This morning I presented my research to the public safety and national security committee at the House of Commons. The rise of conspiracy theories and their links to right wing extremism is a topic that needs to be addressed. Conspiracy serves as a conduit to spread ideologies, build socio-political movements, and can provide the fears needed that can lead to violence.
The oft-spoken adage that freedom of the media is only free to those who own the media has been repeated for the last few days, given the purchase of Twitter by Elon Musk. Much speculation and doomsday prophecies for the social media platform have been espoused, and granted this is a precarious situation within the “town square” of Twitter, we truly need to step back from our emotions and engage in a wider, more logical perspective. This takeover is much more than a perceived silencing of the press, a silencing of the public sphere, or an anvil pressing deep into the cleavage between left and right, it is also a business acquisition. The capitalistic nature of this movement is spotlighted with each “I’m leaving Twitter” or “I’m back!” tweet. Keyboard warriors are simply fodder for publicity and finances of the takeover.
The hype around Elon Musk purchasing Twitter is sparking fear from both individual users and organizations such as the ACLU. Right wing pundits and influencers are taking a victory lap on the platform espousing a narrative of the return of free speech, the end of shadow banning, and significant follower increases. What all of this equates to is publicity for Musk. As fears are propagated and expanded upon in the media, Musk is tweeting troll-esque comments keeping the fear and adulation in the media.
It was announced yesterday (April 25th, 2022) that Elon Musk had purchased Twitter, and with that announcement, a new moral panic of sorts erupted. The truth is there are many months ahead before he actually owns Twitter, but the rhetoric of fear and vindication are like tsunami in the media and the social media platform itself. The hype and publicity Musk is creating is creating new fears of conspiracy of censorship by governments, fears of the complete moral downfall of Twitter, and while one side of the political spectrum declares they are leaving the platform or calling for resistance to the Elon Musk incarnation of a folk devil, the other end of the spectrum is relishing in validation and vindication at the horrible censorship they have endured. In the middle Musk is tweeting that people are simply afraid of “free speech” which really is just adding fuel to the flames.
Today Elon Musk announced he had made an offer to Twitter to buy out the social media platform. He had already purchased significant shares in the company, and after declining to be on the Board, which would limit his number of shares, this was not a shocking move. Musk wants to make Twitter a “free speech” platform, much like Gab or Gettr, promoting the notions of censorship and promoting a panic of sorts amongst the users of Twitter. Threats to leave the platform if Musk took over were reminiscent of those proclaiming their move to Canada if Trump became president. Yet an important discussion point focused on the spread of disinformation if the purchase went through.
The Tyee reporter Christopher Cheung mapped out the donations received by the convoy via GiveSendGo, and found religious communities in BC were one of the largest donors to the movement. Religious language also appeared in the messaging left on the funding app.
Christian nationalism can play a role in such social or protest movements, but the strength of religious language and a belief in being on the side of good in the ultimate battle against evil can be a strong influence. When Christian beliefs overlap with belief in conspiracies, then the battle against a tyrannical evil cabal can take on ultimate meaning.
As pro-Putin material floods the Freedom Convoy’s Telegram channels we have to be aware of our own sharing habits on social media. Although Telegram is a “free speech” or low-moderation platform, the material can be copied and shared on more mainstream sites such as Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. The onus is on each of us to ensure we check that the material we find on “bio-weapon” targets or other war information is from valid sources such as experts, scholars, government, or legacy media sources. We are all guilty of pressing share while scrolling through social media on our phones, take a moment before sharing and check the source, look for other sources, or don’t share.
Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine the Freedom Convoy Telegram channels became inundated with posts supporting Russia’s military actions, and Putin himself. It was a stark change, but one that was not surprising. Some of the convoy participants on Telegram are enmeshed with conspiracy theories, which see Putin as a potential ally to destroy the mechanisms for a New World Order to enslave the world’s population. Ideas of US owned bio-weapon facilities in Ukraine have become the targets for Putin’s missiles. Ultimately the conspiracy rich environment of the Convoy Telegram channels have become a conduit to conspiracy, Russian war propaganda
The last couple weeks we have witnessed an increase in pro-Putin posts in the Freedom Convoy Telegram channels. This could be predominately bots as we cannot argue these posts are sincerely from convoy supporters, what we can do is understand these posts within a conspiratorial worldview, which sees Putin as destroying Bio-Weapon facilities and human trafficking routes in Ukraine. This narrative supports both the QAnon and Great Reset conspiracies and develops the idea of Putin as a hero saving the world from a One World Government.
Social media platforms such as Twitter has responded to Russia’s attack on Ukraine by banning Russian users. Simultaneously Apple Pay and Google Pay have halted service in Russia. These actions by technology companies reveals the dependency we have on global companies’ platforms in the modern age. Historically media has been used to shape discourse in war time efforts, both as propaganda machines and as a tool to attack the enemy, but often that media was shaped by the countries at war, not by their adversaries. 9Corporations have also been active in the war efforts, and we are seeing that play out as we all watch what feels like the beginning of WWIII, but this is the first time tech companies and social media companies have played a role and how will that affect their future responses to military conflict?