The Canadian ‘Freedom Convoy’ is backed by a Bangladeshi marketing firm and right-wing fringe groups
As American politicians call for stateside convoys, a Grid investigation finds signs that foreign actors, QAnon and hate pervade the movement’s support.
A Bangladeshi firm appears to have played a key role in promoting the Ottawa protest online, and Grid has found increasing evidence of fringe conspiracies and violent extremism throughout the movement.
Online groups on platforms like Facebook and Telegram, together with fundraising campaigns on the GiveSendGo site, have formed digital lifelines for the ongoing Canadian action. They funnel moral support, supplies, manpower and money to the effort, even as they help spread baseless conspiracy theories and toxic rhetoric.
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Grid reviewed the membership and content of those forums, spoke with extremist experts and conducted a comprehensive review of over 80,000 recorded donations to the convoy’s primary online fundraiser. Combined, they show how QAnon adherents and fringe, even supremacist, ideologies pervade the movement.
A Bangladeshi firm behind pro-trucker Facebook groups
The Facebook groups tied to the Bangladeshi firm promoted calls for donations to the Ottawa organizers’ GiveSendGo campaign and pointed members to convoy-related events in Canada.
Grid reached a man Thursday who said he was Jakir Saikot, the founder of the firm. Saikot agreed to an interview on the condition the reporter conduct it by video call so Saikot could confirm the reporter’s identity. Saikot did not make himself visible for the call.
He was not involved in the fake Lich page, Saikot said, but confirmed he was behind the “Freedom Convoy 2022″ and “Convoy to Ottawa 2022″ groups.
“It was my own choice because I believe in freedom,” he said. “We have a right to talk freely.”
Saikot said he started the groups because he believes in the mission of the protesters. He said he received no payment to conduct his social media activity supporting a protest on the other side of the world.
“The big reason is freedom, and otherwise nothing,” he said. “No one paid us.”
Nazmul Ahasan, a reporter at the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California-Berkeley, said he separately contacted Saikot last week and Saikot told him a different version of events.
In an interview with Grid after this story first published, Ahasan said Saikot told him he charged the equivalent of $23 per day to promote Facebook pages with hundreds of thousands of followers, and indicated that he worked with organizers of the protests in Canada on the Freedom Convoy Facebook groups.
”I asked about whether [he was] contacted by someone in Canada,” Ahasan said. “He said ‘Yeah.’”
Follow the money
A Grid analysis of the more than $8 million contributed to the Ottawa organizers’ GiveSendGo convoy campaign as of Thursday revealed most of the tens of thousands of donations were made anonymously and were for amounts of $100 or less. The largest recorded donation, for $215,000, had a note that it was “processed but not recorded.” GiveSendGo did not respond to inquiries from Grid.
Thousands entered pseudonyms, often using names belonging to prominent figures including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or President Joe Biden. Many used phrases mentioning “freedom,” “mandate” or “tyranny.” Hundreds mentioned “Let’s Go, Brandon,” a minced oath used to express displeasure with Biden.
While most donations were small, several dozen backers gave $1,000 or more. Grid attempted to verify the identity of more than a dozen individuals publicly identified as large-dollar donors on the site. Most did not respond.
One who did is Peter Decker, a welding company owner from Motley, Minnesota. Decker told Grid he donated $3,000 to express his frustration with covid-19 rules that complicate his family’s ability to visit their relatives in Canada. His frustrations include requirements of negative tests and quarantining when the family arrived in Canada.
“It’s a peaceful protest that has and is spreading hope to the world,” he wrote in an email to Grid. “You see all the pain and hurt in just my family for no reason at all!”
Conspiracies, antisemitism and white supremacy are laced throughout
Telegram, a United Arab Emirates-based social media platform that boasts 500 million users worldwide, is home to several pro-convoy channels. An administrator in one convoy channel posted a paragraphs-long conspiracy theory of how elites traffic children internationally using planes, which is why barricading bridges on the U.S.-Canada border was insufficient. The channel claims more than 80,000 subscribers, although such numbers are difficult to verify.
In another channel devoted to the Canadian convoy, a Telegram user posted, “It is not Trudeau’s choice to step down or to attempt to stay. It is the decision of the World Economic Forum (WEF). Frankly, the WEF cannot afford for Trudeau to step down. If he falls, Biden falls, Australia falls, New Zealand falls and all of Europe falls. Then the rest of the world joins in.”
Telegram channels devoted to QAnon and other conspiracy theories are lighting up with convoy discussions.
“The ELITES from the highest government officials have given the orders for MASS ARRESTS AND TOTAL MEDIA BLACKOUT AND CELL PHONE BLACKOUTS ( NO LIVE BROADCASTING),” reads one post. “~Orders coming from UN, DAVOS GROUP, CIA and world ELITES Who CONTROL the Canadian government~”
“This is something you frequently find,” said Ethan Porter, who leads the Misinformation/Disinformation Lab at George Washington University’s Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics. “People who are convinced that covid vaccines are part of the government conspiracy also believe that child abduction, as in child trafficking, is coordinated by global elites.”
“The thing to remember,” Porter said, “is that most people don’t believe this stuff.”
“I hope they clog up cities”
Right-wing U.S. politicians and media outlets have been supportive of the Ottawa convoy and expressed hope the action could be replicated stateside, even as convoy enthusiasts debate actions like disrupting Sunday’s Super Bowl.
The first Facebook group Brase created for a U.S. convoy attracted more than 130,000 followers — and was deactivated after some reportedly posted QAnon-related content, which violates Facebook’s rules. A second group now has 60,000 followers.
Brase’s group is encouraging truckers to keep gas receipts, promising that they will reimburse the expenses upon arrival in Indio.
“We are doing this. Nonprofit bank accounts, lawyers, CPAs — it’s legit,” Brase said in the Feb. 4 interview. He acknowledged that they did not have an online fundraising mechanism yet but were getting to that “shortly.”
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