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A Day in the Life: A Conspiracy Theory Researcher

Carmen Celestini keeps an eye on far-right ideologues so you don’t have to.

andrea bennett 2 Jan 2024The Tyee

andrea bennett is a senior editor at The Tyee and the author of Hearty: Essays on Pleasure and Subsistence, forthcoming with ECW Press.

Carmen Celestini keeps the internet safe for normies.

A lecturer at the University of Waterloo and a post-doctoral fellow at Queen’s University in Kingston, she studies religion and social theory. Her primary focus rests on conspiracy theories, the Christian belief that the world is coming to an end — and where these two things overlap.

“From that, I’ve branched out into a lot of social media work, looking at disinformation, extremism, hate, mass shootings, all of the things you wouldn’t talk about at the dinner table,” Celestini says.

Thankfully, The Tyee’s dinner table is populated with folks who’d rather have politically engaged conversations. So we caught up with Celestini this fall to ask her about how she does her work, and what we need to know about how conspiracy theories and far-right ideologies are affecting our political, social and cultural spheres. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Tyee: Why is it important to be paying attention to the far right in our current political moment?

Carmen Celestini: Traditionally, if I say “conspiracy theories” to you, you’re going to think about people with tinfoil hats who have wild or wacky ideas about life. And we dismiss them. And when we dismiss them, we actually harm greater society. Because they create social groups, and they can create social movements. We’ve seen it happen with Jan. 6, with the convoys, with political movements and populism worldwide.

After the election of Donald Trump, and during COVID, a lot of these, not just conspiracy theories but also what they were terming the “alt right,” became so incredibly mainstream.

And with the internet, when we think about influencers, in our mind, we might think about Alex Jones, but there are very powerful influencers who are out there who come to these topics through religious ideas, through Second Amendment rules, through anti-immigration ideas, and they affect our political systems, because our politicians will say, “Well, this is a problem. And if you elect me, I’ll solve that problem.”

And in doing so, we harm marginalized communities. We see that happening with the “groomer” moral panic, with the banning of books, the panic that’s happening here in Canada with the education system.

The harm that could come from something we dismiss is really important for us to understand.

Could you talk about some of the more popular conspiracy theories you’re seeing right now?

QAnon is still quite out there.

We have Queen Romana and her movement.

We have the “Great Reset,” which is a huge conspiracy theory built on the World Economic Forum. And we also see the "Great Replacement" conspiracy theory, which is a theory that white people are being replaced through immigration. And in doing so white people will lose their power, they will be harmed by this.

We also see a lot of crossover with groups like Christian nationalists. They’re very much promoting conspiracy theories, whatever those may be. There seems to be a conglomeration of what we refer to as a “superconspiracy,” where conspiracies are all sort of linked together in a hierarchy. So things that you think would never be connected are absolutely connected. And they’re being used for Christian nationalism.

And because the internet is borderless, we’re seeing a rise of Christian nationalism that sees North America as a whole, not just Canada or America.

We see movements like tradwives online. Some are using it to promote an idea that they hold true, but others are using it to move into extremism and move into conspiracy theories and politics.

The way that I respond when I see some of these conspiracy theories — first of all, they don’t align with my values, so that makes me able to be more skeptical of them from the get-go. But then very few of them make any sort of linear or rational sense. And so that’s something I struggle with, personally, and something I’m hoping you might be able to explain. Are the people who believe in these more gullible? What’s happening? Why are people falling for this stuff?

One of the reasons that people become involved in conspiracy theories is because they’re afraid. Fear is a fundamental catalyst to a lot of these ideas. Now, those fears may be totally and absolutely rooted in reality — like if we were afraid during COVID of our mortality, or losing our jobs, or just everything that was happening around us, because we were shut into our homes. That kind of fear leads us to start seeking answers.

And fears can also articulate a sense of injustice, whether that injustice is real or just perceived.

For these conspiracies to take hold, we have to have distrust in the institutions.

When we don’t have trust in the things that would normally guide us or provide some type of safety net, we start questioning things. And that’s a good part of conspiracy theories, is asking these questions. But once we start going into that, what we see is that I might have started Googling about COVID and vaccines, and that will lead to a snowball effect where other things start coming in — these vaccines are dangerous and we’re all going to have heart attacks, or, if you get really far down the rabbit hole, they’re injecting something into us for population control.

People have a tendency to be afraid of technology, to be afraid of changes. When it seems like the change is affecting your social status, or maybe your employment, then we can blame feminism, we can blame LGBTQ people, we can blame immigrants or people of colour, whatever we might want. It provides answers.

There are loads of social media platforms that are not moderated and where these ideas become second nature.

While it might seem to someone who doesn’t hold these conspiracy theories that this is far-fetched, and so simplistic, and how can you possibly believe this, there are a lot of things that can make sense when you’re afraid and everything is going wrong all the time.

It gives you control of the situation because you understand it. And it also gives you a means to solve the problem.

There’s a lot that’s underneath it, once we look past the salaciousness.

I did want to ask you about the difference between the U.S. and Canada. In the U.S., I feel like I’ve seen way more explicit references to the end times and the Book of Revelation. I feel like we see less of that in Canada. But then we are seeing the same social issues cropping up in terms of galvanizing support, for example around anti-trans stuff or the Great Reset. Do we lean on eschatology and religion as much in Canada? Or is there a different pipeline for these ideologies here?

