The whole world should be worried about the “Siege of Ottawa”. It’s about more than a few anti-vaxx truckers | Arwa Mahdawi

OWhat is the truck doing in Canada? No offense to Ottawa, but it’s not the most exciting place in the world. Over the past two weeks, however, the Canadian capital has been engulfed in drama: hundreds of truck drivers, ostensibly protesting vaccination mandates, have brought the city to a standstill. Members of the so-called “Freedom Truck Convoy” blew horns, desecrated war memorials and set off fireworks. Residents are driven to distraction. The police chief called the situation a “siege”; the Premier of Ontario called it an “occupation”. On Monday, the city’s mayor, Jim Watson, declared a state of emergency.

There’s a lot going on in the world right now. If you’re not Canadian, the protest in Ottawa might not be high on your list of things to fear. But I’m afraid you should be worried. You should definitely be careful. What is unfolding in Ottawa is not a grassroots protest that erupted spontaneously out of the frustration of local truckers. Rather, it is an astroturf movement – ​​creating an impression of widespread popular support where there is little – funded by a global network of highly organized far-right groups and amplified by Facebook’s disinformation machine. The drama may be centered in Canada, but what unfolds affects us all.

It’s a big claim, so let me break it down. We’ll start with Canadian truckers. People protesting vaccination mandates, it cannot be stressed enough, are in no way representative of the Canadian transportation industry as a whole. According to the Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA), only 10% of cross-border drivers refused the shots, which means that as of January 15, they can no longer return to Canada without quarantine. CTA, along with other major industry organizations, repudiated the protest. The protesters do not represent the vast majority of truckers, nor are they representative of public opinion towards vaccines in Canada – a country where 84% of the population, including children, have received at least one dose of vaccine. They are, as Justin Trudeau said, a “little fringe”.

They may be a fringe minority, but that doesn’t mean you should (as Trudeau seems to do) minimize or dismiss them. For one, they have a lot of powerful supporters. The usual host of right-wing politicians in the United States, including Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, cheered them on. They have also received millions of dollars in funding on crowdfunding sites from international donors.

“Donations from abroad are an integral part of any great crowdfunding campaign,” Ciaran O’Connor, online extremism expert at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, told Politico. “But the scale of it is unprecedented.”

Another reason why you should take the Ottawa protests seriously? Thanks to the marvels of modern technology, fringe groups can wield outsized influence. I’m sure you’ve heard of troll farms: organized groups that weaponize social media to spread misinformation, promote division, and sway public opinion. Get this: In the long lead up to the 2020 US election, Facebook’s most popular pages for Christian and Black American content were run by Eastern European troll farms. According to an internal Facebook report written in late 2019 and leaked to MIT Technology Review, troll farms were reaching 140 million users each month. Three-quarters of these users had never followed any of the pages: they had received content from Facebook’s content recommendation system, hungry for engagement.

“Our platform has given the greatest voice in the African American community to a handful of bad actors who, based on their media production practices, have never had an interaction with an African American,” wrote the report’s author, a former senior executive. data scientist at Facebook. “Instead of users choosing to receive content from these actors, our platform chooses to give [these troll farms] enormous reach.

After this report leaked in September, Facebook made a lot of noise about how it was aggressively cracking down on troll farms. Has he followed through on those promises? Meta Platforms, the owner of Facebook, said on Monday it had removed dozens of fraudulent pages associated with the convoy protest from Facebook; however, there are still a large number of recently created pages supporting the carriers, with an oddly high number of subscribers. Meanwhile, on Telegram, a social network favored by the right, people around the world are urging each other to replicate the tactics in Canada in their hometowns. Canada may not be on the brink of civil war, but what is happening in Ottawa is just one small front in a global information war. And the bad guys, I’m afraid to say, win.

Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist

Leave a Comment