, often evangelical Christians, and support from some Conservative politicians.[20] But it also engaged communities that normally wouldn’t be the most likely candidates to join conservative groups. As one local friend working downtown at the time told me, half of Wakefield was there, a community in nearby Quebec often associated with health-conscious artists with roots in bygone movements like that of the 1960s passive resistance. This diversity in viewpoints, joined mostly by frustration over health measures, led to very different experiences depending on who encountered the protest.

The occupation was a nightmare for residents living in downtown Ottawa who supported continued COVID-19 restrictions. At first, protestors honked the horns of parked trucks day and night until they were forced to stop. There were many anecdotes of harassment of citizens wearing masks, of Asian descent or identified as 2SLGBTQ+. Conversely, many protesters experienced a renewed sense of community that another vaccine-hesitant acquaintance called beautiful. In many ways, the occupation was a carnival, at least for those participating. Parking lots were overtaken with portable hot tubs, barbecues, and toys for children, like a bouncy castle. Depending on one’s views, the reality of the Freedom Convoy could be wildly divergent, the worst or the best thing to befall Ottawa. For those not in the thick of it, the events played out on traditional and social media or through messaging apps organizers used to coordinate.

The Freedom Convoy wasn’t just an isolated Canadian experience either. Copycat protests soon sprung up in Australia, New Zealand, and Belgium.[21] But it was the interest of our neighbors to the south that was more unsettling. Former American Fox News host Tucker Carlson repeatedly exclaimed to his viewers, including those in Canada where the station has broadcasted since 2004, that his neighbor to the north was a tyranny.[22] Among the donors of nearly $10 million raised through a Christian crowdfunding website for the protest were just over a thousand who had also donated to the earlier January 6 riot on Capitol Hill in D.C.[23] And when everything was said and done, American lawmaker Lauren Boebert seized on the subsequent Russian invasion of Ukraine, claiming the U.S. should do the same in Canada to liberate the Freedom Convoy, which by that time had been forced to end its protest in Ottawa.[24] For me, a researcher whom many democracies had asked for years how to combat foreign information manipulation, the irony was not lost that the biggest likely sources of disinformation were pouring in from one of Canada’s most important allies. The Canadian information ecosystem is porous and heavily influenced by American entertainment and cable news channels, despite our domestic content laws. When the U.S. catches an informational cold, Canada will eventually get sick too. There is so much cross-border traffic, both literally and virtually, the ties that bind Americans and Canadians are significant.

Watching events unfold in early 2022 was deeply troubling. I was just finishing my doctoral thesis, which looked at changing conditions and disturbances in the information environment in the lead-up to conflicts, with five case studies spanning the Peloponnesian War in ancient Greece to the 2014 invasion of Ukraine by Russia. What I saw play out in real time was a familiar pattern across all those case studies. A community had coalesced around an idea: an opposition to health mandates which were newly introduced to address a crisis and began actively promoting their view to win support from others. At the same time, those who trusted vaccines pushed back, including the Prime Minister, whose chastisements Conservative commentators criticized for turning vaccine resisters into villains.[25] Whatever claims can be made about the protest’s beauty, the rhetoric around Trudeau was far from civil. As the Freedom Convoy rolled into Ottawa, which I saw in part as some participants gathered at one of the last staging spots south of the city, the black flags reading “F🍁ck Trudeau” hanging from poles on the back of pick-up trucks eerily reminded me of a different group from my work helping Syrian citizens stay safe online during the civil war. What’s more, some politicians saw this as an opportunity. Pierre Poilievre partially rose to the Conservative Party’s leadership on the back of his support for the Freedom Convoy. His rhetoric, populist in tone, centers on helping Canadians regain control, removing the gatekeepers in the government, and defunding our public broadcaster, the CBC, which he accused of having a liberal bias.[26] In his railing against the CBC, he tweeted at Twitter CEO Elon Musk, imploring him to label the public broadcaster’s account as “government-funded media”, claiming that “we must protect Canadians against disinformation and manipulation by state media.” [27] The billionaire complied with locker room-level innuendo, marking the percentage of funding at 69 per cent. To which Poilievre replied, “There. Now everyone is happy.”[28]

All of this was playing out in a highly interconnected information environment. The pandemic response was just one of many emerging fault lines, leading to information competition between communities. What worried me more was not the protest itself but what might happen down the road. In all my case studies, once two communities formed worldviews that were incompatible with each other, a struggle would ensue, whereby both would try to drown out the views of the other. Attempts are then made to control the production and dissemination of information, an accusation lobbed by Poilievre at Trudeau over an online streaming act, but that could be said the same for the Conservative leader and his hate for the CBC.[29] All the while, pollution permeates the information environment, sometimes coming from political leaders themselves, in their pursuit of hearts and minds. I know there will be a tipping point, after which it will be impossible to put the proverbial genie back in the bottle. I don’t think it is here yet, but it is coming, not just in Canada but across many democracies. I don’t say this lightly, as the prospect is terrifying. However, past patterns are hard to ignore.

