Yesterday, Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau announced his government would invoke emergency powers to deal with protests that started in Canada in late January as a populist “Freedom Convoy” of demonstrators opposed to vaccine mandates for cross-border truckers. The protests have evolved over the last couple of weeks into a campaign against all coronavirus measures, and against the policies of the Prime Minister. They have included encampments and blockades in Ottawa, Coutts Alberta, and Windsor as well as other locations, and have drawn some far-right actors.
The offline protests are, of course, being encouraged and supported by online activity, which has reportedly included substantial foreign and inauthentic activity on social media and on fundraising platforms.
- The New York Times reported that while many of the larger donors supporting the protests are wealthy Canadians, hacked data from the GiveSendGo crowdfunding platform suggests that nearly half of the donations on that site originated in the United States.
- Reporters at the website Grid also found involvement by anonymous actors and money from Canadian donors mingling with donations from right-wing political figures in the US. They also found that the entity behind multiple large Facebook groups supporting the protests was an “unknown person or persons who used the Facebook account of a Missouri woman” who said her account on the platform was stolen.
- Likewise, Facebook told NBC News that some Facebook groups promoting American “trucker convoys” are being run by fake accounts operated by content mills in Vietnam, Bangladesh, Romania and several other countries.
To discuss the protests and the relationship between topics networked activism, social media manipulation, extremism and law enforcement- as well as the potential for Canadian convoys to inspire similar actions in the US, where right wing media personalities have embraced the idea, I spoke with two experts:
- Joan Donovan, Ph.D., the Research Director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.
- Amarnath Amarasingam, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in the School of Religion at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript.
Amarnath, what is happening today with this situation in Canada? I understand that Justin Trudeau has just invoked emergency powers.
So people are still on the ground in Ottawa as they were over the last several weeks. Yesterday, about 400 kilometers or 600 kilometers east of Ottawa in Windsor, Ontario, which is the border town with Detroit, where about 500 to $700 million of trade dollars goes through the borders with Detroit and Sarnia.
They finally cleared that bridge of protestors. First, the trucks were asked to be moved, and then once the trucks left, the people stayed and that took another several hours to convince the people to leave. But as of this morning, the trucks are flowing again across the bridge. And so that’s good.
I think there was a lot of angry phone calls probably that came from the United States about that to the Canadian government. And on the Ottawa side, they’re still on the ground, there’s some negotiations to maybe move them to a particular quarter of Ottawa where they can remain without blocking the rest of the city and so on.
The other kind of important spot is Coutts, Alberta, which is across from Montana in the US. They had just made an arrest earlier this morning with some truck that had about 13 guns in it and some explosives. And so there was some concern about what that was about.
So the protest overall Canada wide is still kind of chugging along. The emergency powers just invoked about 20 minutes ago before I got on this call, basically gives them a whole host of new powers to make sure the corporate accounts are frozen off from these individuals.
Insurance on these vehicles could be suspended if they’re used. It gives them new powers to come of treat this like a kind of terrorism financing perspective almost. And so we’ll be seeing how all of this kind of actually plays out.
So video from the border crossing in Windsor this weekend suggested that the Canadian officials are taking a very patient perspective with these protests. But yet the decision at the federal level to institute these emergency powers suggests that patience may be running out. What do you make of the government’s handling of this so far?
The policing situation has always been a problem from day one. I think on the one hand, my kind of theory is that, particularly Ottawa police, treated this as a kind of January 6th situation. They emailed a lot of MPs, encouraging them to kind of be in a secure situation, secure places. They secured the parliament buildings, because they thought something that was going to happen there.
And by doing that, they basically forgot about the streets. And so the trucks basically parked, and stayed, and they had cookouts, and live music, and dance parties. And it just kind of became an encampment of sorts. Following on from that, you had kids about, there’s an estimate that one in four trucks that were parked in Downtown Ottawa had children sleeping in the cabs.
And so that obviously influences the policing decisions that are being made. Same thing was true in Windsor– there were kids with strollers, kicking soccer balls around the streets and so on. And so there was a real concern, I think, of this getting out of hand and resulting in some sort of tragedy. So I think that influenced some of the policing choices being made. That’s kind of the optimistic outlook.
