The ‘Freedom Convoy’ Ran on Regurgitated Disinformation Narratives
There was nothing original about the “convoy” that disrupted the Canadian capitol of Ottawa in early 2022, much less its American counterpart.
The occupation dovetailed almost entirely with other right-wing demonstrations, starting with the use of Facebook as both an organization channel and a source for “news” for both themselves and their online supporters. As The Verge reported:
Convoy supporters are getting their news from a tangle of Facebook groups, Telegram channels, and random influencers, which is all then amplified and expanded by right-wing broadcasters like Carlson, The Daily Caller, or Canadian right-wing media network Rebel News. These channels promote a sanitized version of movements like the Freedom Convoy, amplifying its hashtags and turning its obscure extremist leaders into celebrities.
At least some of that social media support was artificially generated; the investigative outlet Grid News reported that a network of Facebook groups that amassed around 340,000 members before being “disabled” by the platform was tied to a user based out of Missouri who said that her account had been hacked.
Another pair of groups that had more than 170,000 combined members was traced back to a marketing firm in Bangladesh. Jakir Saikot, who identified himself, told Grid that he created the groups for free but later told a separate reporter that he had been paid the equivalent of $23 American dollars per day to promote the group pages.
Authorities in Canada have reportedly arrested almost 200 people and frozen more than 200 bank accounts in connection with the protest, which began unfolding in late January 2022 and promoted itself as an anti-vaccination effort that enjoyed popular support.
In reality, the self-professed “Freedom Convoy” represented a fringe sentiment both professionally and nationally. The Canadian Trucking Alliance, which represents more than 4,000 truck owner-operators and carriers, said in a statement:
The vast majority of the Canadian trucking industry is vaccinated with the overall industry vaccination rate among truck drivers closely mirroring that of the general public. Accordingly, most of our nation’s hard-working truck drivers are continuing to move cross-border and domestic freight to ensure our economy continues to function.
Demonstrators also reportedly alienated fellow truckers of South Asian descent, who make up around 16 percent of the workforce and also largely followed vaccine mandates. As Global News reported, Nihal Singh was part of a group of South Asian truckers who were delayed by the blockade at a border crossing in Montana in January 2022:
After more than 24 hours, he and a group of other South Asian Canadian truckers approached authorities to find out when they could pass.
“That’s when another guy, he came out of his truck and he was, like, being racist. He was saying, ‘Go back to your truck, go back to India,'” recalled Singh, a 28-year-old driver from Edmonton.
Separate polls also showed that the “convoy” did not convert most Canadians toward its cause; according to a January 2021 poll by the Angus Reid Institute, a non-profit group:
Overall, more than two-in-five now say Canadians say the protests have made them more inclined to support ongoing restrictions related to masking indoors (44%) and vaccination requirements to cross the Canada-U.S. border (44%).
As the country rolls into another week of uncertainty, nearly three-quarters of Canadians (72%) say the time has come for protesters to “go home, they have made their point.”
And as CNN reported, a survey of 1,546 Canadians conducted in early February 2022 by the market research company Leger and the Canadian Press found that 62 percent of respondents opposed the group’s push for no vaccine mandates, compared to 32 percent who supported it.
That survey also found that 65 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “The convoy is a small minority of Canadians who are selfishly thinking only about themselves and not the thousands of Canadians who are suffering through delayed surgeries and postponed treatments because of the ongoing pandemic.”
Stripped of any trappings of popular support, the “convoy” stood revealed as another nesting doll of conspiracy theories and right-wing actions. As The Guardian reported:
One such group, Hold Fast Canada, had organized pickets of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s headquarters, where they claimed that concentration camps had already been introduced in the country.
Another group, Action4Canada, launched legal challenges to mask and vaccine mandates. In one 400-page court filing, they allege that the “false pronouncement of a Covid-19 ‘pandemic'” was carried out, at least in part, by Bill Gates and a “New World (Economic) Order” to facilitate the injection of 5G-enabled microchips into the population.
Both groups are listed as “participating groups” on the Canada Unity website, and sent vehicles and personnel to join the convoy.
The convoy’s founder, James Bauder, also endorses the violent anti-Semitic conspiracy theory known as QAnon, and as Vice reported, several others:
Bauder’s Facebook is littered with videos from Fox News broadcaster Tucker Carlson and MAGA politician Louie Gohmert. He has endorsed the false idea that the 2020 U.S. election was rigged. He has repeatedly shared the hashtag “#WWG1WGA”—the rallying cry for the QAnon movement. He has endorsed the idea that the terror attacks of 9/11 and the anti-Muslim massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, were planned by some shadowy government body. He has called COVID-19 a “political scam” and a “plandemic,” and has pointed fingers at George Soros, Bill Gates, and vaccine-maker Pfizer for creating the virus. In 2020, he warned, “I think WW3 could start as soon as Feb 2021. I also predict this war will take place on Canadian soil.”
