NDP MLA and former Alberta environment minister Shannon Phillips. Photo: The Canadian Press/Patrick Doyle

ANALYSIS: Sexism and conspiracies in Alberta politics

What’s behind the surveillance of Shannon Phillips.

A key policy of Alberta's former minister of environment and parks, Shannon Phillips, was expanding the Castle Wildland Provincial Park boundaries.

Completed by order in council in January 2017, this expansion prohibited access to off-highway vehicles (OHVs)—such as quads and snowmobiles—to parts of the park where they had been previously permitted.

Some conservative politicians sided with OHV groups who opposed these restrictions, even as other outdoor organizations organized in favour of the changes.

The rationale for restricting OHVs in Castle was grounded in science. The negative reaction to those restrictions was grounded in a conspiracy theory that alleged Phillips’s motivation in the Castle was primarily for personal gain.

On Monday, Albertans learned two senior officers with the Lethbridge Police Service (LPS) were demoted for unauthorized surveillance of Phillips in April 2017, as she met for lunch with stakeholders, including Indigenous representatives, while she was a government minister.

For personal and political reasons, rather than public safety, these officers followed and photographed Phillips and the group she met with, and ran her companion’s licence plate through a police database.

A lot of people would be surprised, and I wasn’t.

Shannon Phillips, NDP MLA and former Parks Minister

This abuse of police power is unacceptable in any democracy. It should be shocking. Yet, Phillips said, “A lot of people would be surprised, and I wasn’t.”

Neither was I.

How is that possible?

For me, conspiracy theories and hostile sexism are the missing links we need to make sense of these events. Here’s how it works.

Conspiracy, ideology and mistrust

Defined by law scholars Cass R. Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule, conspiracy theories are “an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who attempt to conceal their role.”

Conspiracy theories interact with ideology, knowledge and trust.

People may gravitate to them to fill their need for order, certainty or control, but this alone is not sufficient for someone to buy into a conspiracy. Instead, conspiracy theories often confirm existing political worldviews, especially about political opponents.

Political elites may use the anger generated from conspiracy theories to further their cause.

Peer-reviewed research published in the American Journal of Political Science shows that while people across the political spectrum all engage in conspiratorial thinking, people on the right are more likely to buy into conspiracy theories, especially if they have reasonably high levels of knowledge and low levels of trust. (This arguably describes many OHV enthusiasts, at least with respect to the Castle region.)

In contrast, that same research shows that higher levels of knowledge make people less likely to buy into a conspiracy theory, but only on the political left. Higher levels of trust help protect against conspiracy theories across the political spectrum.

Political elites, including party leaders and elected politicians, may use the anger generated from conspiracy theories to further their cause because those who believe a conspiracy theory will be, according to the same study’s authors, “polarized, participatory, and receptive.”

Through social media, the authors argue, these elites “can count on at least a segment of their knowledgeable, actively engaged (and less trusting) base to endorse (and possibly spread) what is essentially misinformation” about a political opponent.

The implication is that even if politicians who benefit from a conspiracy theory know it is false, they may not address or dismiss it because it benefits them, even if it generates frightening hostility for a colleague.

If this research is applied to Alberta, it helps explain why Phillips is still viciously targeted on blatantly false grounds, while other more recent examples of political nepotism and corruption in Alberta politics do not elicit anything close to the same response. One is perceived to be an opponent, the others are not.

Hostile sexism is based on the idea that power is zero-sum, so if women gain power, it is only at men’s expense.

In this case, the conspiracy is focused on Phillips’s alleged personal gains from the changes to Castle Wildland Provincial Park. Though patently false, like most conspiracy theories, it was disseminated widely on social media.

Following Monday’s news, social media accounts continue to spread misinformation by erroneously asserting that both Phillips and Notley own cabins in the Castle and that these properties are the primary motivation behind changes to the park. While in reality, concerned citizens have been organizing to protect this area for years.

For me, one of the most striking things about the anger associated with this conspiracy theory is its unprincipled nature.

When power is zero-sum

The fact that Phillips was a powerful woman in a woman-led government committed to gender equality shouldn’t be ignored. Hostile sexism is the reason why.

Hostile sexism is based on the idea that power is zero-sum, so if women gain power, it is only at men’s expense.

Hostile sexism captures the idea that women’s claims for equality are really about getting ahead at men’s expense, that women exaggerate harassment, and that women seek power by getting control over men. The more someone agrees with these sentiments, the more likely they are to be a hostile sexist.

Research also shows that openly sexist attacks on women in politics energizes hostile sexists.

Studies show that while hostile sexism cuts across genders and the political spectrum, men on the political right and those who want to maintain existing social hierarchies are more likely to be hostile sexists than other groups.

Research also shows that openly sexist attacks on women in politics energizes hostile sexists. In the United States, hostile sexists who were exposed to Donald Trump’s “woman card” attack on Hillary Clinton were more enthusiastic about his campaign, more committed to participating in his campaign, and more likely to vote for him.

I suspect a similar dynamic is at work with the OHV conspiracy theory about the changes to Castle Wildland Provincial Park, as well as the gross abuse of power by the Lethbridge officers.

Like politics, OHV activities are heavily masculinized; so the loss of OHV space could easily take on a gendered lens, building resentment against the women perceived to be attacking this activity.

Mistrust of a perceived political opponent and hostile sexism both created a very difficult context for Phillips.

Some may have been more willing to act on the conspiracy theories floating around social media precisely because the NDP in general, and Phillips in particular, often spoke about gender equality.

A threat to our democracy

Mistrust of a perceived political opponent and hostile sexism both created a very difficult context for Phillips, and I don’t think many outside of politics fully appreciate how hostile that context was—and still is—for women.

Both hostile sexism and conspiracy theories appear to have led two senior police officers to a gross abuse of their power. But the consequences they have faced for this, to date, are minimal. There also seem to be no consequences for those who spread the same specious conspiracy theories about a politician because she sought to protect more of Alberta’s wilderness.

These kinds of attacks turn some women (and men) off of politics entirely.

Prior to Monday’s news, few politicians who benefited from this conspiracy theory pushed back against it, suggesting that unless something is truly egregious, some political actors won’t demand better discourse or behaviour from their supporters.

And given how sexist attacks sap the energy and enthusiasm from those who reject hostile sexism, these kinds of attacks turn some women (and men) off of politics entirely.

But what are Albertans to do?

In the past, I’d have argued that, for anyone angry about politics, it’s worth reflecting on the reasons behind that anger: What’s driving it? Is it motivated by wanting to beat the “other,” or by substantive opposition to a policy?

But the researchers who wrote the study on conspiracy theories and ideology I cite above conclude: “Knowledge exacerbates motivated conspiracy endorsement (and trust 'turns off' the positive effect of knowledge) among conservatives.”

And as Phillips’s case shows, when this dynamic is left unchecked, it has devastating consequences for our democracy.

Melanee Thomas is an associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Calgary.

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