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Life

The Rise of the Anti-Mask Influencer

After studying the origins and actions of several prominent Canadian anti-maskers, we can now offer you the definitive primer to becoming a conspiracy-baiting, immensely annoying influencer.
Mack Lamoureux
Toronto, CA
MM
illustrated by Maïté Marque
March 29, 2021, 11:55am

This is part of a special series, The Future of Fame Is the Fan, which dissects how celebrity became so slippery. It’s also in the latest VICE magazine. Subscribe here.

So you want to be an influencer, do ya?

Well, I have news for you: That ain’t happening.

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The online world is chock-full of hyped-up humans willing to pose sweetly on top of some sexy rocks or vlog about psychotically pranking their six-year-old son and, I’m sorry, but you’re probably not going to break into that market. But if you’re willing to make a deal with the content devil, there is another path you can go down.

The Route of an Anti-Mask Influencer

Now, I’m sure you’re thinking of Alex Jones and his ilk, but that’s not who we’re talking about. We’re talking about becoming someone who has only a few thousand followers, but ones who are all loyal as can be. Stephanie Alice Baker, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of London, who studies influencers, said that for many in the game, it’s all about quality over quantity.

“Influence often gets reduced just to follow accounts, and that neglects a lot of the power of the messaging,” she said. “A lot of the most influential people online actually have relatively small followings.”

We here at VICE have analyzed how some of the most important figures in the Canadian anti-lockdown movement rose to prominence in the past year. In doing so we’ve learned about their dark art, and are pleased to present it to you. All you have to do is be a little paranoid, willing to swim in the rancid sea of misinformation, and possess almost no shame. With these traits, and by using the following tricks, you too can have a squadron of followers at your beck and call.

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Without further ado, here is the VICE guide to being an anti-mask influencer.

Tip 1: When Opportunity Knocks, Answer

Those who would go on to form the nucleus of the anti-mask movement in Toronto came from different backgrounds.

Chris Saccoccia, the person who started Mothers Against Social Distancing, is a childless man from an extremely wealthy family. Lamont Daigle, a leader of the anti-mask group The Line, was deep into a multilevel marketing scheme built around innovating tap water. Vladislav Sobolev, the ever-smiling man behind Hugs over Masks, was a life coach originally from Kazakhstan. Kelly-Anne Wolfe, who somehow played a key role in most of the groups listed above, was a country singer who never was able to make the big time.

While none were figures in any sort of conspiracy movement, all of them were into anti-vaxx, New Age, and, in some cases, just plain old anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

For the quartet, everything began last April, when they began attending protests hosted in Toronto by an odd group called Free North Patriots, which has been linked to Canada’s far-right Yellow Vest movement. Drew, an anti-fascist researcher who runs a newsletter about the anti-mask community, said they “just sort of rose through the ranks based on their charisma.” (Drew didn’t want us to use his last name out of fear of reprisal.)

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Saccoccia, for example, was able to capture the hearts of the movement after an impassioned speech he gave was broadcast by the large right-wing news channel Rebel Media. He was a hit. It’s not too surprising; the 38-year-old son of a Toronto-area property developer is a striking figure. Short, tattooed, and with the physique of a bodybuilder, he speaks with the confident and aggressive cadence of a villain in an 80s teen ski comedy.

His speech must have done numbers, because Saccoccia became Rebel Media’s anti-mask muse, and has been interviewed countless times since. (Rebel Media even sent a reporter to hype an anti-mask dance party he hosted.) Once Saccoccia got a taste of the attention, he was hooked, and now his life revolves around anti-mask actions.

While Saccoccia said in an email that he’s “not interested in fame or notoriety,” he also gloated that his videos have been seen by “hundreds of millions of people around the world.” This statement is assuredly not true.

(Side technique 1: Lie to the media constantly; almost none of them will call you on your bullshit.)

Tip 2: It’s All About the Brand, Baby

You won’t become an anti-mask influencer on looks, charisma, and cynical YouTube channels alone. You need to have a brand, and one you stick to no matter what. This is perhaps the most important thing in making it big in the anti-mask world; many groups and influencers have failed because they picked the wrong slogan, brand, or logo.

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Shortly after the protests started getting attention, Sobolev, Saccoccia, and Daigle either co-opted a brand or started their own. At first, they presented them as separate groups, but they were just names on a T-shirt or Facebook group. These multiple brands had the effect of making the community look larger, as all the brands’ followers cross-pollinated.

“They were kind of all doing it together, but [the groups were] like their own personal brand,” said Drew. “They weren’t quite groups initially [TheLine] was actually kind of like a merchandising attempt.”

Sobolev, the inspirational fitness coach, created the hyper-positive Hugs Over Masks, which grew to have over 11,000 people in its Facebook group. For Daigle, the polished marketer, it was all about helping the sleek brand The Line—which also had thousands of members online before being pulled by Facebook—become popular and then slowly take the reins as its spokesperson. For Saccoccia, a non- parent, it was, confusingly, starting Mothers Against Social Distancing, which also had over 11,000 members on Facebook before being taken down in March. (A Facebook spokesperson confirmed the company had removed the Mothers Against Social Distancing page.)

Think hard here, because that’s what will move the merchandise. You can’t attend a rally in Canada without seeing Hugs Over Masks or The Line logos.

“They do think very carefully. For Vlad, he thought very carefully about why he wanted to call the group Hugs Over Masks,” said Drew. “He tries to have a more positive brand that he can follow the kind of hippie-dippy love bombing stuff.”

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(Side technique 2: If you can, think of a brand that involves children. Using child abuse as an emotionally manipulative form of recruitment and propaganda is a tale as old as time, one that’s being expertly used by QAnon influencers currently.)