Humans are information animals; we need information to make sense of the world and guide our reactions to things like a pandemic. We are also social animals, looking to others to confirm and share our understanding. I turned to the news and other people like that cab driver and our prime minister for immediate signals. While I drew on my experiences in Nigeria in deciding to take the new vaccinations, I still relied heavily on the expert opinion of our biochemist friend, whose job is ensuring drugs meet Canadian health regulations. Myriad factors influence how we process information and relate to each other accordingly. By the time a person is old enough to choose whether to vaccinate or not, they’ve experienced a lifetime of their parents’ views, are part of some community, have gone through structured education, and have a diet of news sources and entertainment across television, radio, print and the internet. In a pandemic, they’ve likely consumed information from public health officials as well as toilet-licking social media influencers. And in a country like Canada, those sources of information are just as likely to be Canadian as they are American. All these encounters occur within the information environment, the space where we process information to form an understanding of the world. To do that, we use our own brains, but information animals also build tools, from alphabets to AI, to process information into artefacts that can be shared in forms like the written word, holograms, and everything in between. The information environment is the sum of information animals as agents, the means we create to process information, the artefacts created in that process, and the interrelationships between all three. But we often miss this complex system for its independent parts, especially the latest technology added to the information environment. This oversight is due in large part to how the information environment is currently studied.

Research on the information environment is piecemeal. Broadly speaking, research tends to be on specific case studies or lab-like experiments, most of which are conducted in isolation from the wider information environment and cover a very narrow point of time. Case studies cover topics like emerging events, such as conflicts and pandemics, or specific threats related to them, like disinformation. The activities of specific threat actors like violent extremists or adversarial countries also comprise many case studies. Sometimes, research is focused on individual pieces of technology. Given Twitter’s prior sharing of data with researchers, it was disproportionately featured in research about social media despite it not even ranking among the top ten most used platforms worldwide.[30] Increasingly, researchers are now focusing on artificial intelligence. Some of this research consists of limited experiments, such as testing if a segment of social media users share posts containing disinformation less if they are labelled as problematic or by presenting a focus group with a fact check and then testing their response to disinformation. Little ties these various studies together, short of the occasional meta study assessing findings across a series of papers on a specific topic. Indeed, given the challenges in accessing social media data and the nature of some of these experiments, it’s challenging to replicate the findings from much of this research.

Compare this to how another complex system is studied – the physical environment. For decades, in some cases over the last century, ecologists and meteorologists have been measuring temperatures, water levels, plant growth patterns and air quality. Taken together, these measurements provide a picture of the state of the environment. Unfortunately, as most of us now know, the situation is bleak. But that picture could only be built up with consistent, repeated measurements of the same things over time. Proving causation of changes in the physical environment is a bit harder, though. It requires looking at multiple potential causes to determine which one is best supported by evidence. That requires doing more than one type of study, like a lab experiment, but combining a variety of site observations, monitoring, experiments in the wild and more, using many different methods. But that isn’t how research on the information environment is currently conducted.

Instead of considering multiple causes, the tendency in research on the information environment is to look at one possible cause, like social media, and run a lab experiment to see if using Facebook causes polarization, for example. These studies are also difficult to replicate – and so we end up in a situation where for every study that confirms a cause, the next refutes it.[31] If we want to identify what causes some people to accept vaccines, for example, while others don’t, in a complex system like the information environment, it isn’t as simple as jumping to the conclusion that the presence of disinformation must be the reason for the detractors. It’s certainly a possibility, but proving causation is far more challenging and requires understanding how the information environment works, including what roles a variety of factors play and how changes to which factors cause what outcomes. Here, we can learn from the ways other complex systems are studied, in particular, the physical environment. How did consistent measurements spanning decades over numerous factors like temperature, water levels, air quality, and migration help us understand changes in information ecosystems? Can we find equivalent factors to unlock the mysteries of the information environment? Are there different types of information ecosystems, and how do those differences impact information animals within them? How did conditions differ in one information ecosystem where vaccination rates were higher than in another where they weren’t?