America is slightly different than Canada in the fact that religion has played such an intense role in politics. But we have long had a Christian nationalist movement here. But I don’t think it gets the same airtime here that it does in America.

So if I am watching the CBC, or reading your paper, or reading one of the other newspapers, it’s not something that’s really at the forefront. Every once in a while, there’s an exposé of something that is happening.

But quite honestly — underneath that, on social media, wherever you go, that is there, and it’s prevalent.

And we have organizations and groups that very much push a narrative of Christian nationalism in Canada, on very much the same basis that it is in America — the same scapegoats and enemies. And the moral panics are absolutely the same.

We just probably don’t engage with it as much. We also don’t have an MTG standing up there saying, “I’m proud to be a Christian nationalist; that’s not a bad thing.”

That’s a little more low-key here. But we do see those ideas. Pierre Poilievre put out a thing on Easter Sunday, saying “Christ is risen” with a cross in the background. And a space in the foreground with Poilievre’s image. He’s not saying that he is Christ himself rising up. But that is quite the ad.

You published a paper fairly recently that discussed the Proud Boys and White Lives Matter. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your method for infiltrating far-right groups in order to do this research?

The Proud Boys are considered a terrorist organization in Canada. And so because we’re in Canada, we can’t actually access their stuff. But if you use a VPN, you can access their stuff if you say you’re from America.

VPNs are very important to my work, because I use them not just to access things but to protect myself. If anybody is trying to dox me, they think I’m somewhere else in the world.

When I have an idea, for example about QAnon, or, as another example, I have a paper coming out about the "Queen," Romana Didulo — we will go into their groups.

I use aliases to get in there. I don’t really engage in conversation with them, but I observe. They will have conversations talking about other conspiracy theories, or other people who they engage with, or who they listen to, or who they join on Telegram. And then I’ll go check that Telegram channel and go through it. Sometimes if it’s something that’s really interesting to me, I’ll start digging around on websites or other social media platforms and see what I can find.

You find out who the people are who are talking. They don’t necessarily have a Telegram channel that says, “Hey, we’re the Proud Boys in Canada.” They’re often changing it. You have to pay attention to the movements that people are making and the comments that they’re making. And really, you just have to be absolutely curious. It might be you see a word or a phrase three times, and you end up going in that direction.

You do have to be careful, obviously. I spend a lot of time creating these aliases. You need to understand the language, you have to create a bio and not cross the line on saying something that is considered hate speech or extremism, but maybe express a belief in “traditional values,” those kinds of terms that sort of lower their defences against you.

But it’s really just going in there and following who they follow and who they go with. And spending hours paying attention to this stuff because you might not see something of interest for many days.

Is there a material difference between what you can see in the publicly available stuff and what comes up in Telegram groups and the sort of semi-private sphere?

So for the convoy, let’s say, when their leaders were on X, or Twitter, they were mostly looking at attacking Justin Trudeau, the prime minister, saying that he was strangling their communication, trying to shadow-ban them. Those conversations were more like, oh, we have these bubbly bouncy castles, and we’re happy, and we’re really focused on Trudeau and the Liberal party.

But what we were seeing on Zello and Telegram was very different. There was a lot more discussion about conspiracy theories. And a lot more ideas that were not as palatable to the general public.

During COVID, there were anti-health-mandate protests that were happening every Saturday. And White Lives Matter has a protest every quarter.

They were trying to link up with the anti-health-mandate people, saying well, we’re both protesting. Our protest is on Sunday. We’re anti-mandate as well — come join us. Within their Telegram group, White Lives Matter was saying let’s not be overly racist, let’s not really say hate things. Let’s focus on people of colour who have harmed white people and the crimes that have occurred, and try to get what they call the “normies” to come into their group and have that mash-up of these things at the protests.

Now that didn’t come to fruition. But the actual idea that they were planning, that kind of coalition, is very much what happens.

What does a typical day look like on a far-right Telegram group for the Proud Boys or White Lives Matter? How often are people communicating? What kinds of messages are they sharing with each other?

It’s sort of like 12-year-old boys in a lot of ways. There’s a lot of meme sharing, Pepe the Frog. If there’s something that’s happening, like the war in the Middle East, they’ll share endless clips and tons of misinformation.

If there’s a crime that’s been perpetuated, they’ll automatically jump to the conclusion of racism and say that to end what’s happening, you need to end immigration. There are a lot of posts, depending on the group. Each group has its own racial slant or political slant or focus on the Illuminati, and whatever news hooks are happening get run through these lenses.

There are survival ads — buy these survival pills, stock up on these prepper items. There is a lot of religious material and psalms. COVID brought in a lot of New Age ideas.

It’s a lot of ridiculousness, and terrible memes.

You mentioned that these Telegram groups remind you a bit of 12-year-old boys. Are they primarily male spaces? Is the radicalization of women, white women, happening more, say, on Instagram, talking about home-schooling and essential oils?

There’s essential oil talk on Telegram too!

There are some women. But the Patriot Front, the Proud Boys with their no fap rule — there are things that are not necessarily welcoming to women.

And it’s integral to their world view to have these traditional roles. Males are articulated as soldiers, as heroes. Their role is to save the nation, women and children.

Women are seen as the teachers of tomorrow, enculturating these beliefs for children.

LGBTQ groups are seen as destroying manhood and taking away these jobs.  [Tyee]

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