The pessimist in Canada would probably say that there’s a solid chunk of people in policing services across Canada who are kind of supportive of the convoy. Who kind of see eye to eye with the objectives of the convoy, or at least the grievances of the convoy. And that also influences the policing stance, the aggressiveness of, or the lack of aggressiveness played out on the streets as well.
So I think there’s a bit of truth to both of that. We definitely saw some police officers shaking hands, and a few were caught on video basically saying that they wish they could be there and things like that. And so I think there’s an element of truth to both sides, but I think the policing response from the beginning was rightly criticized on all fronts.
I noticed you tweeting earlier today about the “populist goals” of the movement. And maybe we can talk about that as we move through the conversation. But is it fair to say that, like January 6th, this movement has a wide range of people involved in it? You’ve got sort of maybe typical kind of populist individuals who may or may not have views that are particularly objectionable. And then you’ve got, as you say, some more militant extremists who may have different ideas.
Yeah. I think the organizers of the convoy are people I would squarely put on the extremism camp. These people who were trying to start militias across Canada, who were on Holocaust denial tours, were espousing White nationalist sentiments and things like that. So these are the people who were driving the organizing side of things, as well as the fundraising side of things.
And so I’m pretty comfortable saying, “That cohort is extremist in outlook and probably objective.” What I don’t want to say, which I think has led some people to say, “Oh, this is a neo-Nazi rally, or this is a far right rally,” which I don’t think is accurate. I think there is, particularly three years into the pandemic and pandemic responses, there is a kind of exhaustion that has set in the Canadian public.
There are a lot of people who’ve lost jobs, there’s a lot of people who’ve had their businesses closed, who’ve struggled in very different ways, who are also out there, who are also protesting. The challenge for me of course is, the deal-breaker question is that, yes, you’re on the streets protesting your concerns, but once you see a Nazi flag, a Confederate flag, White nationalist sentiment.
At which point do you say, “Hey, maybe I should go home, this is not something I want my name associated with or something to be a part of?” And so that I think is a bit of an indictment of the rest of the people who were there. Is that they saw what these guys were saying, what these guys were about and kind of put it to the side and continued to stay there.
But I think it’s still fair to say, the vast majority of them aren’t extremists, they’re definitely kind of bought into the broader popular sentiment, that the elite in Ottawa aren’t really caring about the disaffected and the working class people in Canada. And that there’s some kind of shadowy deal going on to give them a hard time, et cetera. And so I think there’s elements of both involved in the protest.
Joan, I want to bring you in and ask you– you’ve been observing the relationship between what’s happening in Canada, and with right wing extremists in the United States, and how those dialogues and discourses are moving across the border on the internet. What’s top of mind for you today?
I think one of the things that we’ve been trying to deduce over on my research team is, to what degree is engagement online being faked? What proportion of that fake engagement is driving more clicks, likes and shares of actual engagement? We have a serious problem here, where there’s authentic protestors, with authentic grievances, very similar to what we saw with January 6th– which is that, by and large, those who are airing their opinions online are not doing anything wrong. They’re not doing anything illegal, seeing all the sort of calls for rounding them up. This is not something that is good in a democratic society, I think that people should be able to air their grievances, and be heard and protest.
But when you look at it online, there’s a lot of things going on that are essentially the tools of Facebook being used, similar to ways that we saw Stop the Steal groups growing, where there’s some admin accounts that are using fake pictures, they’re spamming these groups. There’s some growth hacking techniques that are being employed so that these groups balloon to six, 700,000 people.
But on top of that, one thing that I’ve been listening to is AM Radio. Because there are a few AM Radio hosts that are nationally syndicated that are really calling for a major US convoy that would descend on DC on March 5th. And I don’t know if it’s going to be the way that they’re describing it, but I do know that it is getting people excited about participation in a convoy type protest.
But it’s interesting to see the role the state is playing here, which is to say that, we’ve seen network protests in the past, we’ve seen similar fundraising in the past with these different platforms and people donating just by using their credit card. But we have to ask the question, “Well, what makes this different?”
