The ‘People’s Convoy’ hopes to reach D.C. in time for Biden’s SOTU

ADVERTISEMENT

The ‘People’s Convoy’, a US-based protest convoy, hopes to reach D.C. in time for Biden’s SOTU address

Organizers of a U.S.-based protest convoy say participating drivers will be on the road next week. They aim to arrive in Washington, D.C., in time for President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address before Congress on March 1.

Behind the scenes, the U.S.-based effort, inspired by the one in Canada, faces some of the same challenges that have bedeviled Canadian protest leaders: raising funds and organizing support online.

U.S. organizers of the “People’s Convoy” are directing supporters to donate via a Boston-based nonprofit founded last year, which previously focused on baseless vote fraud claims from the 2020 election.

Lawyer Christopher Marston founded the American Foundation for Civil Liberties & Freedom in April 2021. Almost as soon as the group was created, a Grid review of AFCLF’s history shows, it started spreading unsupported claims about the results of the 2020 presidential election. In July 2021, AFCLF promoted a fundraiser in California for an effort to investigate debunked claims about votes in Antrim County, Mich.

ADVERTISEMENT

“If you’re still in denial and think it’s a big lie you should stay in your safe space and not come,” Marston said in a TikTok post promoting the event. In a video posted to AFCLF’s TikTok account in June 2021, Marston said the Jan. 6 invasion of the Capitol was not an insurrection because U.S. Capitol Police invited rioters in, a claim that is unfounded.

“If patriots really wanted an insurrection,” Marston says in the video, “we wouldn’t be talking about this right now.” Marston did not address written questions from Grid about his group’s connection to the Freedom Convoy movement.

On Friday, AFCLF’s site reported a “decent volume of donations coming in,” and acknowledged problems processing credit card donations. It advised supporters to contribute via PayPal, which was processing donations for the group. PayPal did not respond to inquiries from Grid.

Online organizing is far from organized

Plans for the convoy appear to be in flux. Earlier this month, convoy organizer Brian Brase said the convoy would rally in Indio, Calif., on March 4 before heading to Washington. But on Monday, Brase told far-right outlet Newsmax that some participating truckers will depart from Barstow, Calif., on Feb. 23. Brase did not respond to requests for comment.

While several groups and online conversations have reportedly formed to organize convoys in the United States, support and attention from right-wing media appears to have coalesced around the People’s Convoy effort in recent days.

ADVERTISEMENT

On Thursday, People’s Convoy organizer Maureen Steele told Newsmax the convoy’s route would begin in Barstow and pass through Kingman, Ariz.; Lupton, Ariz.; and Glenrio, Texas, before arriving in Washington. She also said the final route would be left up to the drivers and stops would be announced 24 hours in advance because of security concerns.

Speaking specifically to concerns about the group’s access to money, Steele reassured Steve Bannon on his podcast this week that “we have our money in a private bank and it’s being overseen by accountants and lawyers so it’s pretty buttoned up.”

The organizers’ plans, such as they are, are unclear even to those within the discussions. A map shared in convoy channels purports to illustrate convoy routes by highlighting dozens of highways crisscrossing the country. It’s illustrated with tropes popular in far-right memes.

“Everyone in this chat knows y’all have no clue how to organize, give info or prepare properly. Makes no sense,” wrote a user going by “Denise” in one Telegram forum.

Steele told Newsmax that organizers have 1,000 truckers signed up to participate. They have promised to reimburse drivers’ “fuel and hard costs.”

“There’s a lot of confusion, a sense that the movement’s losing a bit of steam, maybe because it’s so messy,” said Sara Aniano, who studies online far-right conspiracy theories and misinformation at Monmouth University. Aniano has been monitoring online organizing efforts for the stateside convoy effort. “Or because they’re maybe being discouraged by things like the Emergencies Act in Canada,” referring to an effort by Canadian authorities to clamp down on the protesters there, including the reported arrest Thursday of top organizers. “So, are there plans? Yes. Is there one very cohesive, solid plan? It doesn’t look like it.”

Police in Washington told Grid that they were aware of the plans and had received no applications for any public gathering permits connected to the convoy.

“Conspiracy theories of all sorts”

From morning until night in the online convoy forums, participants share fake covid-19 cures, bogus theories, sermons, and broadsides against Trudeau and Biden.

“This whole movement, if we can call it that, is turning into this global initiative to indoctrinate as many as people as possible” into “conspiracy theories of all sorts,” said Aniano.

The result, she said, was a cacophony of conspiracies. “I think that people want to draw some really clean lines between QAnon believers and the anti-vaxxers, and the anti-mandate people and the convoy supporters. I can’t explain how difficult it is to do that when discourse from each group is spilling into the other. … It’s really, really messy, much like the organization and everything else in this movement.”


ADVERTISEMENT

Jackie Singh, a defensive cybersecurity expert, analyzed the activity of several online convoy forums, largely on Telegram, and found that many accounts repeated talking points from right-wing figures and that the accounts’ language suggested they may be controlled by non-native English speakers.

Singh, who worked on information security for the Biden-Harris 2020 campaign, said she believes sophisticated actors with established disinformation methods are manipulating channels to appear larger than they are and include more real human members than they actually do.

In some cases, Singh said, she observed bot-like behavior on the forums, including the repeated use of randomized, canned messages. Telegram did not respond to a request for comment.

Congress is asking Meta for more information

As discussions about a U.S. convoy grow online, Congress is looking into how major U.S.-based platforms allowed bad actors to push Canadian convoy-related content to their users.

In a letter Monday to Facebook’s parent company, Meta, citing recent reporting by Grid, House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., requested answers about inauthentic Facebook activity involved in organizing and fundraising efforts related to the protests in Canada.

ADVERTISEMENT

“These reports are particularly alarming given Facebook’s history of amplifying toxic content, extremism, and disinformation, including from Russia and other foreign actors,” Maloney wrote in the letter.

For its part, Meta responded to inquiries from Grid after the story had published with new information about the inauthentic behavior on Facebook, including new details about a Missouri woman’s hacked account which wound up running Canadian convoy groups with tens of thousands of members.

The hacked account of the Missouri woman was operated by “Vietnamese spammers” before it was shut down, Meta spokeswoman Margarita Franklin told Grid. She said the company has not seen evidence of government involvement.

  • Steve Reilly
    Steve Reilly

    Investigative Reporter

    Steve Reilly is an investigative reporter for Grid focusing on threats to democracy.

  • Jason Paladino
    Jason Paladino

    Investigative Reporter

    Jason Paladino is an investigative reporter for Grid where he focuses on national security policy, U.S. foreign involvement and corruption.

  • Anya van Wagtendonk
    Anya van Wagtendonk

    Misinformation Reporter

    Anya van Wagtendonk is the misinformation reporter at Grid, focusing on the impact of false information on policy, elections and social behavior.

  • Benjamin Powers
    Benjamin Powers

    Technology Reporter

    Benjamin Powers is a technology reporter for Grid where he explores the interconnection of technology and privacy within major stories.