The pandemic of misinformation that’s killing Canada

Some 40 per cent of Canadians believe COVID misinformation online, even when they suspect it's coming from a questionable source


Now more than ever in the grip of another wave of the pandemic, Canadians need our leaders (cultural, political, social) to help guide us through the mire we find ourselves in to start 2022. Unfortunately, our social channels are increasingly being suffocated by purveyors of false information. Canada is suffering from another pandemic. It’s the pandemic of misinformation. And there are a lot of bad actors on the internet of things when it comes to COVID conspiracies.

Chris Sky is one such individual who has been attracting attention lately after his Twitter account was suspended for not meeting the proverbial community standards when it comes to content he shares online. His Instagram, TikTok and Facebook accounts have also been suspended. 

The muscle-bound anti-vaxxer has lots to say about the current state of the world, and vaccines and vaccine mandates in particular. None of it is worth paying much attention to. Only, his ideas have become too dangerous to ignore. 

That’s because he’s part of a global “infodemic” that’s overloading our cyberspace with nonsense and making it difficult for far too many to distinguish fact from fiction and fantasy from reality. It’s going to kill us, just as surely as the coronavirus will if we don’t do something to stop it. 

It’s already metastasized in the U.S., a country that post-Donald Trump continues to live under the shadow of the Big Lie and finds itself locked in a virtual civil war that’s being fuelled by the pandemic. Canada’s proximity to the elephant south of the border has made us particularly vulnerable to the spread of COVID propaganda.

The pandemic of misinformation is not only threatening the health and safety of the Canadian public. It’s eating away at public confidence in our institutions and putting our economy in peril. Take a look around.

More than a quarter of the Canadian population sees false or suspect information about the pandemic online several times a day. And according to Statistics Canada, 40 per cent of individuals who come in contact with COVID misinformation online believe it to some degree – even when they suspect that it’s coming from a questionable source – only to realize later that it was false.

In other words, these aren’t just ideas floating around in the ether. They have real consequences. 

Consider the burden the wilfully unvaccinated among us are placing on the health-care system and the economy as their refusal to get jabbed continues to spread the disease, force the cancellation of elective surgeries and prolong a pandemic and lockdowns that are killing the economy.

The truth is that the unvaccinated make up 80 per cent of the people in hospital intensive care units in Ontario. That reality is mirrored in ICUs across the country.

Quebec premier François Legault recently alluded to the pandemic in Canada turning into a crisis of the unvaccinated saying of the latest lockdown measures in Quebec, which includes curfews, that “we have to protect the unvaccinated from themselves.” 

To be sure, some of the largest anti-vaccine and anti-lockdown protests in the country have taken place in the province. The result has been more disease and increasingly severe lockdowns.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hit on a similar theme in a recent interview with French-language television, questioning whether Canadians should “tolerate” the views of the unvaccinated. He said, “they don’t believe in science and are very often misogynistic and racist.” The PM offered some context. He said, “it’s a very small group of people, but that doesn’t shy away from the fact that they take up some space.”

Which brings us back to Sky. The fact he’s been banished from social media channels hasn’t stopped him from using other social media accounts (including those of some of his acolytes) and his own website to spread his conspiracy theories. Last week, he ventured that Betty White was killed by the booster she reportedly took three days before her death. She was 99.

It’s becoming a popular conspiracy theory online that boosters are killing people. Another is that the government is trying to “poison” our children. To what end is not entirely clear, but that’s the way things work in conspiracy circles. There is no reason.

There are a lot of Chris Skys pushing fake news, but not all of them have a global following. How did a rich developer’s son from Woodbridge become an internet star (pariah)? 

It didn’t take much to light the fire – an interview with right-wing outlet Rebel News at an anti-lockdown rally at Queen’s Park at the start of the pandemic. Sky was among the protestors then and presented himself as a small businessman concerned about the economic fallout of lockdowns. Only that wasn’t the whole story.

Sky is often referred to in media accounts now as an anti-mask “celebrity” or “personality.” He looks the part with aviator glasses, bleached blond hair and neck tattoo. But it isn’t mentioned nearly enough these days how the anti-lockdown movement in Canada has become a recruiting ground for far-right groups.

And before he became infamous Sky was a follower of the now-defunct Yellow Vest Canada movement, the self-described pro-pipeline outfit better known for promoting xenophobic and anti-Muslim views – and hanging Trudeau in effigy at rallies.

Sky was also a follower of white nationalist movements on Facebook, according to the ARC Collective, which was among the first groups to note his growing presence at anti-lockdown rallies among some other figures in far-right circles. Besides conspiracy theories about a one-world government, Sky’s views on the Holocaust and whether six million really died have also been part of the anti-COVID cacophony around him. When he was asked about that in an interview with the aforementioned Rebel News a few months back, he walked off the set.

He’s also reportedly the owner of many guns, a fact which was disclosed after he was charged with allegedly uttering death threats against Doug Ford.

Nowadays Sky describes himself as a “freedom fighter,” “human rights advocate” and “motivational speaker.” And his idea of revolution is shopping for socks while walking around unmasked at the West Edmonton Mall, getting arrested for it and then posting the video online. The funny thing about that is he claims to have a medical exemption not to wear a mask. It’s easy to be fooled.

Indeed. Before he was a fixture on the anti-vaxx scene, Sky was better known as Chris Saccoccia. His LinkedIn profile lists him as vice-president of Skyhomes Corporation, the company owned by his father, builder Art Saccoccia.

But Sky reportedly has no role in the day-to-day operations of the company, which officially distanced itself from him in 2020, publishing in a reply to a review on its Facebook page that his “opinions, comments, and actions… are not condoned by the corporation.”

Still, he’s also managed to turn the pandemic into a side hustle, founding a number of what he describes as charities and non-profits to raise money for his various anti-lockdown causes. These include a Facebook group called Mothers Against Distancing and a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for “private on-demand schools” for parents who don’t want to send their kids to school with masks.

His online popularity has also led to the publication of a book (or pamphlet, depending on who you listen to) and a line of merchandise, including T-shirts and hoodies with a motto made famous by Nancy Reagan’s war on drugs in the 1980s. 

“Just Say No” is not the most original catchphrase, but it’s an instructive choice in Sky’s case. Reagan’s campaign proved a hoax – it failed to treat drug use as the public health crisis it is. Sky is a pusher in his own right. But what exactly is his campaign trying to accomplish? And where is the money going?

Sky claims that the powers that be have conspired to “silence” him because “they know the freedom fighters are more awake and more aware and more plentiful than ever before.” But now that his lifeline to the outside world has been mostly choked off, will anybody hear?

As we enter 2022 we’d like to think not but there are still a lot of false prophets out there – and convincing for our political leaders to do. Another number to consider from Statistics Canada: fewer than one in five Canadians actually check the information they come across online about COVID.

@enzodimatteo

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