One of the most interesting things about the Internet is that virtually anyone with a connection can reach a wide audience on the other side of the planet. Living in politically charged times, and in the backdrop of a global pandemic, that fact has made for some rather strange bedfellows.
The world has seen what motivated governments and groups can do to influence populations in other countries using well-crafted disinformation, a relatively small amount of money, and free social media platforms. In the 2016 U.S. election, the world watched a massive political disinformation and hacking campaign launched by Russia’s Internet Research Agency against strategic geographical locations of U.S. voters. Russia has a verified history of interfering in national elections via disinformation, financial influence in national political parties. They have even purchased media companies to help deliver whatever message suits them to a local population. More recently Taiwan and Hong Kong have seen online disinformation campaigns launched against their populations by the Chinese government in an attempt to destabilize both governments.
On the private side of political influence, corporations and the wealthy have created what appear to be grassroots movements throughout various countries including the U.S. To the non-discerning eye, these movements seem to spring forth organically from average, everyday Americans, but peel back the curtain, many are backed by larger, more powerful forces. Recently, a wave of death threats against school board members around the country appears to have common funding from various well-endowed political groups. While many of these protests (for lack of a better term) are anything but grassroots in origin, many well-intentioned individuals that attend these events do not realize the real sources of funding and information.
So, why should a new anti-COVID restrictions movement in the form of truck convoys be any different?
The world has been watching a localized vaccine mandate dispute blow up into a crisis in Canada’s capital of Ottawa. The so-called “Freedom Convoy” has involved violence, court orders, seizures, a declaration of emergency, and the police calling this situation an “insurrection” against the government. This protest has seen its share of Confederate and Nazi flag-waving, along with reports of abuse and violence. Hopefully, those problems will be denounced by many of the people peacefully protesting and their organizers.
But now, this situation has also escalated now into the U.S. with planned convoys being organized to hit various cities around the country including Washington D.C. Unlike Canada, the U.S. population is heavily-armed so this must be alarming for law enforcement as they prepare for a higher level of violence than our neighbors to the north.
Truckers are one of the most critical jobs for the global economy. In the United States, more goods are delivered via trucks than any other method including trains and airplanes. Before we discuss the third-party operations influencing this convoy movement, it’s important to note that the truckers themselves, as a group, are well-intentioned people. According to Canada’s transport minister, around 90 percent of Canada’s truckers are vaccinated. (In the U.S., that number is between 50-60 percent.) Debates on vaccines and mandates aside, the opinions of these critical men and women should be heard and acknowledged even if there is disagreement. Open and peaceful debate is healthy for any democracy and this situation should be no different. Unfortunately, this current issue is not as transparent as some would like to make it out to be.
To begin, Facebook reported that it found and killed Facebook “trucker groups” that were being run by people or outfits from Asia and other places. A Bangladeshi marketing firm run by a man named Jakir Saikot created two Facebook groups, “Freedom Convoy 2022” and “Convoy to Ottawa 2022” as well as a fraudulent public figure page that claimed to be for Freedom Convoy leader Tamara Lich. These groups had about 170,000 followers prior to the groups being removed by the social media giant. Mr. Saikot confirmed that these groups were created by his firm however he also gave conflicting statements to journalists as to whether or not he was compensated for this work and by whom. Facebook also identified and shut down convoy groups and pages belonging to a troll farm in Vietnam.
Then there are the suspicious donations that accumulated with such speed that GoFundMe flagged the account and a Canadian court ordered the account frozen after it quickly raised almost $8 million dollars (USD). The organizers then moved their fundraising to GiveSendGo, founded by Christian fundamentalist Jacob Wells and known for supporting far extremist groups such as The Proud Boys. There are confirmed ties between U.S. political organizers and this Canadian-based situation. GiveSendGo itself was recently hacked which exposed the donor information of almost 93,000 individuals which included millions of dollars from Americans.
And in another bizarre situation, a woman in Missouri apparently had her Facebook account hacked and used to start viral “convoy” groups that garnered more than 340,000 followers combined across multiple pages within days of their creation.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also stated that these protests reflected the proliferation of “disinformation and misinformation online, conspiracy theorists, about microchips, about God knows what else that go with the tinfoil hats.” All of these apparent ties to fringe groups on the far-right, when taken as a whole, show a coordinated effort that go well beyond a local dispute over a trucker population in Canada that is 90% vaccinated for COVID-19 already.
The Canadian government is aware of this and Prime Minister Trudeau invoked the Emergencies Act which gives the federal government the power to quell a possible insurrection such as this situation. Instead of sending in the military, Trudeau stated that the Canadian government would start towing away the trucks that are creating the blockade but also freeze the personal and corporate assets of anyone or entity engaged in support of this movement. The Canadian government has to be betting on its citizens surrendering here in order to not go bankrupt; however, a motivated mob with the belief that they’re in the right but also have the possibility of replacing the government through violent means isn’t going to be an easy group to persuade to give up.
On top of this, the American Alt-Right has been hijacking the trucker’s protests in terms of influence. The Canadian Trucking Alliance, which represents the trucking industry in Canada, has denounced the convoy in Ottawa and in a statement by the Canadian Trucking Alliance president on their official website noted:
“While a number of Canadians are in Ottawa to voice their displeasure over this mandate, it also appears that a great number of these protestors have no connection to the trucking industry and have a separate agenda beyond a disagreement over cross border vaccine requirements. As these protests unfold over the weekend, we ask the Canadian public to be aware that many of the people you see and hear in media reports do not have a connection to the trucking industry.”
Donald Trump Jr, Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, and former governor Mike Huckabee have all stated their support and desire to see similar actions taken here in the U.S. Conservative media figures such as Tucker Carlsen and Laura Ingram have done their utmost to intellectualize the Freedom Convoy as a noble defense of individual liberties and paint local governments as tyrannical. According to online data analytics tool Crowdtangle, Freedom Convoy Facebook posts in the U.S. between January 22 and February 8 were interacted with almost 17 million times. This is alarming in that this frenzied escalation could potentially lead to armed conflicts with trucker convoys here in the United States, undoubtedly causing further division and strife in an already politically contentious landscape.
In a democracy, everyone has the right to voice their opinions and concerns about their government and what they may consider overreach. But no one looking at the Freedom Convoy situation should view it as truckers airing their grievances in a legitimate way. When there is coordination by groups with an intent to co-opt an event for their own purposes that should raise red flags for everyone. As this continues to gain momentum through those who desire violence, all of us should be bracing for future unrest.