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Local Canadian convoy support builds on years of disinformation

AP.

Much of the news coverage of the social media spread of Canada’s Freedom Convoys has emphasized speed, fakery and global reach; tracking how a few loud voices and fake accounts amplified by bots tied to firms well beyond Canadian borders helped to spin up Facebook groups with over a million followers in less than a week.  

But in critical ways, social media-based foreign interference or amplification by hyperactive users are not the crucial stories moving forward. With major protests in Canada shut down, to understand what happens next we’ll need to see beyond social media and into the roots connecting real people with local and digital ties.  

Homegrown groups across the globe are grabbing hold of Freedom Convoys and are ready to create their own. Some are far-right militias of the kind found stockpiling weapons in the city of Coutts in Alberta, Canada. But many more are part of the much broader ecosystem of local, volunteer-run social media spaces in which COVID-denialism, QAnon-adjacent content, 2020 election fraud claims and anti-vaccine content have surged over the past 18 months.  

At the Pitt Disinformation Lab, we’re seeing externally generated content related to the Freedom Convoys being taken up by local Facebook groups. U.S. residents far from the Canadian border are creating Facebook groups for county-based convoy pages. Some of them have ballooning group numbers, others are smaller but with intense activity. Some are still public, others have now gone private.  

The public-facing groups are generating plans, choosing overpasses for rallies and staging points for donations. Some people are finding these local groups through “Stop the Steal” (now, “Audit the Vote”) groups and other online spaces known for promoting disinformation. But people are also finding them through community Facebook groups, where posts tied to convoy organizing are sandwiched between content like lost kittens and road closures.  

Within the convoy-oriented groups, we see explicitly how iterated cycles of dis- and misinformation have ratcheted up belief in fascistic government plots. It’s this context that feeds conviction among participants — regular people and neighbors, not foreign agents or bots — that COVID vaccine mandates are part of an accelerating and existential threat.   

Integrated into convoy preparation are posts warning that Antifa and Black Lives Matter will be looking for trouble and to expect activity such as throwing rocks and bricks at the trucks. This directly echoes patterns we saw during the protests for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd, where false claims on social media that  “busloads of Antifa” were prepared to carry out violence shaped perceptions and reactions to peaceful protests. These same strands of disinformation risk functioning again as precursors for the justification of violence.  

We also see how community members take content (inauthentic or not) and make it their own, ensuring that it is directly relevant to the local context. In our region, folks remind each other of where the Whiskey Rebellion started (right here in Western Pennsylvania) and pen calls to remember those protestors’ sacrifices and stand up to the government in the name of freedom. The rhetoric is patriotism interlaced with self-sacrifice and battle-readiness, with the occasional reminder to remain nonviolent.  

If we only focus on national and international activity, we might be tempted to think the crisis is ebbing. The Ambassador Bridge is reopened. The occupation of Ottawa has been quelled and the border blockades have ended. Large, “scammer” convoy groups on Facebook have been removed. U.S.-based Freedom Convoys have been peaceful.  

But regardless, the social media infrastructure of local groups remains, group membership is growing and active planning for U.S.-based convoys is accelerating. On Wednesday, organizers of the group “People’s Convoy” announced an 11-day cross-country protest drive from California to outside of Washington D.C. to “jumpstart the economy.”  

Just as the ties these groups built upon were strengthened by previous anti-government narratives, these new interactions are deepening the penetration of these ideas into communities. Belief in existential threats is ratcheting up, with posts rallying members to look at the bigger picture and references to a rebellion in the U.S. to unseat the so-called “globalists.”  

For most, the big picture of the Freedom Convoy might look like bots and a few loud voices. But the reality on the ground is people not just listening but creating plans for action: A genuine social movement that is partially predicated on repeated cycles of mis-and disinformation. That’s a dangerous mix.  

Michael Colaresi is the William S. Dietrich chair of Political Science at the University of Pittsburgh; Lara Putnam is the UCIS Research professor, Department of History at the University of Pittsburgh; Beth Schwanke is the executive director of Pitt Cyber. All are researchers at the Pitt Disinformation Lab

Tags antifa Canada convoy protest Disinformation Facebook Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on politics Social media

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