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Opinion: I destabilized democracy and all I got was this crappy T-shirt

Freedom Convoy editorial Feb
Canada's current fire of dissent is real—but opportunists are stoking it, fanning the flames beyond reasonable proportion.

Back in early September 2021, as Canada’s federal election campaign neared its homestretch, I wrote about a quiet, late-summer warning from Canada’s cyber spy agency about threats to our democratic process.

The July report from the Communications Security Establishment concluded that Canadian voters were likely to face foreign cyber interference both before and after heading to the polls.

According to that report, the potential consequences included (but were not limited to): amplification of false or polarizing discourse; burying legitimate information; reduced trust in the democratic process; lowered trust in journalism and the media; increased polarization and decreased social cohesion; weakened confidence in leaders… Any of that sound familiar?

I titled that first piece, somewhat jokingly, “Don’t let the cyber terrorists win.”

Watching what has unfolded across our country in recent weeks, it seems we’ve done just that. 

This isn’t an attempt to discredit the Freedom Convoy, or those who support it. Polling suggests the ongoing protests have support from about one third of Canadians, and that seems about right from what I can tell from my social media feeds.

You may disagree with their rhetoric, or their methods, but their underlying grievances are real and in many cases well founded. People have lost their livelihoods. They’ve been subjected to confusing, unprecedented (in their lifetimes) restrictions on every day life, while being bombarded by conflicting information from a multitude of sources.

It doesn’t help that the country is led by a prime minister who is as unlikeable as they come; a perfect portrait of insincere, elitist political hypocrisy, and the ideal rallying point for anyone fed up with the current state of everything.

It’s the perfect storm of unrest, ripe for radicalization.

So yes, the fire of dissent is real—but opportunists are stoking it, fanning the flames beyond reasonable proportion.

With the “trucker convoy” concept now starting to catch on in the U.S., NBC senior journalist Ben Collins (who specializes in what he calls the “dystopia beat”) shed some light on how foreign threat actors are operating in a Feb. 11 report.

There are now dozens of “convoy” accounts on Facebook, in both Canada and the U.S., many with tens of thousands of followers, Collins found. While some are real, others “are being run by fake accounts tied to content mills in Vietnam, Bangladesh, Romania and several other countries,” Facebook officials told NBC News.

Researchers at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy found that large, pro-Trump, anti-mandate groups had changed their names to align with convoy-related themes in recent weeks.

“These foreign, stolen accounts and groups are called ‘Nick accounts,’ according to Harvard’s Joan Donovan. You can buy them on the dark web cheap,” Collins said in a recent Twitter thread.

“They even have great customer service. Did your convoy group get banned from Facebook? Call them. They’ll give you another.”

It works like this: foreign “content mills” build up accounts with tons of followers, then narrow it down to specific causes after the fact.

The process is called “growth hacking,” and it “allows them to appear high up in search, making it appear as if tens of thousands of people are really about to get in a truck and head to D.C.” Collins said.

And with the illusion of mass support, real, grassroots support begins to build around it.

“The goal is to will it into reality,” according to Collins.

Collins points out that some of these “Nick accounts” have laughably quaint financial motivations—like directing emotional, unwitting Facebook users to buy crass, AI-generated political merch.

But the accounts can be bought by anybody, including those seeking to influence public discourse for political ends.

“Even though it wasn’t totally organic, trucker convoys really are organizing in the United States right now,” Collins said.

“The social media factions that floated from Q to January 6th to antivaxx marches are making the American Trucker Convoys their next priority.”

If there was ever room for nuance in our political discourse, social media has removed it. No matter which side of the divide, or what their political leanings, the vast majority of people seem to engage social media with their beliefs and biases firmly up front. They don’t want nuance. They don’t have time for it.

People see a headline and they react with the appropriate emoji, or snide comment, and the algorithms feed them more of the same—a cynical, self-reinforcing loop of division and anger, now being exploited by bad-faith actors for their own ends.

That might be selling cheap T-shirts; it might be destabilizing democracies. Either way, social media is proving itself a societal cancer.

This isn’t a column arguing for one side or the other. I’ve long held to the belief that reality is never as black and white as people tend to see it, and the most accurate versions of events are usually found somewhere in the middle of public perception; the facts never as concrete as we might hope.

If you pressed me further, I’d tell you it’s all a bit dramatic, on all sides of the pandemic discourse.

At the root of it all, life and the universe are chaos, which can be an uncomfortable thought. So we search for reason and explanation wherever it can be found—religion, tradition, tribalism or conspiracy theories; the camaraderie of a common cause; an echoing chorus of voices urging us to hold the line. 

It’s powerful stuff—and history shows us what happens when it’s weaponized, and used to unsavoury ends.

All of this is to say that COVID has left Canadians ripe for the picking. The emotions are raw, and based on very real, very human problems. And while the divisions we’re now seeing formed naturally, the wedges being driven into the cracks are very much intentional.

Where things go from here is anybody’s guess, but the outcome isn’t going to be favourable for any of us unless we can turn down the temperature, tune out the nonsense and find a way to actually talk—and better yet, listen—to each other as fellow Canadians.

As an aside, while the implications are no doubt disturbing, there’s something morbidly funny about a Bangladeshian content farm stoking Western political discontent to sell crappy T-shirts to idiots on Facebook. If that’s not evidence we’re living in the stupidest of all possible timelines, I don’t know what is.