Social media tools were key to the ‘Freedom Convoy’ protest, says expert

Social media acted as the ‘central nervous system’ of the ‘Freedom Convoy’ protest in Ottawa last winter, the Public Order Emergency Commission heard on Tuesday as it examined the role played by misinformation in preparation for the invocation of the Emergencies Act.

The political phase of the commission this week follows six weeks of investigative hearings into the events that led to the federal government’s decision to invoke the law to end the convoy protests. These hearings included testimony about online threats and the role social media played in organizing protests against public health measures related to COVID-19.

Before thousands of trucks began rolling into Ottawa last January, a loose group of protest organizers communicated primarily on TikTok and Facebook, the commission heard during these weeks of testimony. Many of them had never met in person before the protests began.

“Social media was the central nervous system of the convoy, and the exploration of its role crosses many fields, such as law, psychology, history, sociology and public policy, to name a few. -uns, » said Emily Laidlaw, Canada Research Chair in Cybersecurity Law. at the University of Calgary, wrote in a report for the commission.

Social media was used to raise funds, connect organizers and spread their message. It was also used to contrast mainstream media narratives and offer a different view of what was happening on the ground, Dax D’Orazio, a political scientist and postdoctoral fellow at Queen’s University, testified during a panel discussion. experts before the committee on Tuesday.

“It was a way to create meaning, to find community and to eventually create momentum for a social and political movement,” he said.

The inquiry is seeking input from experts to support its analysis of whether the government was right to use the Emergencies Act in response to protests that swept through downtown Ottawa and disrupted the trade at several border crossings.

The expert testimony will inform Commissioner Paul Rouleau’s recommendations on how to modernize the Emergencies Act and identify other areas for further investigation. It will also help him and his team study the impact of deliberately or inadvertently spreading false information during the protest, which was explicitly written into the commission’s mandate.

Experts testified that regulating misinformation is a difficult prospect, especially since it is not illegal to spread lies.

« It’s legal but awful, » Laidlaw said during the roundtable. « For the government to create legislation that targets legal expression, it is unlikely to survive constitutional scrutiny. »

Experts have defined misinformation as the intentional spreading of false information, while misinformation has been described as people spreading false information that they themselves believe to be true.

It would be difficult to write laws that distinguish between the two, said York University legal scholar Jonathon Penney. « It’s a matter of intention, » he said.

Panelists also explored the relationship between extremist views and social media, which can provide an echo chamber that serves to confirm people’s existing biases.

Trucks bound for Ottawa pass through Enfield, Nova Scotia in late January. (Robert Short/CBC)

Studies have shown that the internet can help entrench extremist values, said Vivek Venkatesh, an education professor at Concordia University.

People who subscribe to extremist views are increasingly turning to « fringe media » instead of taking news from traditional sources, said David Morin, a national security expert at the University of Sherbrooke, who is addressed to the panel in French.

He said « self-taught journalists » associated with these fringe media were present in Ottawa during the convoy protest and produced « alternative news » for viewers.

For example, Morin said, some alternative media sources reported that hundreds of thousands of protesters attended the Ottawa protest, while police reports show the actual number was far lower.

The blockade of Windsor has affected thousands of jobs

A second panel on the movement of essential goods and services, critical infrastructure and trade corridors told the commission on Tuesday afternoon that 339,275 jobs depend on the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, Ont., which protesters blocked for six days. in February, halting trade to the United States.

These jobs represent 1.8% of all jobs in Canada, according to a report prepared by economist François Delorme and economics student Florence Ouellet.

The lockdowns have highlighted the vulnerability of some of Canada’s critical infrastructure, which is governed by a patchwork of government and private sector jurisdictions.

windsor convoy removal
Police clear vehicles from a blockage on the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, Ont., Saturday, February 12, 2022. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

If the federal government hopes to protect critical infrastructure with legislation, it should be very transparent about defining what it is, and what is and isn’t allowed near it, said Phil Boyle, a professor of studies law at the University of Ottawa. Otherwise, he said, the legislation could be too broad and used to stifle legal dissent.

Compiling a list of what constitutes critical infrastructure, however, could be tricky, said Kevin Quigley, director of the MacEachen Institute for Public Policy and Governance at Dalhousie University.

Different infrastructure is essential for different people at different times, he said, depending on the context. A small bridge that serves as the main route for transporting food to a small community might be considered locally critical, for example.

Ambarish Chandra, a professor of economics at the University of Toronto at Scarborough, pointed out that when it comes to Canada’s land border crossings, trade is heavily concentrated in southern Ontario.

If something unexpected were to happen there, the effects could be catastrophic for the whole country, he said, adding that Canada could encourage the diversification of trucking networks to make greater use of border crossings in Quebec. and on the prairies.

The investigation is on a tight deadline to complete its work. Rouleau is expected to submit its final recommendations to Parliament in early February.

Political panels continue on Wednesday.


Back to top button