Imagine scrolling through Facebook when you come across this headline: “Canada Moves to Ban Christians from Demonstrating in Public Under New Anti-Hate Proposal.” If you think it reads too shocking and absurd to be true, that’s because it is.
But this exact headline appeared atop a story that was shared more than 16,000 times online since it was published in May, according to social media tool CrowdTangle. The federal government and Justin Trudeau, who is pictured in the story, are not seeking to ban Christians from demonstrating. In fact, the bill the story is based on was introduced in the Ontario legislature, by a Conservative MPP, and never made it past a second reading.
Incorrect and misleading content is common on social media, but it’s not always obvious where it originates. To learn more, CBC News tracked this particular example back through time on social media to uncover where it came from and how it evolved over time.
March 20: Private member’s bill introduced in Ontario
In this case, it all started with a bill. In March, Roman Baber, a freshman member of the Ontario provincial legislature introduced his very first private member’s bill. Had he known how badly the bill would be misconstrued online, he might have chosen something else, he later told CBC News.
“I expected that people would understand what prompted the bill, as a proud member of the Jewish community who’s been subjected to repeated demonstrations at Queen’s Park by certain groups that were clearly promoting hate,” said Baber, Progressive Conservative member for York Centre.
The bill was simple. It sought to ban any demonstrations on the grounds of Queen’s Park, where Ontario’s provincial legislature is located, that promote hate speech or incite violence. Baber said the bill was prompted by previous demonstrations that occurred at the legislature grounds.
“In 2017, we saw a demonstration that called for the shooting of Israelis. We saw a demonstration that called for a bus bombing and murder of innocent civilians,” he said.
The bill went through two readings at Queen’s Park and was punted to the standing committee on justice, where it’s languished since.
March 27: Canadian Jewish News covers story
At first, the bill garnered modest attention online. The Canadian Jewish News ran a straight-forward report on the bill that included an interview with Baber shortly after he first introduced it. It was shared only a handful of times.
But a few weeks after the second reading, the bill drew the attention of LifeSiteNews, a socially-conservative website. The story was shared 212 times, according to CrowdTangle, including to the Yellow Vests Canada Facebook group.
In its story, LifeSiteNews suggested that a bill banning hate speech might be interpreted to include demonstrations like those that opposed updates to the province’s sex education curriculum.
Baber said this isn’t the case, because hate speech is already defined and interpreted by legal precedent.
“The words ‘hate’ and ‘hate-promoting’ have been defined by the courts repeatedly through common law and is enforced in courts routinely,” Baber said. “So it would be a mistake to suggest that the bill expands the realm of hate speech.”
April 24: The Post Millennial invokes ‘free speech’ argument
But the idea stuck around. A few weeks later, on April 24, the Post Millennial posted a story labelled as news that argued the bill could infringe on free speech. The story was, however, clear that the bill was only in Ontario and had not yet moved beyond a second reading. It was shared over 200 times and drew nearly 400 interactions — likes, shares, comments and reactions — on social media, according to CrowdTangle.
May 6: Powerful emotions evoke response on social media
On May 6, a socially conservative women’s group called Real Women of Canada published a news release on the bill calling it “an attack on free speech.” In the release, the group argues that hate speech isn’t clearly defined in Canadian law, and draws on unrelated examples to claim that Christian demonstrations, in particular, could be targeted.
For example, the group pointed to the case of British Columbia’s Trinity Western University, a Christian post-secondary institution that used to require all students sign a covenant that prohibited sex outside of heterosexual marriage. A legal challenge around the covenant and a potential law school at Trinity Western occurred last year, but it had nothing to do with hate speech.
May 9: LifeSiteNews republishes news release
Though this news release itself was not widely shared, three days later it was republished by LifeSiteNews as an opinion piece. That post did better, drawing 5,500 shares and over 8,000 interactions, according to CrowdTangle It also embellished the release with a dramatic image and sensational headline: “Ontario Bill Threatens to Criminalize Christian Speech as ‘Hate.'”
At this point, the nugget of truth has been nearly entirely obscured by several layers of opinion and misrepresentation. For example, the bill doesn’t specifically cite Christian speech, but this headline suggests it does.
These tactics are used to elicit a strong response from readers and encourage them to share, according to Samantha Bradshaw, a researcher on the Computational Propaganda project at Oxford University.
“People like to consume this kind of content because it’s very emotional, and it gets us feeling certain things: anger, frustration, anxiety, fear,” Bradshaw said. “These are all very powerful emotions that get people sharing and consuming content.”
May 11: Big League Politics publishes sensational inaccuracies
That framing on LifeSiteNews caught the attention of a major U.S. publication known for spreading conspiracy theories and misinformation: Big League Politics. On May 11, the site published a story that cited the LifeSiteNews story heavily.
The headline and image make it seem like Trudeau’s government has introduced legislation that would specifically prohibit Christians from demonstrating anywhere in the country, a far cry from the truth.
While the story provides a few facts, like the fact the bill was introduced in Ontario, much of it is incorrect. For example, in the lead sentence, the writer claimed the bill would “criminalize public displays by Christians deemed hateful to Muslims, the LGBT community and other victim groups designated by the left.”
The disinformation and alarmist headline proved successful: the Big League Politics version of the story was shared more than 16,000 times, drew more than 26,000 interactions and continued to circulate online for over two weeks.
This evolution is a common occurrence. Disinformation is often based on a nugget of truth that gets buried under layers of emotionally-charged language and opinion. Here, that nugget of truth was a private member’s bill introduced in the Ontario legislature. But that fact was gradually churned through an online network of spin until it was unrecognizable in the final product.
At the end of the day, democracy is really hard work. It’s up to us to put in that time and effort to fact check our information, to look at other sources, to look at the other side of the argument and to weigh and debate and discuss.– Samantha Bradshaw, researcher at Oxford University
“That is definitely something that we see often: taking little truths and stretching them, misreporting them or implementing commentary and treating someone’s opinion about what happened as news,” Bradshaw said. “The incremental changes that we see in these stories and these narratives is something very typical of normal disinformation campaigns.”
Bradshaw said even though disinformation is only a small portion of the content online, it can have an outsized impact on our attention. With that in mind, she said it’s partly up to readers to think critically about what they’re reading and sharing online.
“At the end of the day, democracy is really hard work,” Bradshaw said. “It’s up to us to put in that time and effort to fact check our information, to look at other sources, to look at the other side of the argument and to weigh and debate and discuss.”