Facebook has deleted several of Canada’s largest anti-mask groups, including those that organized massive protests in Vancouver and Toronto last weekend, following a request for comment from VICE News.
From Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, the social media giant deleted The Line, which had 4,500 members in its private group and almost 30,000 followers on its publicly facing page, M.A.D. (Mothers Against Distancing), with over 7,000 members in its private group, and a private group based solely around organizing anti-mask Santa Claus parades, which had over 2,600 members.
Mothers Against Distancing is the group tied to Chris Saccoccia, the wealthy childless son of a Toronto-area property developer, who has garnered headlines for his anti-mask stunts such as organizing anti-mask raves and trying to create a private school system in which all the staff are anti-maskers, and was recently arrested for breaking quarantine when coming back to Canada from Europe. VICE News has reached out to Saccoccia for comment but has yet to receive a response.
According to Facebook, the pages were removed for repeated violations of its community standards. While the company allows anti-mask events to be organized on its site, events must not violate government COVID-19 regulations.
When reached for comment, a Facebook spokesperson shared a statement made by Guy Rosen, VP of Integrity at Facebook, saying the company has been working to reduce misinformation on its platform.
“As this pandemic evolves, we’ll continue focusing on the most effective ways to keep misinformation and dangerous hoaxes about COVID-19 off our apps and ensure people have credible information from health experts to stay safe and informed,” said the statement.
Facebook said it is currently reviewing other anti-mask groups in Canada—including one with more than 9,000 members.
The anti-mask Facebook groups have been a central hub for anti-mask organizing in Canada and a driving force in the spread of Canadian COVID-19 medical misinformation. Events borne from these groups include the two-day rally in Vancouver last weekend where anti-maskers got banned from ferries for accosting customers, and the weekly protests in Toronto, dubbed Freedom Rallies, which have grown from a smattering of people in a park to hundreds of mostly white people marching through the city's downtown.
The network has given rise to a number of regional groups responsible for the protests that take part in smaller communities. Outside of the protests, members have organized stunts like handing out fake “mask exemption” cards, throwing anti-mask raves, and organizing mask-free rides on public transit.
Within the pages exists a large community of frightened people sharing medical misinformation and reinforcing conspiracy theories. For the most part, they believe the pandemic is either not real or overblown, and that COVID-19 measures, like wearing masks, are a step towards tyranny in the form of mandatory vaccines or even government-led “COVID internment camps,” a popular conspiracy within these pages.
The growing catalogue of COVID-19 misinformation, much of it spread via these networks, has forced public officials to respond. Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, urged Canadians to be “media smart as well as science smart” on Tuesday. At the same press conference, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said a young woman recently asked him if Canada was setting up COVID internment camps.
“I had to explain, as we consume increasing amounts of information online and around us, we need to continue to be attentive to source and looking for trusted authorities like Dr. Tam and regional health services to tell the truth,” said Trudeau.
In Ontario, a Facebook event called “Road Hockey at Dougys” was posted in many of the most popular anti-mask groups, calling on people to protest outside of Premier Doug Ford’s home, and even listed his home address. On Monday, Doug Ford was forced to ask protesters not to come to his house as they were scaring neighbourhood kids.
The New York Times reported in early October that membership in anti-mask groups on Facebook has grown 1,800 percent since August. Marc-André Argentino, a PhD candidate at Concordia University who studies fringe movements, told VICE News you can’t ignore the role Facebook played in the rise of these groups.
The site “is essential because Facebook events are how they're organizing,” said Argentino. “But ultimately, even if Facebook would take this down, there’s going to be ways for them to rally using other platforms.”
Argentino said these groups are adjacent to QAnon groups, which he studies, particularly when it comes to anti-mask groups in Quebec. (QAnon is a massive conspiracy focused on Donald Trump waging a secret war against a cabal of Democratic-pedophiles.)
The problem with taking the pages down from Facebook is that people could be led into darker corners of the Internet, where neo-Nazis and QAnon conspiracy theorists operate with abandon, Argentino said.
“We don’t want them ending up on other platforms like Telegram because our Aunt Carol might not be a radical, but if you send her down there, she’s gonna discover other shit that might push her over the edge,” he said.
In fact, in one of the last large Canadian anti-mask groups still on Facebook, a worried admin urged followers to follow him to an alternative platform "in the event that FascistBook deletes our pages."
Research has shown that during times of struggle or stress people turn to conspiracies in an attempt to make sense of the chaos.
“We need to realize our political systems were never built to support long-term social chaos, like a global pandemic that has lasted for months,” said Argentino. "No one was really equipped for this. There’s a lot of people falling through the gaps; there’s a lot of social harm and insecurities. People are frustrated.”
Like the virus, ideas spread quickly in this community. The anti-maskers, who typically have membership in all the groups, copy and paste posts word for word in each group, making it easy to gain hundreds of likes and comments on topics like hydroxychloroquine and how the forthcoming internment camps will be fitted with “hydraulic guillotines.” The theories, misinformation, and talking points are fluid and oftentimes vague, which allows for the group to be a big-tent style community. It doesn’t matter if you’re an anti-vaxxer, an anti-globalist, or just plain old hate Trudeau and the pandemic measures, you most likely will find a place in the closed groups. It gives members a sense of community in a dark time where community can be hard to come by.
“Many people I’ve met at our Freedom Rallies, have stated they will KILL and DIE for each other, myself included,” wrote the man organizing the protest outside of Ford’s home.
This is not the first time Facebook has taken action against these groups. Saccoccia’s Mothers Against Social Distancing started a new page in August after being taken down earlier this year. It took him only a few months to regrow the thousands of followers he lost.
Follow Mack Lamoureux on Twitter.