Not only is research on the physical environment more systemic than that on the information environment, but it also takes a longer-term view, enabling the identification of patterns over time. While technology is an important factor within the information environment, new developments must first be situated within that existing system. After all, the newest technology wasn’t born in a void, and it doesn’t likely exist in isolation. Indeed, new technology often causes similar changes in the information ecosystem to which it is introduced. The means available for processing information will impact the volume of content that can be created as well as how fast and far it can be spread. Digital technologies have enabled the creation of more content than at any other time in human history, but innovations in broadcast and print also facilitated sharp spikes in outputs that seemed like information floods to those experiencing the change at the time. As papermills expanded in Europe in the 13th century, there was an increase in paper usage along with complaints “about the accumulation of huge amounts of news, particulars, and numbers”.[32] People didn’t trust the veracity of written information, as they couldn’t see or hear the person transmitting it.[33] The same thing happened after the printing press was invented in the 15th century. As the production of books in the following century increased, people complained that the volume was untenable.[34] In the 19th century, some people bemoaned the ocean telegraph, claiming “there can be no rational doubt that the telegraphy has caused vast injury. Superficial, sudden, unsifted, too fast for the truth, must be all telegraphic intelligence.”[35] At the turn of the century the telephone brought new grief, “used unnecessarily and sometimes abused… and its incessant and insistent demands upon the attention of the subscriber” fatiguing.[36] Two decades later, the U.S. Radio Chamber of Commerce would complain that “broadcasting of the trivial and the valueless have injured the business.”[37] On and on, the pattern repeats. It should have come as little surprise that social media might lead to a similar situation.

A new technology that changes how people process and share information increases the volume of outputs, and not all of it will be high quality. Given the initial reaction to the changes in the information ecosystem where it occurs, these events can be framed as disturbances. An information flood can occur because of a change in the capacity to produce information, such as through social media or artificial intelligence, thus causing a growth in available information overall. Information floods can also occur when there is a marked increase in a particular format of informational output conveying a repeated narrative, which in modern times can easily be sparked by media coverage on a topic. This increase in output can be caused deliberately when an information animal, or community of information animals, intentionally flood an information ecosystem with a repeated narrative by creating and distributing large amounts of content. Along with information floods, another type of disturbance also tends to occur with the introduction of new technology, information pollution, or the presence of low-quality information. Information pollution includes an array of types, ranging in scale in their degree of degradation to the information environment. On the lower end of the spectrum are irrelevant or unsolicited messages, such as spam emails and redundant or empty information that contributes little to knowledge, such as many forms of entertainment. At the other end of the scale is information that misleads or is false, including disinformation, as well as narratives that provoke emotions such as fear or anger.  Whereas higher quality information, to borrow from data science, would be accurate, complete, timely, unique, and coherent. Information pollution can make it more challenging to find accurate or reliable information within an affected ecosystem and tends to be more prevalent during crisis situations, like a pandemic. While we are aware that disturbances like information floods and pollution exist, little is known about their relationship to information ecosystems and what happens before, after or during such events.

Disturbances like information floods and pollution are often aggravated by information competition, whereby two communities of information animals compete for supremacy of their idea in the information ecosystem. As the two communities compete, they use the same technologies to add more information to that information ecosystem in support of their cause, not all of it high quality, contributing both to information floods and pollution. While information competitions are often centered around political actors, they have a way of entangling a variety of other types of information animals and becoming messy quickly. It’s clear Poilievre and Trudeau are at the forefront of an information competition. Poilievre rose to that position by capitalizing on the malcontent of Canadians tired of pandemic restrictions and has enjoyed the support of sympathetic media on both sides of the border, not to mention at least one tech billionaire. At the heart of the beliefs Poilievre is propagating is the idea that Canada is somehow not free and that public broadcasters like the CBC are manipulating citizens. As this information competition escalates, expect both sides to find ways to try and control the flow of information, whether that be in the form of regulating online content or defunding the CBC, with implications for the Canadian information ecosystem. These complex relationships between information animals and the information ecosystem around them mean that phenomena like information competitions can’t fully be understood as isolated case studies about campaigns but must be contextualized within the ecosystem where they occur.

