How the “Freedom Convoy” went global, helped by bots and bad actors
The Infodemic is a weekly newsletter, tracking how disinformation surrounding the coronavirus crisis is reshaping our world. Also in this edition: European leaders won’t give Putin their DNA, and how Argentina is using AI to analyze your cough
The truckers’ standoff with authorities in Canada has spurred a global trend for freedom convoys. Motorists have blocked access to government buildings in the Hague, Netherlands, while a French convoy has been snaking its way from Nice to Paris before arriving in Brussels this week. The aim was to create chaos by blocking roads, bridges and access to France and Belgium’s capital cities, while demanding an end to Covid restrictions and vaccine mandates. The reality was more of a whimper than a bang – Belgian police redirected the convoy to a parking lot on Brussels’ outskirts. Protesters then scattered – some heading on to Strasbourg, while others — as Politico reported this week – simply peeled off to Brussels’ myriad cafes for a drink.
A mix of trucks, cars and people also tried blocking roads in Israel, Finland, Australia and New Zealand.
The origin of this ordeal goes back to January 22, when hundreds of trucks rolled out of Vancouver, ending up in the Canadian capital, Ottawa, where around 400 of them then parked around parliament buildings, clogging up access to the city center. Some of the heavy vehicles weigh as much as 30 tons, posing a significant challenge to remove. Police are continuing to try to break up the blockade, threatening truckers with arrest, frozen bank accounts, and the loss of their licenses – which is an easier approach than trying to tow their loaded vehicles away. The truckers’ motivation is to end the mandate which requires proof of vaccination at the U.S.-Canada borders, without which drivers need to quarantine at the border.
The Canadian truckers’ protest sparked sympathy among U.S. anti-vaccine advocates, who donated generously to “Adopt-A-Trucker” and other supporting crowdfunder campaigns, raising an astonishing $8.9 million.
And while the ‘Freedom Convoy’ is trying to brand itself as a blue-collar, working class protest, elites are pouring tens of thousands of dollars into the cause. From the U.S. a $90,000 donation is listed under Thomas M. Siebel, the same name as an American billionaire. Travis Moore, a cryptocurrency businessman, gave his donation a more creative spin; he donated $17,760, as a nod to the American Revolution.
Sitting in front of a U.S. flag and a “don’t tread on me” flag, John Grosvenorm a truck driver of 30 years, told me over Zoom about a U.S. convoy planning to depart from California to Washington DC on March 2. In addition, he said ”a bunch of small ones from other states will be flowing to DC like a river.”
From Finland to Croatia, members of the movement told me about the “importance of personal choices” and “the struggle against dictatorships.”
Extremism researcher Amarth Amarasingam at Queen’s University Ontario said the loss of jobs and small businesses, the decline in mental health, and other pandemic troubles have spurred on the anti-mandate campaigns.
According to Meta, a large number of groups promoting ‘Freedom Convoys’ are being run by fake accounts tied to content farms in Vietnam, Bangladesh, Romania and several other countries.
IN OTHER INFODEMIC NEWS
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz became the second leader to refuse a Russian-administered Covid test in Moscow this week. He was following in the footsteps of French President Emmanuel Macron, whose team told reporters that they could not accept the prospect of the Russians “getting their hands on the President’s DNA.” While Putin was pictured shaking hands with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro yesterday he forced Sholz and Macron to sit 20ft away from him at the opposite end of a meme-worthy Italian-made table.
I’m writing this from the U.K., where a 100mph storm quaintly named “Eunice” is raging outside my window. This week, the right-wing outlet GB News aired an ex-girlfriend of the prime minister talking about quite a different storm – the one QAnon advocates love to reference. While on the air, technology entrepreneur and Q devotee Jennifer Arcuri began spouting claims that her ex-lover Boris Johnson might have been replaced by a doppelganger after he was hospitalized for Covid in 2020. “This isn’t the same man by a longshot,” she said. “We’re talking completely different.” As political commentator Arieh Kovler tweeted, this probably “isn’t the best way to build audience credibility.”
The Buenos Aires government announced this week that it is rolling out an AI system to analyze people’s cough sounds for possible Covid symptoms. The system will allow patients to record a voice note and send their coughs to a WhatsApp number which will then determine if, based on the sound of the cough, they should take a Covid test. Digital cough analysis tech has been in development for years prior to the pandemic, which supercharged the research into it. A paper in the Lancet raised concerns that while cough biometrics are an exciting development, they could pose a privacy risk if people’s recordings are made public.
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