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Tip 3: Get Good at Social Media—but Not Too Good

Start posting, and start posting frequently. Tony, an anti-fascist researcher who writes regularly on the anti-mask movement, said that the group posts more than you could ever think.

“Their use of social media has been excellent,” said Tony, who asked that his full name not be used out of fear of reprisal. “I will say that. They’re very good at promoting themselves.”

It’s important to post a lot and to show glimpses of your world, because this builds a level of intimacy and makes people think they’re your friend, Baker explained, pointing to Martha Stewart as someone who used this technique well pre-internet.

“We are much more inclined to follow the advice of people that we trust and that we relate to,” said Baker. “Many of the techniques and strategies that influencers use predate the internet.”

All these figures are constantly posting videos and posts on their pages to keep their supporters engaged and enraged. Some of the leaders make upward of 20 to 30 posts on Facebook and put up multiple lengthy Instagram videos every day. They treat it like a full-time job.

“Most of these people, they do every type of social media outreach, constant text posts on Facebook and vlogging every day,” said Dan Collen, a journalist who covers the anti-mask and fringe movement.

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(Side technique 3: Get a Nokia. Collen said that the vlogs are almost always done on smartphones, and while they may have the money to upgrade the equip- ment they almost certainly won’t, as “it’s frowned upon to do so.” This is because having good equipment will make the leaders seem like members of the “elite” and the media they so often rail against.)

Tip 4: Be Both a Martyr and a Hero

A martyr complex is immensely important if you want to get a foothold in this world. Remember this credo: Everyone is out to get you, and therefore everyone is out to get your followers.

“An important element is victimization,” said Collen. “The constant mentioning of yourself as the victim of every narrative: They have mastered this.”

This may be one of the trickier techniques, but once you thread the needle of being the brave figure who is standing up to the system while also constantly being terrified, you’ll be halfway toward having your followers go to battle for you. Tony says one of the easiest ways of doing this is, well, to lie, but “another technique they use is exaggeration.”

“I mean, they’re comparing wearing a mask at Costco to the Jews having to wear stars when they were in Nazi Germany,” said Tony. “It’s not just ridiculous, but extremely offensive.”

Baker said that one of the most useful techniques a conspiracy influencer can have is following the path of the hero’s journey, a storytelling technique that revolves around a central figure overcoming a great obstacle.

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“They’re using this hero’s journey to present themselves as overcoming this societal problem and through this kind of brave act that they are not only able to forge their own path, but in the case of COVID conspiracy theories, you know, forge a path for others as well,” said Baker.

(Side technique 4: Steal from the silver screen. In March 2020, when Daigle was first inserting himself into the Canadian anti-mask movement, he made a lengthy Facebook post in which he mentioned that all his life he’s been watching “hero’s journey movies” and said he will be “that guy.”

“I’ll be JOHN CONNOR so I can kill the Terminator,” he wrote. “I’m all the characters of LORD OF THE RINGS and will run across a country to save my family and even you if you’re important enough after you’ve shown your passion for others.”)

Tip 5: You’re an Expert Even if You’re Not Unique or Right

This is the most obvious one of the bunch. If you’re speaking about masks, you’re a doctor, and if you’re speaking about the law, you’re a lawyer. Fuck the people who have dedicated their lives to understanding the nuances of how things work. You’ve done your own research. It’s all about confidence.

The conspiracies spread by Saccoccia, Daigle, and Sobolev aren’t very groundbreaking or interesting. Like the anti-vaxxers who came before them, they cherry-pick old data and make broad and vague statements. Just taking the conspiracy theory of the day and twisting it slightly is an effective technique. No one cares about consistency, and if a prediction either doesn’t come true or a statement of theirs is proven false, you can merely move on. Just say it confidently.

“It was almost like watching a late-night infomercial, how they take anything and they’re able to promote it and make it sound like it’s the best thing ever,” said Kevin, a former anti-masker who has since left the movement. (He asked for his name to be changed out of fear of reprisal.)

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(Side technique 5: Start them off small before moving to the good stuff. For instance, you can start with complaints about how the government has responded to the pandemic—pretty reasonable. Then, as they get deeper into the community, become more invested, and begin to trust you, you can slowly start to work in more insidious stuff, like the claim that the pandemic is being exaggerated so the government can take power, will never end, and, of course, was orchestrated by a lizard-controlled cabal.)

Tip 6: You Can’t Care About the Well-Being of Your Followers

If you’re going to become a conspiracy influencer, you need to be OK with the fact that you’re going to be doing a world of damage to your followers.

Kevin said he left because of how the leaders and their followers were acting. While he feels many in the movement may have joined for a good reason, he finds the anti-maskers’ actions—like going to stores without masks to antagonize low-wage workers—unnecessary and cruel. The final straw for him was when, during an anti-mask march, a group bullied a man with autism, who was filming them, for wearing a mask.

Since leaving and analyzing the movement from afar, he said, what is troubling to him is how they’re encouraging their followers to get more and more extreme.

“It’s concerning, because these people are pretty much encouraging people to get arrested, to get ticketed,” he said. “It’s almost like it’s a badge of honor to get arrested.”

Even more frustrating to Kevin is that these people, who are most definitely not lawyers, are also advising their followers about legal matters—such as charges or fines—and this could have long-lasting effects on their followers’ lives. Few get into the anti-mask movement solely because they want to be annoying—most are merely distrustful of the government and scared, something surely everyone can relate to.

“People are ruining their lives for the sake of these leaders, and it’s like they just are so intoxicated right now with this Kool-Aid type stuff,” said Kevin. “It’s like they just need to wake up—some of these people are smart, but they’re just so wrapped up in it.”

(Side technique 6: Don’t become a conspiracy influencer.)

Follow Mack Lamoureux on Twitter.