We live in an information-rich world. Information is abundant from myriad sources, but that doesn’t mean all of it is high quality or useful. Much noise is generated by influencers and politicians who gain media attention by being provocative. There is a symbiosis between those who act up to get attention, such as the toilet-licking troll, and those who cover these acts because they need an audience. The connective tissue between them is often technology, like social media. At the same time, new ideas or beliefs emerge around which people rally into groups, resulting in out-group competition and exacerbating those disturbances. Complicating matters further in navigating this noisy information environment, people will process whatever information they can access according to their preconceptions and experiences; for example, mine made me worry about border closures when others might not have cared, but those already afraid to give their children vaccines worried about more sinister plots.   

This is the story of the information animal and how it competes as part of a social group for supremacy of its ideas within its information environment. As such, this is also an exploration of that information environment and how changing conditions within it enable the creation, spread and consumption of information in all its forms and, ultimately, new ideas that are the basis for information competition, as well as information disturbances that are aggravated by such competition. In other words, this is the story of a system and how humans relate to it, drawing on insights from conflicts spanning more than two thousand years of human history. Just like the physical environment, the information environment is a complex and adaptive system, making it a challenging space to study, especially to pinpoint causation. Indeed, for those interested in the information environment, we have much to learn from physical ecology.

30
Would you read this book?

Image Source: Books Wanted by Charles Buckles Falls, American Library Association, 1917 from Washington State University.


Sources

[1] Kathleen Harris, “Trudeau says ‘knee-jerk reactions’ won’t stop spread of COVID-19”, CBC, March 5, 2020. https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/covid19-trudeau-coronavirus-travel-1.5486799 (accessed July 11, 2023). Justin Trudeau, “Earlier today, I spoke with the CEOs of @WestJet and @AirCanada about the impact COVID-19 is having on air travel. We will continue to be in touch and work together, along with other businesss [sic]& sectors affected by the spread of this virus.” Twitter, March 10, 2020. https://twitter.com/JustinTrudeau/status/1237549670198460416?s=20. (Accessed July 11, 2023).

[2] Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, “WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 – 11 March 2020,” World Health Organization, March 11, 2020. https://www.who.int/director-general/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing-on-covid-19—11-march-2020. (Accessed July 11, 2023).; Justin Trudeau, “As COVID-19 continues to spread, we are taking every precaution to minimize the health, economic, and social impacts of the virus in Canada. And today, we announced a billion-dollar COVID-19 Response Fund to address the impacts of the virus on our country and to keep you safe.” Twitter, March 11, 2020. https://twitter.com/JustinTrudeau/status/1237824763340390401?s=20. (Accessed July 11, 2023)

[3] Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau, “Prime Minister announces temporary border agreement with the United States,” Government of Canada Press Release, March 20, 2020. https://www.pm.gc.ca/en/news/news-releases/2020/03/20/prime-minister-announces-temporary-border-agreement-united-states  (Accessed July 11, 2023).

[4] Timothy W. Coombs, Ongoing Crisis Communication: Planning, Managing, and Responding, (Thousand Oaks, US: SAGE, 2012); Robyn Merrett, “Influencer Who Participated in Toilet Licking Challenge Says He Tested Positive for Coronavirus,” People, March 25, 2020. https://people.com/human-interest/influencer-who-participated-in-toilet-licking-challenge-says-he-tested-positive-for-coronavirus/  (Accessed July 11, 2023).

[5] Victoria Smith and Alicia Wanless, “Unmasking the Truth: Public Health Experts, the Coronavirus, and the Raucous Marketplace of Ideas,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December 3, 2020. https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/07/16/unmasking-truth-public-health-experts-coronavirus-and-raucous-marketplace-of-ideas-pub-82314  (accessed July 11, 2023); Yamiche Alcindor, “As coronavirus surges, Trump and White House attack Fauci,” PBS News Hour, (July 13, 2020) https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/as-coronavirus-surges-trump-and-white-house-attack-fauci Accessed September 5, 2023)

[6] Paul J. Whalen, “Fear, vigilance, and ambiguity: Initial neuroimaging studies of the human amygdala.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 7, no. 6 (1998): 177-188.

