A resurgence in political instability and rise in populism being seen in the United States and other countries around the world should serve as as a chance for all levels of government to get ahead of similar situations in Canada, two Brock University experts say.
Colin Rose, assistant professor with the department of history, and Ibrahim Berrada, instructor in the Centre for Canadian Studies, pointed to a defence report, released last week, which warns that the spread of misinformation and a prolonged pandemic threatens Canadian security.
The report — written in October by Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) — identified three trends: intensified distrust in government, resurgence of populist support, and the manifestation of violent extremist organizations.
According to Rose, the rising levels of extremism in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic fits into a longer history, dating back to antiquity, of increasing social and political unrest during and in the aftermath of natural disasters.
“We give up certain rights and freedoms to our governments, and in exchange, they protect us from the unpredictable, respond to our needs and help us achieve our wants,” Rose said.
“In the midst of a global pandemic, it becomes clearer that the state is unable to meet all these needs and provide these protections.”
On Jan. 6, extremists who support outgoing President Donald Trump staged a riot at the U.S. Capitol as lawmakers were inside voting to certify Joe Biden’s victory.
There are widespread concerns in the U.S. about the prospect of further violence by groups who reject the results of the Nov. 3 election.
The FBI, according to several media outlets, has warned local law enforcement to prepare for armed protests that may be attended by far-right extremists.
Transparency and accountability
Rose said while achieving social trust at the federal, provincial and local levels of government is not impossible, it won’t come easily, especially in light of the ongoing pandemic.
“The big problem that the federal and provincial governments face is that they come out of this with people saying they did a bad job, we didn’t know what they were doing and they didn’t make it clear why they were doing anything,” Rose told CBC News.
“I think the biggest tools that governments and institutions have at their disposal right now is transparency and accountability,” Rose said. “It would go a long way if everyone who took a vacation in the Caribbean didn’t just have to resign their cabinet position, but in fact found himself out of a job.”
Leaders need to be seen to be acting in the best interest of ordinary Canadians and not creating a second set of rules for the elite, Rose said.
Disturbing threat to Canadian peace and security
Meanwhile, Berrada said the proliferation of misinformation on social media platforms poses a disturbing threat to Canadian peace and security.
“Radicalized right-wing populist movements are driven by misinformation, permitting the spread of ethnonationalism, xenophobia, racism, bigotry, misogyny and extremism,” he said.
“Moreover, misinformation cultivates a level of distrust in our elected officials problematizing pandemic efforts.”
Berrada said politicians must ensure the dissemination of reliable information, reinforce pandemic measures prioritizing the health of Canadians, and maintain the economy.
He added that a prolonged pandemic, coupled with lockdown measures and restrictions, further exacerbates an already demoralized and COVID-fatigued population.
“Ambiguity breeds speculation and speculation, then breeds misinformation in the long run. It’s about clarity and [treating] Canadians like adults. Treat Canadians with the respect that they deserve and give them that information that they need,” he told CBC News.
“If you have unclear regulation, if you have a mismanagement of protocols, if you have quickly changing directives … and you have a different set of rules that elite in society are operating by then you will see a rise of distrust in government.
“The very fact that some people can skirt the rules without these consequences is problematic, and that is effectively what drives populism,” Berrada said.
He said conspiracy theories encourage distrust in the government and promote a higher risk of violent, seditious, and anarchist behaviour.
The circulation of misinformation requires immediate attention from government officials, defence intelligence, social media giants and public health officials, he said.