Hundreds of people have been camped out in the icy streets of Ottawa, Canada’s capital city, for more than a week, occupying the area around the nation’s government buildings. It’s a protest ostensibly stemming from some Canadian cross-border truckers’ objections to a Canadian requirement that those who cross the border be vaccinated against covid-19.
But a close look at several “Freedom Convoy” groups and crowdfunding efforts online shows the involvement of anonymous actors, deep-pocketed non-Canadian donors and prominent U.S. right-wing political figures.
Some of the largest Facebook groups responsible for galvanizing support, both ideological and financial, appeared to have been administered through a stolen account, Grid has found.
The protests are not organized by Canadian trucking unions, the largest of which has come out against the protests. They also do not appear to reflect the values of most Canadians or most Canadian truckers: More than 80 percent of the Canadian public is vaccinated, including almost 90 percent of truckers, according to Canada’s minister of transport.
The speed at which the movement has raised millions of dollars raises red flags. A now-shuttered GoFundMe page raised nearly $8 million USD; a replacement crowdfunding campaign, on a self-described Christian platform called GiveSendGo, had raised more than $6 million by Tuesday morning, after just three days, with many donations of four and five figures.
The movement smacks of U.S. influence, said Gordon Pennycook, a behavioral scientist at the University of Regina who studies disinformation. “For sure, 100 percent, a large part of this is driven by cultural narratives that have emerged from the United States,” he said.
Right-wing politicians across the United States have praised and promoted this small group. “The Canadian truckers … who are resisting bravely these lawless mandates and doing more to defend American freedom than our own leaders, by far, and we want those great Canadian truckers to know that we are with them all the way!” former president Donald Trump said at a Texas rally on Jan. 29.
That doesn’t mean that many of the protesters on the ground aren’t true believers — whether about vaccine mandates, broader right-wing causes or even more extreme ideologies, including white nationalism.
“They’re driven by a very deep connection to a cause that they feel to be just,” Pennycook said. “They’re acting in accordance with their attitudes and values, and it just so happens to be the case that a lot of the beliefs that they hold probably aren’t rooted in good evidence. There’s a lot of conspiratorial thinking and distrust of good sources and reliable sources.”
A hacked Facebook account is behind some of the organizing
The entity behind some of the largest Facebook groups supporting the protests is an unknown person or persons who used the Facebook account of a Missouri woman. She says her account on the platform was hacked and stolen.
The account launched a handful of Facebook groups for the protest, all between Jan. 26 and 28, before the trucker convoy reached Ottawa. With a combined following of more than 340,000 members and more than 7,500 posts, the group names were variations on a theme: “Convoy to Ottawa 2022,” “Convoy for Freedom 2022,” “Freedom Convoy/Ottawa 2022 for Canada,” “Freedom Convoy 2022” and “2022 Official Freedom Convoy to Ottawa.”
Facebook groups are organized by administrators. Grid found that the only administrator account for these groups belonged to the Missouri woman. Reached briefly by phone on Monday, she said her account was hacked and she was not involved with the groups.
“Someone stole my identity on Facebook,” she said. “I don’t know how they [did] it.”
The woman, whom Grid is not naming because she is the victim of apparent identity theft, said her daughter set up a new account for her. A new Facebook account with the woman’s name appeared in October 2021 with the post: “New account. Last one got hacked.”
The groups were disabled Monday afternoon as Grid was reporting this story. Facebook did not immediately respond to questions about the hacked account. “We continue to see scammers latch onto any hot-button issue that draws people’s attention, including the ongoing protests,” Margarita Franklin, a spokeswoman for Facebook’s parent company, Meta, said in a statement to media outlets on Monday.
Even as Facebook groups have been taken down, the conversation is alive on Telegram, a United Arab Emirates-based social media platform that claims 500 million users worldwide. Channels cheering on the protests display thousands of subscribed followers, although it is possible to artificially inflate Telegram subscriber numbers. Inside these channels, users share photos and videos and trade misinformation about covid-19 and about the strength of their movement, such as the debunked claim that Canadian armed forces have pledged “allegiance to the people.”
The United States exports misinformation
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned misinformation driving the protests and the movement writ large. He has referred to the protesters as a “fringe minority” engaging in “disinformation and misinformation online, conspiracy theorists, about microchips, about God knows what else that go with the tinfoil hats.”