Besides spreading disinformation about its own popularity (for example, claiming that “two million people” were on the ground in the Canadian capital of Ottawa supporting them) “convoy” supporters also tried to push conspiracy theories about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — specifically, the long-debunked claim that his father was actually former Cuba leader Fidel Castro.
Maybe the most authentic facet of the “convoy” is its alignment with the coup attempt against the U.S. government in January 2021. One example that spread online came during a bail hearing for one of the event’s organizers, Tamara Lich. An excerpt from a story in the Toronto Star showed how supporters had attempted to cite American legal doctrine as a defense:
Under cross examination, Wayne Lich told the court that he flew to Ottawa on a private jet to meet his wife in early February. The $5,000 bill was paid for by a man he hardly knew.
He also questioned whether the Emergencies Act was invoked unlawfully by the current Liberal government, saying that people’s right to protest in Canada “was part of our first amendments.”
Bourgeois interjected: “First amendment? What’s that?”
Lich said he didn’t follow politics, and just wanted to make sure his wife was safe.
On a more concrete note, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) found that the link between the two events had gone well beyond rhetoric and directly into funding; the group reported that 1,100 people had donated to both the “convoy” and activities related to the January 6 2021 event that preceded the right-wing attack against the U.S. Capitol. According to the ADL:
Thus far, the Freedom Convoy campaign has raised around $9,577,000 of which the average donation is $84.69. The top 1 percent of donors by contribution account for approximately 18 percent, or $1,747,500, of these funds, while only accounting for 1% of all individual donations. Fundraising for the January 6th demonstration was much smaller by comparison with a total of about $669,000. The funding proportions were similar though, with the top 1 percent accounting for 19.5 percent, or $130,525 of contributions. The average donation was also comparable, settling at $81.90. A grassroots movement tends not to have lopsided donor dispersion like this.
As NBC News reported, anti-vaccination and QAnon supporters formed a similar “convoy” within U.S. borders. (As of late April 2022, the American version was all but over after getting run out of California neighborhoods unsympathetic to racism and anti-vaccine rhetoric.)
“There’s a misconception that every participant in these chats is a trucker, but that’s not true at all. It’s really anybody who’s been a part of these movements who’ve been waiting for an excuse to do something — QAnon, anti-vaccine, sovereign citizens,” said Sara Aniano, a researcher at Monmouth University on extremism “This feels like the culmination of everything that’s happened since January 6th.”
CTV News reported in August 2022 that federal intelligence officials produced analyses warning the government that removing the “convoy” could spur what they described as an “opportunistic attack” against a lawmaker:
“The perceived notion that societal resilience is fragile, or that the government/police response justifies violent resistance, could inspire a lone actor or small group inspired by IMVE to conduct an opportunistic attack against a political figure or symbol of government,” the analysts concluded.
“Supporters of IMVE will continue to encourage, and capitalize on, anti-government sentiments and protest movements, whether related to the pandemic or other issues, in an attempt to degrade public confidence and social cohesion, and to attract vulnerable individuals to their ideological cause.”
In April 2022, CTV News reported that a similar demonstration, calling itself “Rolling Thunder,” announced plans to have participants on motorcycles hold a rally and ride through downtown Ottawa on April 29 of that year, which prompted officials to bar them from the area.
“I will not have our community re-terrorized,” said Catherine McKenney, a member of Ottaway’s city council. “I do not want our children, seniors and other vulnerable residents re-traumatized. Our businesses should not be forced to close again.”
Neil Sheard, identified as the organizer of this event, responded with complaints and vague threats if his group was not allowed to converge on the area.
“Thousands of people are coming to the city,” he claimed. “There could be over a thousand bikes coming to your city. We had a route nailed. Now it’s going to be a free-for-all.”
The protest claims to be affiiated with a separate group, “Veterans For Freedom,” which says one of its goals is to “uphold Canadian laws.”
Another group affiliated with the protest, “Freedom Fighters Canada,” claims — using heavily sovereign citizen-flavored language — that it is against “tyrannical legislation.”
In May 2022 a local publication, the Washingtonian, reported that a leader in the U.S. “People’s Convoy” had threatened to return to the Washington D.C. area after previously being fended off.
In announcing his group’s intentions, David Riddell also vaguely threatened right-wing lawmakers who met with it during their last incursion into the area.
“We are done listening to your lies. We bought them for a little bit,” Riddell said. “We thought you guys actually believed in what we were standing for and we actually believed you were going to do what we asked you to do as our representatives.”