We shouldn’t equivocate and say, “This looks like that, therefore is the same.” We have to think about what makes this different, what kind of values and animosities are being stirred up. And then of course, if it is the case that people are peacefully protesting and they’re going without incident.
Once the police do finally crack down, then I think that that’s a fair resolution, but at the same time, we have to think about the online world is slightly different because there is a lot of astroturfing happening and a lot of use of either accounts that were faked, or hacked in some way.
And so unfortunately, the online world, there’s no rules, and not a lot of consequences, which is where we see quite a bit of the major issues. Whereas in the offline world, the consequences are very high, very dangerous, but it’s really difficult to tie those two worlds together in terms of consequences, especially around inciting rhetoric.
Amarnath, are you able to hear the volume of the American media’s enthusiasm for these protests in Canada above the border?
I’ve been hearing it for a while now. So when Benjamin Dichter, who’s one of the organizers of the convoy went on Tucker Carlson, I immediately texted a friend of mine saying, “This is a bit of a game changer.” Their fundraising went through the roof, their follower accounts went through the roof.
They became these minor influencers and celebrities within this movement, people were walking up to them on the streets, shaking their hand, like, “I saw you on Tucker, and blah, blah, blah.” America was destined to see the convoy, and it’s continuing to see the convoy through the lens of the American culture wars.
And so it’s not necessarily about Canada, it’s about, “Oh, this is a populist movement, it’s against mandates, Trudeau is a communist.” And so it’s seen through the lens of arguments already happening in the US. And then when Fox News gets ahold of it, particularly Hannity and particularly Tucker, it does have an impact.
I remember watching Benjamin Dichter, he was giddy with excitement to even talk to Tucker. I think the influence of some of these guys on these movements is huge. And once they get that stamp of approval from Fox News or Rebel News, which is kind of our equivalent here– not as huge, but still influential– that creates a new network of individuals who are kind of new influencers.
They go from fringe people that nobody cares about to all of a sudden having 300,000 followers on Facebook and people walking up to them on the street, shaking their hand. And so, that I think has a long-term impact. Because, now you’re invested, now your reputation is invested, your credibility is invested.
Sometimes your finances are invested in perpetuating these movements, and perpetuating this kind of rhetoric, and this kind of excitement. And so once you build people up like that, there’s a threat of longevity that’s built in that lasts much longer than if the protest ends tomorrow, for example.
And Joan, we’ve seen that with other movements in this regard, it’s kind of capacity building that comes out of it, even if the objective of the particular protest may not be met.
Yeah. And I think it’s media coverage, especially national media coverage mobilizes a lot of people, media mobilizes, full stop. And this is why the internet and social media in 2011 was such a global revolution. In the sense that you heard something happened in Tunisia, where a vendor had set himself on fire, self-immolated, and then that spread to local areas, and then eventually to Dakar, in Egypt, and then to Europe and Spain.
And in particular in Spain, and then to Occupy Wall Street in Boston. And everywhere in New York, but also across the United States. And so I think everywhere and across Canada too, I should say, everywhere that we’ve seen this network phenomenon of protest organization, it’s very organic looking on the surface.
And so far as in 2011, people didn’t have access to technologies like botnets, for instance, or many of these professional tools or advertising that would compel interest in what then were grassroots movements. And so now what we’re seeing, in particular, is that if something does become national media, we do see that quick bounce of interest, people do flock to those Facebook pages, they flock to the YouTube videos.
And it does bring people out of their homes and into the streets, if they’re close enough to become part of that. And we’ve seen it happen time and time again, years and years on end. The issue here though, I think is the way in which the protestors’ messages are getting muddled as national media and the US picks it up.
And Amarnath is correct in pointing out that it becomes less and less about Canada, it becomes less and less about Canadian truckers, and more and more about the US culture war. In some respects, it goes even beyond MAGA, the way in which trucking represents the fossil fuel industry, it represents a kind of returning to a way of life in the US.
That’s something that’s been under fire by a climate activist, for instance. And so I wouldn’t be surprised at all if we see the US people start to adopt these tactics. And then we see the narrative get further and further away from where it originated, which was with this smaller group of truckers that didn’t want to be hemmed in by these mandates.
