A Bangladeshi firm appears to have played a key role in promoting the Ottawa protest online, and Grid has found increasing evidence of fringe conspiracies and violent extremism throughout the movement.
Online groups on platforms like Facebook and Telegram, together with fundraising campaigns on the GiveSendGo site, have formed digital lifelines for the ongoing Canadian action. They funnel moral support, supplies, manpower and money to the effort, even as they help spread baseless conspiracy theories and toxic rhetoric.
Grid reviewed the membership and content of those forums, spoke with extremist experts and conducted a comprehensive review of over 80,000 recorded donations to the convoy’s primary online fundraiser. Combined, they show how QAnon adherents and fringe, even supremacist, ideologies pervade the movement.
The ongoing convoy action centered in Ottawa has lasted nearly two weeks and disrupted traffic at three U.S.-Canada border crossings. Canadian authorities Thursday froze millions of dollars in funds from the chief crowdfunding campaign on GiveSendGo, the platform organizers used to raise financial support for truckers protesting covid vaccine mandates in Canada.
A Bangladeshi firm behind pro-trucker Facebook groups
Grid found that a Bangladeshi digital marketing firm was behind two of the largest Facebook groups related to the Canadian Freedom Convoy — at least until Facebook’s parent company, Meta, removed them Thursday following inquiries from Grid. The groups, “Freedom Convoy 2022″ and “Convoy to Ottawa 2022,” attracted a combined membership of more than 170,000 since the firm created them on Jan. 27 and Jan. 30, respectively.
Administrators for these Facebook groups included accounts tied to the Bangladeshi firm, as well as an apparently fraudulent “public figure” page claiming to belong to Freedom Convoy leader Tamara Lich. The page was among many deactivated by Meta. Lich did not respond to Grid’s requests for comment.
The Facebook groups tied to the Bangladeshi firm promoted calls for donations to the Ottawa organizers’ GiveSendGo campaign and pointed members to convoy-related events in Canada.
Grid reached a man Thursday who said he was Jakir Saikot, the founder of the firm. Saikot agreed to an interview on the condition the reporter conduct it by video call so Saikot could confirm the reporter’s identity. Saikot did not make himself visible for the call.
He was not involved in the fake Lich page, Saikot said, but confirmed he was behind the “Freedom Convoy 2022″ and “Convoy to Ottawa 2022″ groups.
“It was my own choice because I believe in freedom,” he said. “We have a right to talk freely.”
Saikot said he started the groups because he believes in the mission of the protesters. He said he received no payment to conduct his social media activity supporting a protest on the other side of the world.
“The big reason is freedom, and otherwise nothing,” he said. “No one paid us.”
Nazmul Ahasan, a reporter at the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California-Berkeley, said he separately contacted Saikot last week and Saikot told him a different version of events.
In an interview with Grid after this story first published, Ahasan said Saikot told him he charged the equivalent of $23 per day to promote Facebook pages with hundreds of thousands of followers, and indicated that he worked with organizers of the protests in Canada on the Freedom Convoy Facebook groups.
”I asked about whether [he was] contacted by someone in Canada,” Ahasan said. “He said ‘Yeah.’”
For the Ottawa convoy, impostors and fraud in its online organizing appear to recur. Grid reported earlier this week on fraudulent Facebook groups supporting the Canadian convoy, which were administered by a hacked Facebook account belonging to a woman in Missouri.
The Ottawa action is not the only convoy effort that has received purported Bangladeshi support. In Australia, one major Facebook group promoting the “Convoy to Canberra” is reportedly controlled by a single Bangladeshi administrator. The same report found another Aussie convoy group controlled by an account using an AI-generated face as its profile picture.
Follow the money
A Grid analysis of the more than $8 million contributed to the Ottawa organizers’ GiveSendGo convoy campaign as of Thursday revealed most of the tens of thousands of donations were made anonymously and were for amounts of $100 or less. The largest recorded donation, for $215,000, had a note that it was “processed but not recorded.” GiveSendGo did not respond to inquiries from Grid.
Of the more than 80,000 donations we reviewed, donors did not enter any name to appear publicly on about half of the transactions. Dozens of donors included references to specific right-wing movements based in the U.S., like the QAnon acronym WWG1WGA (for the group’s slogan, “Where We Go One, We Go All”).
Thousands entered pseudonyms, often using names belonging to prominent figures including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or President Joe Biden. Many used phrases mentioning “freedom,” “mandate” or “tyranny.” Hundreds mentioned “Let’s Go, Brandon,” a minced oath used to express displeasure with Biden.
While most donations were small, several dozen backers gave $1,000 or more. Grid attempted to verify the identity of more than a dozen individuals publicly identified as large-dollar donors on the site. Most did not respond.
