Quebec Ink

Quebec Ink: A distinct misinformation problem for Facebook and YouTube

People take part in a demonstration opposing the mandatory wearing of face masks in Montreal in September 2020. The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes
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MONTREAL — Social media is Alexis Cossette-Trudel’s bullhorn.

He uses it to rail against Quebec’s mask law, plugging videos from the conspiracy group QAnon and compelling his followers to “stand up” against what he calls the governmental “coup d’état” taking place under the guise of COVID-19 prevention.

Many seem to be listening. Thousands of people participated in an anti-mask demonstration two weekends ago, turning chunks of downtown Montreal into a bizarre parade of Trump flags and QAnon T-shirts that underscored the movement’s sudden ability to draw people into the streets.

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Talking Point

With its frequent demonstrations and a raft of “stars” criticizing the government’s COVID-19 measures, Quebec is the epicentre of the country’s anti-mask movement. The Quebec government has launched a counter-offensive against the tide of misinformation emanating online, where Facebook and YouTube are efficient vectors for the anti-mask message: the pandemic is a hoax, the lockdown is a power grab and the government is lying at the behest of the deep state.

Yet Cossette-Trudel’s online audience is exponentially bigger than the crowd that came out to protest. The 47-year-old regularly peddles hour-long episodes of blinkered anti-government fury to more than 72,000 followers of Radio-Québec, Cossette-Trudel’s Facebook page. His videos routinely average 300,000 views on Facebook and YouTube combined, or roughly as many as those who watch CBC’s flagship newscast, “The National.”

Quebec’s governing party, the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), has grimly taken stock of Cossette-Trudel and his ilk. The party increased the size of its social and digital media team from nine members to 12 specifically to deal with the conspiracy-addled blowback from a provincial law, enacted in mid-July, compelling citizens to wear masks in indoor public spaces, according to a senior government source who spoke to me on the condition they not be named, as they weren’t authorized to speak to the media. 

The CAQ has had a social media team practically since the party was founded in 2011, doing the kind of things you’d expect: overseeing the party’s digital outreach, manning its various social media feeds and otherwise burnishing the party brand on the internet.

Since the enactment of the mask law, that social media operation has become a digital war room as well. Its members—which include programmers, IT specialists and designers—ferret out and analyze content from Quebec-specific anti-mask forums on various social media platforms.

The team works in parallel with the social media group in the office of Premier François Legault, said Legault spokesperson Ewan Sauves. “It is deplorable to see a segment of the population defying the rules and propagating their theories. We must not stoop to these false stories on the web, we trust Quebecers to sort things out,” he said. 

The groups also petition Facebook Canada and other platforms to remove dangerous content from the site. That includes death threats against Legault, which have “intensified” since the enactment of the law, the source said. Many of those threats are delivered by way of Facebook.

“We want them to block things that, according to Facebook’s own guidelines, is racist, hateful and misogynistic,” the source said. The process of removing content includes sending screen grabs—everything from written missives to conspiratorial videos to GIFs—to Facebook Canada’s offices in Ottawa and Toronto, then following up with the company if the content isn’t removed. It is a piecemeal operation, akin to pulling weeds, and, according to the source, Facebook’s response has been mixed. “They cooperate, but it’s hard, because Facebook doesn’t like to intervene.”

In July, the CAQ participated in the 30-day boycott of Facebook advertising to highlight the platform’s (arguably unmatched) ability to spread hate and misinformation—the only governing party in the country to do so. 

Not much changed in the boycott’s wake. On the very day those protesters gathered in front of Legault’s Montreal office, the second most viewed video on a U.S. Facebook page was of a Christian musician folding American currency into paper airplanes, thereby “proving” 9/11 was an inside job. It has been viewed over 23 million times and remains online, free of any forewarning or fact check.  

Quebec’s anti-mask movement similarly flourishes on the platform. Cossette-Trudel’s first on-camera Radio-Quebec Facebook video, a caustic riff on the “carte blanche” afforded to Quebec’s visible minorities, dropped in 2018. It was viewed less than 5,000 times. But that was before COVID-19, where Cossette-Trudel found his wheelhouse.

The 114,000 followers of his YouTube channel can hear how the coronavirus “is the biggest scam in the history of humanity, one that will probably be bigger than September 11”; how the people of Quebec and beyond are entering into “the nightmare” of a “public health technocracy”; and how the “deep state” is working to get out the Black vote in the U.S. YouTube recently went back to using more human moderators to vet content after finding its algorithm had censored more videos during the lockdown, including hundreds of thousands that hadn’t broken any rules. The company didn’t respond to The Logic’s request for comment.

Cossette-Trudel and his fellow anti-maskers—including a prominent Quebec City radio host, a former television news anchor, the leader of a fringe political party and an actress best known for her role in the Two Solitudes-style action franchise Bon Cop/Bad Cop—are vedettes in their own right, with a combined Facebook follower count of over 160,000. (Cossette-Trudel didn’t respond to The Logic’s request for comment.)

Facebook has said it’s taken steps to address the problem of misinformation and hate on its platform in Quebec and beyond, including a Canada-wide fact-checking operation with partners like Agence France-Presse and Radio-Canada, as well as a “cyber hygiene” guide for Canadian political parties and politicians.

“We have been diligent in responding to the CAQ’s questions and we have removed content, groups and pages that were found to be in violation of our policies,” said Facebook Canada spokesperson Erin Taylor. “We have open lines of communication with major political parties across Canada.”

The company also looks to humans to bolster its hate speech-sniffing AI algorithms. “The word ‘s—-’ is a very derogatory term for Indigenous people, so we consulted with Indigenous leaders to help us add that term to our hate classifier,” said Taylor.

Yet the limits of relying on the community at large to report published misinformation and hate are obvious in just about every news cycle. It took Facebook nearly three days to announce it was removing posts claiming left-wing antifa arsonists were behind some of the forest fires raging in Oregon, by which time some Oregonians had set up armed checkpoints to catch the ragtag socialists allegedly setting their state alight. (Other false reports had the far-right Proud Boys doing the deed.)

And there’s the matter of engagement, Facebook’s raison d’être. Opposition to mask-wearing is as old as mask laws, with municipal and provincial officials often struggling to enforce mask laws during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic—“Grotesque, depressing, and even dangerous if used improperly,” as some Calgarians referred to masks at the time.

What has changed is social media’s ability, by way of artificial intelligence, to nudge like-minded people into social media cabals. “To me the bigger question with the anti-mask stuff in Montreal is, ‘How on earth did these people find each other?’ Can you imagine a world without Facebook groups, where a bunch of random people with the same grievances happen to connect on a massive scale? It would just not happen,” said Taylor Owen, an associate professor at McGill University’s Max Bell School of Public Policy.

That Montreal parade brought together those Trump and QAnon types with anti-vaxxers, 5G-network opponents and assorted Quebec separatists in their hatred for the few square inches of cloth they are compelled to wear on their faces. Cossette-Trudel dedicated a Radio-Québec segment to the affair. 

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“There’s nothing like this in Canada; there’s nothing like this in the U.S.,” he said of Quebec’s anti-mask movement. “Bravo. We are an example to others, and we’re scaring people.”

It has since been viewed over 112,000 times on Facebook.

Martin Patriquin is The Logic’s Quebec correspondent. He joined in 2019 after 10 years as Quebec bureau chief for Maclean’s. A National Magazine Award winner, he has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, The Walrus, Vice, BuzzFeed and The Globe and Mail, among others. He is also a panelist on CBC’s “Power & Politics.” @MartinPatriquin