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[8] Dmitry Erokhin, Abraham Yosipof, and Nadejda Komendantova, “COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories Discussion on Twitter,” Social Media and Society, (October 10, 2022) ;8(4):20563051221126051. Doi: 10.1177/20563051221126051. PMID: 36245701; PMCID: PMC9551662. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9551662/ (accessed July 11, 2023)

[9] Isobel Cockerell, “Meet the celebrities pushing 5G coronavirus conspiracies to millions of fans,” Coda, April 14, 2020. https://www.codastory.com/waronscience/celebrities-5g-conspiracies/ (Accessed July 13, 2023); Rebecca Heilweil, “How the 5G coronavirus conspiracy theory went from fringe to mainstream,” Vox, April 24, 2020. https://www.vox.com/recode/2020/4/24/21231085/coronavirus-5g-conspiracy-theory-covid-facebook-youtube (Accessed July 13, 2023)

[10] Richard J. Crisp, Social Psychology: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 50

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[12] Rina Fajri Nuwarda, Iqbal Ramzan, Lynn Weekes, and Veysel Kayser, Vaccine Hesitancy: Contemporary Issues and Historical Background. Vaccines (Basel). (September 22, 2022);10(10):1595. Doi: 10.3390/vaccines10101595. PMID: 36298459; PMCID: PMC9612044. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9612044/. (Accessed July 12, 2023)

[13] Ayodele Samuel Jegede. “What led to the Nigerian boycott of the polio vaccination campaign?” PLoS Med. (March 2007) ;4(3): e73. Doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.0040073. PMID: 17388657; PMCID: PMC1831725. https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.0040073. (Accessed July 12, 2023).

[14] Paula Larsson, “Covid-19 anti-vaxxers use century-old arguments,” CNN, October 22, 2020. https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/22/health/anti-vaxxers-old-arguments-covid-19-wellness-partner/index.html. (Accessed July 13, 2023)

[15] Moises Velasquez-Manoff, “The Anti-Vaccine Movement’s New Frontier,” The New York Times, May 31, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/25/magazine/anti-vaccine-movement.html. (Accessed July 12, 2023)

[16] Rachel Martin, “Former Anti-Vaccine Mom Explains How Movement Pulled Her In, And How She Left,” NPR Morning Edition, January 18, 2021. https://www.npr.org/2021/01/18/957981974/how-anti-vaccine-movement-could-hurt-efforts-to-end-pandemic.  (Accessed July 17, 2023)

[17] Jamie Gillies, Vincent Raynauld, and Angela Wisniewsk, “Canada is No Exception: The 2022 Freedom Convoy, Political Entanglement, and Identity-Driven Protest”. American Behavioral Scientist, (April 13, 2023) 0(0). https://doi.org/10.1177/00027642231166885. (Accessed July 12, 2023)

[18] Justin Ling, “Was it really about vaccine mandates—or something darker? The inside story of the convoy protests,’” The Toronto Star, March 19, 2022. https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2022/03/19/was-it-really-about-vaccine-mandates-or-something-darker-the-inside-story-of-the-convoy-protests.html (Accessed July 12, 2023)

[19] Dylan Robertson, “Rejecting unproven claims prevents ‘mob’ takeover of convoy inquiry: Murray Sinclair,” CTV News, November 23, 2022. https://www.ctvnews.ca/politics/rejecting-unproven-claims-prevents-mob-takeover-of-convoy-inquiry-murray-sinclair-1.6166254. (Accessed July 12, 2023)

[20] Jorge Barrera, “For many inside the Freedom Convoy, faith fuels the resistance,” CBC, February 15, 2022. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/faith-convoy-truckers-1.6350538. (Accessed July 13, 2023)

[21] James Purtil and Stephanie Dalzell, “GoFundMe freezes $160,000 until organisers of Convoy to Canberra protests detail spending plan,” ABC News, January 31, 2022. https://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2022-01-31/gofundme-freezes-canberra-covid-truck-convoy-money/100792930. (Accessed July 12, 2023); Rhoda Kwan, “New Zealand police arrest Covid protesters as ‘freedom convoys’ spread beyond Canada,” NBC News, February 10, 2023. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/new-zealand-police-arrest-covid-truckers-canada-freedom-convoy-protest-rcna15667. (Accessed July 12, 2023); Emily Rauhala and Quentin Ariès, “Inspired by Canadian truckers, Europe’s ‘Freedom Convoy’ heads to Brussels,” The Washington Post, February 10, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/02/10/europe-ban-freedom-convoy/. (Accessed July 12, 2023)

[22] Tucker Carlson, “Tucker Carlson: How long until Canadian-style tyranny comes to America?” Fox News, February 15, 2022. https://www.foxnews.com/opinion/tucker-carlson-how-long-until-canadian-style-tyranny-comes-to-america. (Accessed July 12, 2023); CBC, “CRTC approves Fox News for Canada,” November 18, 2004. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/crtc-approves-fox-news-for-canada-1.492643. (Accessed July 12, 2023).