One who did is Peter Decker, a welding company owner from Motley, Minnesota. Decker told Grid he donated $3,000 to express his frustration with covid-19 rules that complicate his family’s ability to visit their relatives in Canada. His frustrations include requirements of negative tests and quarantining when the family arrived in Canada.
“It’s a peaceful protest that has and is spreading hope to the world,” he wrote in an email to Grid. “You see all the pain and hurt in just my family for no reason at all!”
Conspiracies, antisemitism and white supremacy are laced throughout
The fringe right, from QAnon to white supremacy, is present throughout the Ottawa action. One of the convoy’s lead organizers is Canadian James Bauder, reportedly a believer in the QAnon conspiracy theory movement. Another, Lich, was an official for a wildly unpopular western Canadian separatist movement.
Beyond the organizers, the convoy has attracted even more extreme figures. On Thursday, Grid coverage noted in Ottawa the presence of a swastika, Confederate flags, extremist symbols and allegations of violent intolerance tied to convoy supporters.
Chris Saccoccia, who has livestreamed from Ottawa rallies, is a far-right influencer who goes by the name Chris Sky. The group Canadian Anti-Hate Network has reported on Saccoccia trafficking antisemitic conspiracy theories, including Holocaust denial. At least one member of the white supremacist Diagolon movement has reportedly also been present the protests.
Telegram, a United Arab Emirates-based social media platform that boasts 500 million users worldwide, is home to several pro-convoy channels. An administrator in one convoy channel posted a paragraphs-long conspiracy theory of how elites traffic children internationally using planes, which is why barricading bridges on the U.S.-Canada border was insufficient. The channel claims more than 80,000 subscribers, although such numbers are difficult to verify.
In another channel devoted to the Canadian convoy, a Telegram user posted, “It is not Trudeau’s choice to step down or to attempt to stay. It is the decision of the World Economic Forum (WEF). Frankly, the WEF cannot afford for Trudeau to step down. If he falls, Biden falls, Australia falls, New Zealand falls and all of Europe falls. Then the rest of the world joins in.”
Telegram channels devoted to QAnon and other conspiracy theories are lighting up with convoy discussions.
“The ELITES from the highest government officials have given the orders for MASS ARRESTS AND TOTAL MEDIA BLACKOUT AND CELL PHONE BLACKOUTS ( NO LIVE BROADCASTING),” reads one post. “~Orders coming from UN, DAVOS GROUP, CIA and world ELITES Who CONTROL the Canadian government~”
“This is something you frequently find,” said Ethan Porter, who leads the Misinformation/Disinformation Lab at George Washington University’s Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics. “People who are convinced that covid vaccines are part of the government conspiracy also believe that child abduction, as in child trafficking, is coordinated by global elites.”
“The thing to remember,” Porter said, “is that most people don’t believe this stuff.”
“I hope they clog up cities”
Right-wing U.S. politicians and media outlets have been supportive of the Ottawa convoy and expressed hope the action could be replicated stateside, even as convoy enthusiasts debate actions like disrupting Sunday’s Super Bowl.
“The Canadian trucker convoy is the single most successful human rights protest in a generation,” Fox News’ Tucker Carlson said Thursday.
“I hope the truckers do come to America,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., told the Daily Signal, a publication of the right-wing Heritage Foundation. “I hope they clog up cities.”
At least nine members of Congress, all Republicans, have publicized their support for convoy participants on Twitter. Self-appointed organizers for a U.S.-based convoy have found quick support from conservative outlets.
U.S. convoy organizer Brian Brase has been making the rounds on Fox News, sitting down with Carlson as well as the network’s “Fox and Friends” morning show. Brase says he hopes to organize a cross-country convoy from Indio, California, to Washington, D.C., starting March 4. He did not reply to Grid’s inquiries.
The first Facebook group Brase created for a U.S. convoy attracted more than 130,000 followers — and was deactivated after some reportedly posted QAnon-related content, which violates Facebook’s rules. A second group now has 60,000 followers.
“We’re trying to get the routing completed where they link up at certain meet points,” Brase explained on a radio interview Feb. 4. “And then of course we all converge on D.C. from all directions at the same exact time.” The group’s Telegram channel is soliciting volunteers and donations of items like tents, generators and PA systems.
On Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security released a bulletin to law enforcement warning that trucker protests traveling from California to the nation’s capital had the potential to “severely disrupt transportation, federal government operations, commercial facilities, and emergency services through gridlock and potential counterprotests.”
Brase’s group is encouraging truckers to keep gas receipts, promising that they will reimburse the expenses upon arrival in Indio.
“We are doing this. Nonprofit bank accounts, lawyers, CPAs — it’s legit,” Brase said in the Feb. 4 interview. He acknowledged that they did not have an online fundraising mechanism yet but were getting to that “shortly.”
Anna Deen contributed to this story. This story has been updated.