For two weeks now, truckers have brought the center of Ottawa, Canada’s capital city, to a standstill. What started as a localized dispute against vaccine mandates has now snowballed—co-opted as a cause célèbre of America’s radical right-wing into a protest that reaches far beyond Parliament Hill. On the ground, hundreds of trucks and cars have blocked the streets of the city and set up a tent commune to protest against the imposition of vaccination requirements for truck drivers. On social media, videos about the protest are racking up millions of views and crowdfunding campaigns, shared by the likes of Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino, have raised huge sums. Confederate flags, QAnon symbols, and swastikas have all reportedly been seen at the protest site.
Viewed from a distance, what’s happening in Ottawa seems like an organic uprising by disgruntled truckers. But the alt-right has seized on the opportunity to turn a local protest into another chapter in the unending culture war. Offline, 90 percent of Canadian truckers are vaccinated and the Canadian Trucking Alliance, which represents the industry in the country and does not support the convoy, has said most of the people in and around the protests “do not have a connection to the trucking industry.” Online, the incident has become a global sensation with supporters gathering on Facebook and Telegram in the hundreds of thousands—with many of them living outside Canada’s borders.
“The online chatter is very transnational,” says Amarnath Amarasingam, an extremism researcher at Queen’s University, Ottawa. “There are people from Brazil, Australia, and the US.” This global attention has seemingly galvanized those on the ground. While few protestors remain, policing the protest is costing an estimated CAD $800,000 ($630,000) a day. And, thanks to the backing of some of the biggest names in the US alt-right social media sphere, the protest, dubbed the Freedom Convoy by its supporters, has continued to gain momentum online, even as numbers on the ground dwindle.
The result is a strange disconnect between the offline and online versions of the protest—with many of the most successful social media posts coming from familiar figures from the American alt-right rather than the protestors. Ten videos supporting the truckers shared by Donald Trump Jr. between January 25 and February 7 have been viewed by 4.2 million people. The right-wing media machine has spun up its support for the protest, with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau calling it “an insult to memory and truth.”
“The story and protest was picked up by partisan, right-wing content creators and media in the US in particular,” says Ciaran O’Connor, an analyst from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, an online extremism-tracking think tank. O’Connor saw a similar phenomenon around the “Great Reset” conspiracy theory. The theory, that the pandemic is a global conspiracy to allow world leaders to reset the planet, remained niche until picked up by Rebel News, a Canadian equivalent of Breitbart News. From Rebel News the conspiracy theory reached the orbit of US right-wing commentators like Ben Shapiro and Laura Ingraham, who then further amplified the message, sending it to their millions of followers. The same process is happening with the Ottawa truck protests. Glenn Beck, Ben Shapiro, and Dan Bognino—alongside Trump Jr.—have shared their thoughts about the protests with millions of people worldwide.
The explosion of interest has been fueled by all the names you might expect: Current and former GOP officials like Mike Huckabee and Marjorie Taylor Greene have shared their support for the convoy on social media. More than 88,000 posts have been shared by Facebook pages, groups, or verified profiles between January 22, when the Freedom Convoy began, and February 8, according to CrowdTangle data analyzed by WIRED. Those posts have been interacted with 16.6 million times.
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Questions have also been raised about the origins of several wildly popular Facebook groups created to support the Ottawa protest. One, Convoy to Ottawa 2022 Restart, has now been made private after it was overrun with conspiracy theorists. The group, which at the time of writing has almost 700,000 members, now has lengthy rules for admission, including a request that members will respect the police and not post baseless claims that Covid is a hoax or that vaccines to protect against it are dangerous.
Facebook spokesperson Margarita Franklin says the platform has removed groups and pages run by spammers, including a troll farm in Vietnam, who capitalized on the protest’s popularity to monetize ad clicks off-platform. “We continue to see scammers latch onto any hot-button issue that draws people’s attention, including the ongoing protests,” Franklin says. “We continue to monitor the situation and will enforce against violations when we find them.” Telegram, through which large parts of the truckers’ movement has been amplified by sharing links to videos and Facebook groups that users should engage with, did not respond to a request for comment.
While the accounts behind Facebook groups and pages promoting the Ottawa protests are a semi-anonymous hodgepodge of conspiracy theorists, QAnon supporters, and actual truckers with grievances against vaccine mandates, those appearing in videos uploaded to social media are well-known to extremism researchers in Canada. “All these people have been anti-government, anti-Trudeau, white nationalist actors for years now,” says Amarasingam. “They’re very much the ones who are the public face of the convoy.” Amarasingam argues that Canada’s far right has always been influenced by trends in the US, but believes the trucker protest is a liminal point for this relationship. “This is probably the first time in a while that it has entered the mainstream in a big way,” he says.
And that, in turn, is minting new right-wing celebrities. “Some of these guys who were fairly fringe organizers a couple of weeks ago now have over 200,000 followers and mass audiences,” says Amarasingam of the Canadians who have gained huge new followings in recent days. A lot of that increase is likely organic, but Amarasingam suggests bots are also having an effect. Pat King, who has posted dozens of live videos from the Ottawa protest, saw his Facebook following leap from 63,504 on January 1 to more than 205,000 by the end of the month, according to CrowdTangle data. He now has more than 286,000 followers.
The Canada trucker protest is, in effect, two protests. One run by a small group of people seemingly disowned by the wider Canadian trucking industry and another run by some of Facebook’s most successful operators. What was a protest against a work requirement has become something far bigger thanks to social media—and in particular thanks to America’s far right. “The narratives align globally,” says Amarasingam. “You have the anti-mandate, anti-lockdown, anti-quarantine component of the response to Covid that has had two years to grow and gel. That’s what the trucker movement is. It’s latched onto a broader angst and anxiety.”
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