Erin O’Toole’s misinformation problem


Over the past few weeks, as Canadians have needed a certain amount of certainty and reassurance that the government is on the case around the eventual distribution of COVID vaccines, we have seen only a campaign of misinformation and confusion, primarily put forward by the opposition, in the absence of explicit reassurance.  Some of this is the government’s fault – this is, after all, a government that can’t communicate their way out of a wet paper bag – but some of it is owed to the simple fact that this is a file that has a lot of moving parts, not the least of which is the fact that the vaccines haven’t yet received approval, that we just learned that raw materials shortages will mean fewer doses than expected, and the fact that vaccine distribution is a provincial responsibility and it sounds like not every province has their act together on this yet.  But much of this is straight-up misinformation and confusion designed to heighten anxiety in order to score political points.

I will note that Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has in large part sown confusion under the rubric of “just asking questions,” and put out a great deal of this misinformation by mischaracterizing remarks from ministers, among them Chrystia Freeland (who did actually call him out on that earlier in the week).  Over the past two weeks, he has repeatedly lied, misconstrued, or gave facts without context in order to present a false picture on so many things, that when I started going through my QP recaps, the length of the list surprised me.  To wit:

– In an attempt to make the federal government the villain, he has lied about the responsibility of the provinces in rolling out rapid tests and in their role in vaccine distribution

– He mischaracterized Justin Trudeau’s statement on the lack of spare domestic capacity produce vaccines

– In demanding to know why the federal government didn’t secure the licences to produce vaccines domestically, he lied by omission in that we don’t have the technological capability to manufacture mRNA vaccines to scale

– He insinuated that premiers don’t know what is going on with the vaccine roll-out when it’s their jurisdiction

– He mischaracterized the CNN report on the early pandemic response in Wuhan, China (which said that the mistakes were bureaucratic and similar to what has happened here in Canada)

– In trying to sow confusion around when vaccines would be arriving (which nobody actually knows), he has taken a number of broadly consistent statements and presented them as contradictory

– While it has been public knowledge that the Canadian Forces have been embedded within the Public Health Agency of Canada to work on vaccine roll-out planning for months, he insisted that the involvement of the Forces has been “last minute”

– He has been promulgating a conspiracy theory around the government’s hopes for a vaccine candidate with CanSino – never mind that the timeline doesn’t match up for his assertions that the government put all their eggs in that basket only for it to not pan out

And these are only the pandemic-related lies.  He has also used misinformation to fuel the moral panic around judicial appointments, and lied about statements Freeland made about a UN vote that he considered to be “anti-Israel.  You can see a pattern emerging.

Part of this is pure political calculation – his QP strategy largely comprises of saying outrageous things so that he can use the clips in shitposts that perpetuate the lies in order to make his base believe them to be true.  And make no mistake – O’Toole has made great use of the professional shitposters he hired, and they have kept his use of this tactic far more focused than Andrew Scheer ever did.  He may not have the media ecosystem in Canada that keeps right-wing worldviews separate from the mainstream, but he nevertheless is attempting to recreate it over social media – and he is greatly assisted by the fact that the mainstream media in Canada won’t call out his lies, but simply both-sides them.

And it’s not just O’Toole either. Pierre Poilievre has been openly winking and nodding to the tinfoil hat crowd that believes the “Great Reset” is some kind of New World Order plot, and when pressed on it, O’Toole has shrugged and said that he’s the leader so people should look to him for the party’s message.  And this week, we learned that his MP (and former leadership rival) Derek Sloan has sponsored a petition that boasts of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories under the notion that he too is “just asking questions.”  That O’Toole has not condemned this, he is both washing his hands of the problem that Sloan presents his party (thanks to the garbage Reform Act, O’Toole cannot expel Sloan from the party, but delegates that role to caucus, who has thus far refused to do so), but he is also sending a signal to those members of his base that Sloan attracted, and who helped push O’Toole over the finish line.  If O’Toole is not beholden to them, then he is certainly showing a willingness to keep courting them because he knows there are votes to be found there.

Of course, the government hasn’t helped itself in the face of this campaign of misinformation.  Relying mostly on happy-clappy talking points and a whole lot of pabulum, their inability to show candour on the problems and complexity in this file allows O’Toole and others to put words in the Cabinet’s mouths, which get distributed by those shitposts before the government can call them out.  The government’s reluctance to point more fingers at the provinces for premiers not doing their jobs – and in some cases, dropping the ball entirely – means that they leave themselves open to taking the blame that should be directed elsewhere.

Nevertheless, the question remains about the sustainability of O’Toole’s tactics.  If he keeps lying about this, how can Canadians trust him if he forms government?  Or does he hope that they will be so inured to his lies that they will believe anything he tells them if that eventuality ever happens?  Given what we’ve seen south of the border, that possibility should be terrifying to everyone.

Photo Credit: CTV News

More from Dale Smith. @journo_dale

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