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'Freedom convoys' tap into cross-regional populism

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

For the first time, Canada has invoked emergency powers in response to the truckers and other protesters who have held Canada's capital hostage for weeks now. The so-called freedom convoys have tapped into populist grievances that cross borders and are amplified by social media and grifters seeking to make a buck. Now, American organizers say they're launching their own convoy next week from California to Washington, D.C.

NPR's Odette Yousef covers domestic extremism. Shannon Bond covers social media. Welcome to you both.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Hi.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hi, Elissa.

NADWORNY: So Odette, let's start with a basic question. Who are these protesters? The shorthand has been trucker protests, but is that actually what we're witnessing?

YOUSEF: Well, Elissa, it began with a small group of truckers that were protesting vaccine mandates in Canada. And you know, it's a group that's largely not representative of truckers in Canada, where, you know, 90% of truckers are vaccinated. But this really gained steam when Fox News, right-wing influencers and politicians like Rand Paul in the U.S. started amplifying it. So it's really grown beyond just truckers. These demonstrations have included families with kids, people who are vaccinated but oppose vaccine mandates and also some far-right extremist and conspiracy theory elements.

But Elissa, it's also worth asking about who's taken a role behind the scenes, you know, not necessarily in the streets but funding the truckers who protested in Canada. And we got some insight into that earlier this week when donor information from the Christian fundraising website GiveSendGo was leaked. And it turns out that more than half of donations to the Canadian truckers came from the U.S., although more money was raised in Canada. And altogether, millions of dollars were raised.

BOND: And I'll just jump in here to say social media played a huge role in this, right? So there are these Facebook groups supporting the protests that have gained tens, even hundreds of thousands of followers. But it turns out that some of these groups may not be what they seem.

NADWORNY: OK, say more about that. What have you seen on social media?

BOND: Right. So we got news in the past week Facebook has actually removed several groups and pages that had been supporting and promoting the protests and calling for donations - some of them for spreading QAnon content, which is against Facebook's rules and others for being run by fake accounts based overseas, including in Vietnam and Romania. The investigative news site Grid found the two biggest Facebook groups promoting these protests in Canada were being run by a digital marketing firm in Bangladesh, and they found others were being run by this Facebook account that belonged to a woman in Missouri but who had been hacked.

NADWORNY: Do we know why these foreign and hacked accounts are running the groups supporting convoys?

BOND: Yeah, I asked Karen Kornbluh at The German Marshall Fund. She's been tracking the conversation online about these protests. Here's what she said.

KAREN KORNBLUH: There's a financial incentive, and there's a political incentive. And some of the actors that we see are in it for one reason or another and some are in it for both.

BOND: So, you know, in the case of this Bangladeshi marketing firm, this could be astroturfing, right? It could be organizers of the protest, you know, paying this firm to make it seem like these protests maybe have more support than they really do and to help drive some of those millions of dollars in donations. It could also be scammers who just, you know, grab on to these divisive political issues in order to make a buck, send people to their own websites where they can show digital advertising. And then there are the right-wing figures and media outlets that Odette mentioned. You know, they are promoting this for political reasons, but they are also driving traffic to their own websites.

NADWORNY: So let's get into the message behind the convoys. Odette, it started in Canada as a protest against vaccine mandates. But we've seen that change. What is it about now?

YOUSEF: Yeah, you know, Elissa, the message has kind of had to change, you know, because so many COVID restrictions are being lifted anyway as case counts go down. So now we're seeing demands for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's resignation. And, you know, this antigovernment sentiment is really resonating globally.

The timing here has been so key to the spread of these demonstrations. You know, we're in year three of a global pandemic. People are tired of it. They want their lives to go back to normal. So even though, you know, this is a small minority of people, they've been so vocal and effective in their tactics that it's providing a lot of inspiration to other people across borders.

NADWORNY: Yeah. Let's talk about that inspiration. What are you seeing around plans for a convoy here in the U.S.?

YOUSEF: Well, these organizers have been trying to put together a convoy since late January. As to their goals, here's what one of the organizers, Brian Brase, said in the Facebook announcement about this convoy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIAN BRASE: Canada needs our help. We're standing with Canada. You know, don't forget that in the United States, we're standing up to end the Emergency Powers Act.

YOUSEF: But here's the thing, Elissa. There's nothing called the Emergency Powers Act in the U.S., and Brase didn't respond to a question about what exactly he's referring to. You know, the mandates here have really been implemented at the state and local levels. And it's hard to predict how this is going to turn out.

In social media spaces, you see a lot of enthusiasm for this convoy that they're planning but also some paranoia about bringing something to D.C. You know, there really hasn't been any large-scale nationwide mobilization of the right in D.C. since January 6 last year, largely because of fears over federal scrutiny.

NADWORNY: Shannon, considering so much of this is being organized on social media, how responsive are Facebook and other platforms?

BOND: Well, you know, it's important to note here, you know, Facebook says it does allow criticism of government policies. You know, you can organize protests. That's not the issue here. It and other companies, I think, have learned a lot of lessons, you know, going back to the 2016 and 2020 elections - of course, January 6. So now they have these rules in place against inciting violence, against fake accounts doing this kind of manipulation.

But the question with these platforms always is, how well are those rules enforced? Because, ultimately, if you're not taking down these groups for breaking rules until they've already gained such a large audience, you know, how effective are the rules really?

NADWORNY: Odette, as we try to figure out the impact of these protests, what do we know about the influence of far-right extremists?

YOUSEF: Yeah, you know, they've been a part of this. Just earlier this week, authorities arrested 11 people and seized 13 long guns at a demonstration in Alberta, Canada. And, Elissa, you know, the images that police released of some of the equipment they seized reportedly included insignia of a known extremist group.

I spoke with Amarnath Amarasingam. He's an extremism expert and a professor at Queen's University in Ontario. He says several people behind the Canadian movement are known Holocaust deniers, conspiracy theorists and white nationalists and that they've been looking for causes that would capture the wider mainstream imagination. You know, they've tried before, but now the moment is kind of ripe.

AMARNATH AMARASINGAM: Three years into the pandemic, three years into a whole host of misinformation around the pandemic, the rise of conspiracy theories around the pandemic, general anxiety and exhaustion with the pandemic and lockdown, they have people listening.

YOUSEF: And the real concern here is that, you know, you're having sort of a more mainstream population now in spaces mixing with avowed extremists, forming connections and finding common ground. So Amarasingam says he's worried that even after these protests eventually die down, those connections don't go away, and they could have a lasting impact on politics and elections.

NADWORNY: Fascinating conversation with NPR's Odette Yousef, who covers domestic extremism, and Shannon Bond, who covers social media. Thank you so much both of you.

YOUSEF: Thank you.

BOND: Thanks, Elissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.