And therefore, were using the only resources they really had, which are the trucks themselves to create an uproar. And in the US, I think you’re going to see a monopoly of different tactics and blockades, but also you’re going to see that loss of the message in short order.
It’s hard. I think what Joan is saying is spot on, in the sense of, there’s always been built into these populous movements, there’s always a romanticism around these producers. People who are really, truly driving the economy, the truck drivers, the coal miners and the kind of working class community who are the true Americans and the true Canadians. And there’s always this kind of romanticism around them, and especially when they’re angry about something.
And so it was kind of inevitable for both of these narratives, particularly in the US and Canada to kind of mesh seamlessly. It would be interesting to see how it plays out in the US if it ever gets off the ground properly. In terms of the kind of narratives that they use, especially since, as far as I understand, there aren’t really any federal mandates in the US. And so this anti-mandate rhetoric, I’m not sure how that all fits together.
So, have the platforms learned any lessons? We just had, of course, Stop the Steal in the US, we just had this phenomenon here. Do you think they’ve learned any lessons at all in the last year, or two years, or even five years? And what would you ask them to do today? Maybe Joan, I’ll start with you.
Listen, we’ve been there. They know. What’s interesting is, as these flare up and we have the evidence from the whistleblower papers suggesting that Facebook was putting their thumb on the scales here and there to make sure that certain content did circulate other content didn’t. And particularly thumb on the scales for content that doesn’t circulate.
And I think broadly conceived, we actually have to think about these platforms differently than they would want us to think about them. These are enablers, the platforms themselves create the conditions under which information can travel at that scale for better and worse. And so on the one hand, we would hope that these companies would be more pro civil rights, pro allowing people to be heard.
But also realizing that there’s forms of speech that are inciting, there are forms of speech that are hate speech, there are forms of organizing that are dangerous. And it’s a really hard thing, because if we’re asking them to police the product that they built, then we’re saying at the same time that technology is not a great liberator, it is not a tool of democracy, it is just another product, like other products.
And that people who use it should know what are the rules the company is going to make you abide by, and then those companies have to enforce those rules. However, I think these platforms have gotten themselves so wrapped up in the language, in the marketing of free speech, in the marketing of their potential to be serving democratic discourse.
That they really misunderstand that we only get to these positions where extremists are using these tools to plot an insurrection because the technology allows it, and the technology supports it. And so I don’t think that these companies have learned a lesson, I also think they’re way out of scale with their capacity to do good moderation and fair moderation as well.
I don’t know, I don’t work for Facebook, I don’t work for Twitter, I don’t work for YouTube. But if I did work there, I would say, “Figure out who the community is that you want to serve and support, and get more specific about what kinds of contents you think are good in representative of your products, and focus on that, cultivate it, develop it.”
And we’ve seen similar things happen on other platforms, where you just don’t get the same scale and volume of misinformation floating around because the community is different, the moderation tools are different. And the investments upfront, and making sure that you serve a smaller audience, is built into the business model.
But right now, I don’t think that platforms that aspire to be everything to anyone are really going to survive this next iteration of misinformation and information warfare.
Yeah. I think the alternative platforms– I agree with everything Joan said– and then the alternative platforms are also quite tricky here. Because a lot of the chatter is actually not on the mainstream platforms, it’s primarily on platforms like Telegram, where Telegram never comes to the table of any of these meetings to talk about their own problems.
And if there’s a lot of foreign conversation, there’s people from Brazil posting, Australia posting, the UK posting. And you can see once in a while, there will be people kind of slowly nudging towards violence, towards standing your ground and kind of pushing people into more extreme stances. And so that’s an entirely separate problem that also exists. And it’s the same camp as Gab and Parler and other things that we’ve dealt with.
I think for Facebook, I was quite surprised, we’ve talked about this before Justin, is how easily sometimes they take down certain social movements, the Sheikh Jarrah hashtags were taken down, a lot of activism was taken down. But Pat King who’s the organizer– a White nationalist organizer– of the convoy was taken down, I think, just yesterday.
And so he was allowed to push all kinds of content, build up his following to something like 280,000 page likes. And it was only quite recently, well into the convoy that some, I guess he tripped some wire and they took him down. And so, a lot of these guys do thrive on these platforms untouched, I think.
