The hacked account and suspicious donations behind the Canadian trucker protests

The jumble of misinformation, online fundraising groups and amplification from right-wing political figures suggests there’s more to these protests than meets the eye.

Protesters of the Freedom Convoy gather near Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, on Feb. 7.

Hundreds of people have been camped out in the icy streets of Ottawa, Canada’s capital city, for more than a week, occupying the area around the nation’s government buildings. It’s a protest ostensibly stemming from some Canadian cross-border truckers’ objections to a Canadian requirement that those who cross the border be vaccinated against covid-19.

But a close look at several “Freedom Convoy” groups and crowdfunding efforts online shows the involvement of anonymous actors, deep-pocketed non-Canadian donors and prominent U.S. right-wing political figures.

Some of the largest Facebook groups responsible for galvanizing support, both ideological and financial, appeared to have been administered through a stolen account, Grid has found.

The movement smacks of U.S. influence, said Gordon Pennycook, a behavioral scientist at the University of Regina who studies disinformation. “For sure, 100 percent, a large part of this is driven by cultural narratives that have emerged from the United States,” he said.

That doesn’t mean that many of the protesters on the ground aren’t true believers — whether about vaccine mandates, broader right-wing causes or even more extreme ideologies, including white nationalism.

“They’re driven by a very deep connection to a cause that they feel to be just,” Pennycook said. “They’re acting in accordance with their attitudes and values, and it just so happens to be the case that a lot of the beliefs that they hold probably aren’t rooted in good evidence. There’s a lot of conspiratorial thinking and distrust of good sources and reliable sources.”

A hacked Facebook account is behind some of the organizing

The entity behind some of the largest Facebook groups supporting the protests is an unknown person or persons who used the Facebook account of a Missouri woman. She says her account on the platform was hacked and stolen.

The account launched a handful of Facebook groups for the protest, all between Jan. 26 and 28, before the trucker convoy reached Ottawa. With a combined following of more than 340,000 members and more than 7,500 posts, the group names were variations on a theme: “Convoy to Ottawa 2022,” “Convoy for Freedom 2022,” “Freedom Convoy/Ottawa 2022 for Canada,” “Freedom Convoy 2022” and “2022 Official Freedom Convoy to Ottawa.”

Facebook groups are organized by administrators. Grid found that the only administrator account for these groups belonged to the Missouri woman. Reached briefly by phone on Monday, she said her account was hacked and she was not involved with the groups.

“Someone stole my identity on Facebook,” she said. “I don’t know how they [did] it.”

The woman, whom Grid is not naming because she is the victim of apparent identity theft, said her daughter set up a new account for her. A new Facebook account with the woman’s name appeared in October 2021 with the post: “New account. Last one got hacked.”

The groups were disabled Monday afternoon as Grid was reporting this story. Facebook did not immediately respond to questions about the hacked account. “We continue to see scammers latch onto any hot-button issue that draws people’s attention, including the ongoing protests,” Margarita Franklin, a spokeswoman for Facebook’s parent company, Meta, said in a statement to media outlets on Monday.

Even as Facebook groups have been taken down, the conversation is alive on Telegram, a United Arab Emirates-based social media platform that claims 500 million users worldwide. Channels cheering on the protests display thousands of subscribed followers, although it is possible to artificially inflate Telegram subscriber numbers. Inside these channels, users share photos and videos and trade misinformation about covid-19 and about the strength of their movement, such as the debunked claim that Canadian armed forces have pledged “allegiance to the people.”

The United States exports misinformation

The emergence of a strong right-wing element to the protests demonstrates the soup of fringe media that many anti-vaccine protesters swim in, said Pennycook, the behavioral scientist. “For someone to be so fervently against vaccines and opposed to the covid restrictions, those people are often in a kind of right-wing media bubble, one where they don’t really engage with traditional sources of information,” he said. “And the more you engage in that world, the more you can be exposed to alternative perspectives on life. And that fits within the right-wing media ecosystem.”

The Ottawa chief of police, Peter Sloly has described the protesters as “highly organized, well-funded, extremely committed to resisting all attempts to end the demonstrations safely.”

A number of right-wing public figures in the United States have been amplifying the protest, and donations appear to be pouring in from across Canada’s southern border.

In addition to Trump, Republicans including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Senate hopeful J.D. Vance of Ohio have encouraged the protests. Meanwhile, far-right influencers, like Ben Shapiro, Glenn Beck, Mike Huckabee have pushed their audiences to donate to crowdfunding platforms.

This movement has raised an astonishing amount of money

A GoFundMe organized for the protesters raised about 9.2 million Canadian dollars ($7.2 million) before the campaign was shut down on Friday. Many donations came from outside Canada, according to Ottawa’s police chief Sloly.

“We are now aware of a significant element from the U.S. that have been involved in the funding, the organizing and the demonstrating,” Sloly said.

Republican leaders have called for investigations into GoFundMe for canceling the campaign.

And a prospective solidarity movement of American truckers may be in the works. A Facebook group planning a cross-country drive to Washington, D.C., was shut down on Monday.

Conservative infighting isn’t just happening in the U.S.

Social media and the boosting of this protest by American politicians represents a spillover of American culture wars and information disorder polluting other countries’ politics in the process, Stecula added.

“I’m originally from Poland, and I noticed that while there’s no immediate events like the convoy [in Canada], I have been noticing for a while now that there is this exporting of American culture wars into other contexts,” Stecula said. “I think this is a prime example of that.”

In some ways, the situation in Ottawa has evolved into a proxy battle for the American right, said Jacob Remes, a labor, working-class, migration and disaster historian of the U.S. and Canada at New York University.

American donors are not interested in the nuances of the Canadian situation, such as what the Canadian citizenry wants, or the evolution — and perhaps disintegration — of the Canadian Conservative Party.

“But for the Americans, it’s totally irrelevant. They don’t care about who the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada is,” he said. “They just like the idea of a bunch of white truckers being in a national capital and fucking shit up.”

Start your day with the biggest stories and exclusive reporting from The Messenger Morning, our weekday newsletter.
By signing up, you agree to our privacy policy and terms of use.
Sign Up.