Over the weekend, the scene grew rowdy, with reports describing protesters defecating on lawns, desecrating monuments and urinating on war memorials. A reported 8,000 people and 1,000 vehicles, including many eighteen-wheeler trucks, descended along Parliament Hill in Canada’s capital city. Some waved flags with swastikas and the Confederate battle flag. (Notably, about one-fifth of Canadian truckers are of South Asian descent, and many have decried the anti-vaccine movement in the trucker ranks.)
Ottawa’s mayor declared a state of emergency on Sunday. Other protests have cropped up from Toronto to Vancouver. And trucks have blocked a border-crossing site in Coutts, Alberta, a major port of entry at the border with Montana that connects with a trade route leading down to Mexico. On Monday night, protesters also blocked the Ambassador Bridge between Windsor, Ontario, and Detroit.
The emergence of a strong right-wing element to the protests demonstrates the soup of fringe media that many anti-vaccine protesters swim in, said Pennycook, the behavioral scientist. “For someone to be so fervently against vaccines and opposed to the covid restrictions, those people are often in a kind of right-wing media bubble, one where they don’t really engage with traditional sources of information,” he said. “And the more you engage in that world, the more you can be exposed to alternative perspectives on life. And that fits within the right-wing media ecosystem.”
The Ottawa chief of police, Peter Sloly has described the protesters as “highly organized, well-funded, extremely committed to resisting all attempts to end the demonstrations safely.”
A number of right-wing public figures in the United States have been amplifying the protest, and donations appear to be pouring in from across Canada’s southern border.
“It’s time for the American people to declare independence from every last covid mandate,” Trump said at the Texas rally. “We have to tell this band of hypocrites, tyrants and racists that we’re done with having them control our lives, mess with our children and close our businesses. We’re moving on from covid whether they like it or not.”
In addition to Trump, Republicans including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Senate hopeful J.D. Vance of Ohio have encouraged the protests. Meanwhile, far-right influencers, like Ben Shapiro, Glenn Beck, Mike Huckabee have pushed their audiences to donate to crowdfunding platforms.
This movement has raised an astonishing amount of money
A GoFundMe organized for the protesters raised about 9.2 million Canadian dollars ($7.2 million) before the campaign was shut down on Friday. Many donations came from outside Canada, according to Ottawa’s police chief Sloly.
“We are now aware of a significant element from the U.S. that have been involved in the funding, the organizing and the demonstrating,” Sloly said.
GoFundMe said the campaign violated its terms and pledged to refund all contributions to the campaign. Organizers then moved their efforts to GiveSendGo, where they raised millions of dollars in a matter of days.
By comparison, Jan. 6 insurrectionists who ran campaigns on that platform in the months following the U.S. Capitol riots earned far less. A survey of 24 such campaigns, including eight supporting Proud Boys, revealed that they collectively raised less than $250,000 over the course of several weeks.
GiveSendGo released a statement on Monday, saying it has spoken with convoy organizers to ensure that “all funds raised will go to provide humanitarian aid and legal support for the peaceful truckers and their families as they stand for freedom.”
Republican leaders have called for investigations into GoFundMe for canceling the campaign.
And a prospective solidarity movement of American truckers may be in the works. A Facebook group planning a cross-country drive to Washington, D.C., was shut down on Monday.
Conservative infighting isn’t just happening in the U.S.
Like the Republican Party in the United States, Canada’s Conservative Party is undergoing an internal struggle between populist and traditionalist factions, said Dominik A. Stecula, an assistant professor of political science at Colorado State University who studies the media environment and its effect on society. On Feb. 2, the Conservative Party’s leader was ousted, replaced by an interim leader who has been photographed wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. Meanwhile, two Conservative Party members publicly broke with the party in response to the Ottawa protests.
Social media and the boosting of this protest by American politicians represents a spillover of American culture wars and information disorder polluting other countries’ politics in the process, Stecula added.
“I’m originally from Poland, and I noticed that while there’s no immediate events like the convoy [in Canada], I have been noticing for a while now that there is this exporting of American culture wars into other contexts,” Stecula said. “I think this is a prime example of that.”
In some ways, the situation in Ottawa has evolved into a proxy battle for the American right, said Jacob Remes, a labor, working-class, migration and disaster historian of the U.S. and Canada at New York University.
American donors are not interested in the nuances of the Canadian situation, such as what the Canadian citizenry wants, or the evolution — and perhaps disintegration — of the Canadian Conservative Party.
“But for the Americans, it’s totally irrelevant. They don’t care about who the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada is,” he said. “They just like the idea of a bunch of white truckers being in a national capital and fucking shit up.”