And if I’m to be charitable, I would say Facebook has a really hard time with what to do with movements like these. And they’ve always had a bit of a hard time, and MAGA was a good example of this too, is where that line between extremism misinformation and free speech actually falls.
It’s easy to make a decision like that with ISIS or Al Qaeda openly, neo-Nazi groups, but this kind of generic, anti-refugee content, anti-immigrant content. They’ve always kind of failed when the movement has been on that barrier. And so I think they’ll continue to struggle with that.
We have also seen some illiberal perspectives even coming from the left on this movement in Canada, which has been a little bit of a surprise. And it may be slightly in response to January 6th, the sort of broad brush that folks do want to pain, all of these protestors with at this stage. Do you sense that there’s any problem there, are you seeing that in Canada? Joan, are you seeing anything like that with regard to what’s happening more broadly in the US?
In some respects I’ve been accused of it, and when I have spoken up about how odorous the planning for January 6th was online, and how easy it was to see that this was going to tilt into mass violence. Even then people are like, “Well, how do you support protestors?” And then go out and say, “These people are somehow different.”
But if you look at the actual content, it is very easy to see that movements use social media to coordinate, all movements do that in the contemporary movement. All movements used telephones or radio, it depends on the media of the moment. But using social media to get organized isn’t what the call for sanctions or penalties is about, it’s really about the content in which people are sharing.
And if you can look on a place like Parler and search the hashtag like 1776, where people are saying, “January 6th is going to be our 1776,” and you know what that is, and what that sentiment is, that’s all fair speed each. But when it tilts into people cheering in the Capitol, “Hang Mike Pence,” that’s different, that’s very different.
And so I think that when people do call for arrests of people who are doing certain kinds of things as part of their protest, repertoire. You also have to keep a very keen eye on distinctions that are very different. You want to look at the content, you want to look at the calls to action, you look at the kinds of violence and you want to say, “Okay. This is really dangerous,” or, “This looks like protests we’ve seen in the past.”
And just as there is, you don’t want to punch right if you’re on the right, you don’t want to punch left if you’re on the left. That there is this broad feeling about solidarity. There’s also been this injunction around supporting statements like saying, “I’m an antifascist.” Well, in what world does saying, “I’m anti-fascist become incredibly controversial?”
Well, in a world where Trump and his allies are defining what it means to be anti-fascist. That if you look online, they’re the ones talking about antifa, they’re the ones defining what it is. Even if you look at the astroturfing around critical race theory, if you look online, it’s being defined wholly by the right. And there’s a lot of attempts to try to correct the record, but it just fails in comparison.
And so I think that as we start to make calls for people to be held to account for their actions, we still live in a very legalistic society that blames the individual. And so when it comes to consequences online, the worst thing that’s going to happen to you online is you’re going to lose your account.
But the worst thing that might happen to you at a protest is terrible. And so I do hold more compassion for the people who put themselves on the line in instances of mass protest. But I also draw a really clear line about, “Well, what are their motives? What are they trying to change? And are they using violence as a means to that end? And if they are, I’ll call it out.”
To your earlier question, I think that it is something that has surprised me a little bit. I think part of it comes from what a lot of people feel is a kind of hypocrisy from a policing standpoint. We’ve had several indigenous protests in Canada, which have ended in mass arrests, quite violent and aggressive responses from the police.
We’ve had BLM protests here, which have been met with force and violence. We saw Occupy here, and I don’t know more, which is another indigenous protest and in similar kind of aggressive stances by the police. And meanwhile, several hundred trucks are allowed to slowly roll into their capital city and just kind of hang out there for weeks and have dance parties and cookouts.
And so there’s a visceral reaction to that hypocrisy to then say, “Well, we should treat these people like these other people have been treated.” Instead of saying, “We should not treat these people alike.” Or, “We should treat, I don’t know, more in BLM like we’re treating the truckers.” Which is my approach, is not to expand the aggressive push of the police, not to expand the national security, and not to expand the policing, but to keep it limited when possible.