[23] Anti-Defamation League, “ADL Finds 1,100 People Donated to Both Canada Freedom Convoy and Jan. 6 Demonstration” February 16, 2022. https://www.adl.org/resources/blog/adl-finds-1100-people-donated-both-canada-freedom-convoy-and-jan-6-demonstration. (Accessed July 12, 2023)

[24] Martin Pengelly, “Republican Lauren Boebert compares Ukraine to Canadian truckers’ convoy,” The Guardian, February 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/feb/28/republican-lauren-boebert-russian-invasion-ukraine-canada  Accessed July 12, 2023)

[25] Rex Murphy, “Justin Trudeau’s blind hatred of anti-vaxxers,” National Post, January 5, 2022, https://nationalpost.com/opinion/rex-murphy-justin-trudeaus-blind-hatred-of-anti-vaxxers. (Accessed July 12, 2023)

[26] Isabella Pannu, “Conservative Party Populism: The Rise of Pierre Poilievre,” The McGill International Review, June 9, 2023. https://www.mironline.ca/conservative-party-populism-the-rise-of-pierre-poilievre/ (Accessed July 13, 2023); Pierre Poilievre, “BREAKING: CBC officially exposed as “government-funded media”. Now people know that it is Trudeau propaganda, not news. Sign here to save $1 billion & defund the CBC: https://conservative.ca/cpc/defund-the-cbc/.” Twitter, April 16, 2023. https://twitter.com/PierrePoilievre/status/1647750040142876674?s=20. (Accessed July 13, 2023)

[27] Pierre Poilievre, “We must protect Canadians against disinformation and manipulation by state media. That is why I’m asking @Twitter @elonmusk to accurately label CBC as “government-funded media”. It is a fact. And Canadians deserve the facts.” Twitter, April 11, 2023, https://twitter.com/PierrePoilievre/status/1645904023726309377?s=20 (Accessed July 13, 2023).

[28] Pierre Poilievre, “There. Now everyone is happy.” Twitter, April 17, 2023. https://twitter.com/PierrePoilievre/status/1648133820468838401?s=20. (Accessed July 13, 2023)

[29] Marie Woolf, “Poilievre pledges to repeal online streaming bill, says it gives power to ‘woke’ agency,” The Globe and Mail, March 9, 2023. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/politics/article-poilievre-pledges-to-repeal-online-streaming-bill-says-it-gives-power/  (Accessed July 13, 2023)

[30] Stacy Jo Dixon, “Global social networks ranked by number of users 2023”, Statista, August 29, 2023, https://www.statista.com/statistics/272014/global-social-networks-ranked-by-number-of-users/.

[31] Kubin and Sikorski, “The role of (social) media”; Arora, Singh, Chakraborty, and Maity, “Polarization and social media”; Tucker, Guess, Barberá et al., “Social media, political polarization, and political disinformation.”

[32] Paul M. Dover. The Information Revolution in Early Modern Europe, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021). 10

[33] Dover. The Information Revolution in Early Modern Europe, 11-12

[34] Ann Blair, “Reading Strategies for Coping with Information Overload ca. 1550-1700,” Journal of the History of Ideas, (January 2003), Vol. 64, No. 1 (January 2003), 11-28 https://www.jstor.org/stable/3654293

[35] The New York Times, “Latest By Telegraph: Our Washington Correspondence. The Ocean Telegraph – Relative Benefits and Evils – The President and his Companion – Bigler and Stanton, Etc.”, August 19, 1858 https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1858/08/19/78859815.html?pageNumber=4 (Accessed September 6, 2023)

[36] The New York Times, “Growth of the Telephone Service,” December 23, 1901 https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1901/12/23/101216095.html?pageNumber=6  (Accessed September 7, 2023)

[37] The New York Times, “Lay Plans To Cure Broadcasting Evils” January 23, 1923 https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1923/01/28/105901091.html?pageNumber=58 (Accessed September 6, 2023)

About Author

La Generalista is the online identity of Alicia Wanless – a researcher and practitioner of strategic communications for social change in a Digital Age. Alicia is the director of the Partnership for Countering Influence Operations at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. With a growing international multi-stakeholder community, the Partnership aims to foster evidence-based policymaking to counter threats within the information environment. Wanless is currently a PhD Researcher at King’s College London exploring how the information environment can be studied in similar ways to the physical environment. She is also a pre-doctoral fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, and was a tech advisor to Aspen Institute’s Commission on Information Disorder. Her work has been featured in Lawfare, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, and CBC.

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