On May 20 2022, the “Freedom Convoy” claimed that it would cease its occupation of the Hagerstown Speedway in Hagerstown, Maryland.
The group declared its action a “victory,” but did not mention that it had actually been kicked out of the facility; according to the Associated Press, the speedway’s general manager Lisa Plessinger compared the event to “like when your mother-in-law comes to visit and decides to stay.”
Plessinger was reportedly also concerned over infighting between convoy participants, a concern that was corroborated by The Daily Beast; that site reported that the convoy’s departure from the speedway did not sit well with some members, including one who complained on an online livestream:
“You have families that were misled across the nation,” the streamer said. “What happened here is beyond ridiculous.”
The failed scheme comes as the inept trucker group deals with apparent tension within its ranks. The organization’s top livestreamers, with the handles Trucker G and Sasnak, both left the group this week with some members suggesting in Telegram chats that the pair had quit over disputes with leadership.
“Trucker G,” whose real name is reportedly Gerard Johnson, also claimed to be worried that convoy members could resort to violence.
“As soon as they take this violently, it’s going to throw everything they’re trying to accomplish,” he said in one broadcast. “It’s going to throw it away.”
In August 2022, the right-wing group “United People of Canada,” which has been linked to the convoy, gained attention for a property dispute involving its alleged plan to purchase St. Brigid’s Church in Ottawa. According to an eviction notice delivered to the group on August 17 2022, the group is $10,000 behind in rent:
NEW: The bailiff has returned to St. Brigid’s to post another eviction notice.
It says TUPOC is $10K behind in rent and doesn’t have insurance. #ottnews pic.twitter.com/UDIkRKtzbH
— Andrew Pinsent (@a_pinsent) August 18, 2022
CTV reported that “United People of Canada” is indeed being evicted from the property.
After the convoy’s conclusion, experts pointed to the demonstration as a focal point of right-wing extremism; as WBFO-FM reported in September 2022:
Evan Balgord, the executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, says the convoy’s organizers were able to successfully use the month-long February protest to recruit vaccine-hesitant people into their movement.
“They were now rubbing shoulders with, you know, racists and bigots and people who would like to use violence to overthrow the government. A portion of those people are getting further radicalized.”
Balgord also said that while there were an estimated 20,000 white supremacists in Canada in 2016, he now estimated “10 to 15 percent” of the country’s population now held at least some far right viewpoints or beliefs. CTV corroborated Balgord’s remarks:
Frank Graves, president of EKOS Research, says at least 10 per cent, or more than three million Canadians, view the current government as illegitimate. The supporters are predominately male and under 50 years old, with a high school education. Graves says this group has become a political force in Canada and gravitates toward parties on the right of the spectrum.
That same research group also released data showing that 25 percent of Canadians supported the convoy’s anti-vaccination beliefs.
Female journalists also noted an increase in threats against them in the wake of the convoy’s gathering.
“I think what is new is the rate at which we’re seeing it,” said Rachel Pulfond, executive director of the Toronto-based group Journalists for Human Rights. “The fact that we’re finally tracking it and talking about it, and also some of the vituperative, vitriolic nature of the threats.”
On November 16 2022, the U.S. Justice Department announced that it had arrested an American convoy livestreamer:
Josh Fulfer aka “Oreo Express” one of the trucker convoy livestreamers got arrested by the DOJ on firearms charges today at his home pic.twitter.com/ZP0E4hjrxf
— LEFT COAST 𝙋𝘼𝙍𝙊𝘿𝙔 WATCH (@LCRWnews) November 16, 2022
Fulfer had already been a known quantity at far-right gatherings for some time:
I think he just either sneezed or jizzed. The crowd thinks it’s cum pic.twitter.com/5Aom0EyIeT
— LEFT COAST 𝙋𝘼𝙍𝙊𝘿𝙔 WATCH (@LCRWnews) August 29, 2020
Update, 4/26/2022, 3:43 p.m. PST: Updated with note on the “Rolling Thunder” protest in late April 2022.— ag
Update, 5/11/2022, 12:27 p.m. PST: Updated with note on the possible return of the “People’s Convoy” group to Washington D.C. in May 2022.— ag
Update, 5/24/2022, 3:27 p.m. PST: Updated with note on the departure of the “People’s Convoy” from a Maryland speedway. — ag
Update, 8/18/2022, 1:22 p.m. PST: Updated to reflect new findings on the “Freedom Convoy” by Canadian intelligence analysts and an affiliated group’s eviction from an Ottawa church. — ag
Update, 9/22/2022, 2:22 p.m. PST: Updated to reflect research showing the “Freedom Convoy” served as an entry-point into right-wing circles. — ag
Update, 11/26/2022, 3:16 p.m. PST: Updated with information about the arrest of Josh Fulfer. –bb