And so the hypocrisy, I think, has led people in one direction, whereas I think they should actually go in the opposite direction to say, “Let’s be consistent in how policing is actually working out here. But I think part of the reason for that is, the way in which this protest has been painted sometimes by certain people online as this kind of neo-Nazi rally, or far right rally.
Which then puts the conversation into, of course, you should be arresting them and bringing out the guns and all this stuff, like, “Why would you let Nazis just hang out in Downtown Ottawa? The problem is they’re not all Nazis. And so, I think a lot of the nuance and kind of the moral consistency is lost very quickly in these conversations. And it just ends up being people shouting into the void.
And just a word on crackdowns too, because I think it’s really important that sociologists have studied this for years and decades even. And when police violence begets more violence, and so often when you see a protest at a tipping point, it usually tips into riot or chaos when police show force first.
And it’s been like that since the, probably as long as policing has existed. But if you think about it in terms of narrative and who owns the narrative, and who gets to tell those stories about protests erupting violence, how many times have we read that headline? But if you don’t think about the precipitating factors in which that can occur, then we’re likely to misplace the blame on the protest movement, who usually are being aggressed upon multiple times before there is some kind of clap back. And so I think it’s important that we also think about exactly like “Who are at these protests, what are they trying to prove? Is that within the realm of normal political activity?
And if there is this undercurrent or underbelly of malicious or benevolent organizing that is about structuring the far right, or drifting off the movements?” There should be other ways of approaching that, and either investigating it, or making arrests in an individual capacity.
I’m not going to ask either of you to make predictions about this particular situation. Things could be very different tomorrow given this emergency order. But perhaps just something you’re looking out for over the next few days, what you’re watching for. Amarnath, maybe in Canada, and Joan, what you might be looking for with regard to the potential spread of this phenomenon in the US?
Yeah. I’ll be looking largely for what the organizers say, how are they responding to it? Is there factionalism setting in within the organizers that I’ve kind of been anticipating that that happened eventually. Either squabbles over money, because they’ve raised tens of millions of dollars, or some sort of ego clash, or now some sort of disagreement related to how to respond to these emergency powers, et cetera.
So I think that we might see some factionalism within the leadership, which could mean that a bunch of people go home, others become more radicalized and hang around that way. And so I’ll be interested to see how kind of the influencer class, if I can call them that, actually respond this emergency powers as we go forward in the next couple days.
I think from my perspective, the US right has a lot to win by promoting the meme of the convoy, by getting involved, by asking people to put a lot on the line in the US to be part of a convoy. And there’s this old quote from Noam Chomsky, I think– I might be spreading this information– but I think it’s Chomsky, about tactics having an expiration date. Which is to say that, the police are learning every day how to counter these movements. And so it could be the case that in the US, the convoy that gets going, they’re arrested on the spot, and their insurance is revoked, and their trucks are impounded and they don’t make it to DC. Or they get arrested in the middle of the night in Arkansas, or wherever their route is.
And so what you’re probably going to see in the United States is a very networked, but distributed police response to preventing something like this happening. But I do imagine that there will be certain pockets and sympathies of police that do believe strongly in the convoy, believe strongly in the message.
And we’ll make it a public issue that they’re not going to police the convoy. In my worst case scenario, this brings together a coalition of folks that we haven’t seen get together since January 6th. So you have truckers driving, you have militias protecting the record convoys, you have very heavily armed folks traveling in caravan with one another to bring this to DC. That’s my worst fear about where this goes.
But all while, we got to stay attuned to what’s happening online. Erin Gallagher, who’s one of our data scientists on our team, has done a miraculous job identifying these networks of Vietnamese accounts. And that was confirmed by Facebook and some of the reporting recently by Ben Collins.
But the degree to which these movements are not organic is something that Facebook has been struggling with since the sort of maximum overdrive of 2016. And if they still five years later haven’t been able to get a handle on this particular use of their product, then the only recourse I see is government regulation for platforms of this size. But we’ll have to see what’s next.
But I don’t think the government’s going to put up with too many of these protests in the US, but we might see a few more of these mass protests before something sticks in terms of getting people to change how the layers and the infrastructure of social media advance certain interests over others.
Well, I appreciate you both talking to me about this today, and I’ll check back in as we see how things develop.
Sounds good. Thank you, Justin.
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.