Feb 14, 2022 - Technology

U.S. accounts drive Canadian convoy protest chatter

Illustration of an internet browser window shaped like a large truck being clicked on by a cursor arrow
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Known U.S.-based sources of misleading information have driven a majority of Facebook and Twitter posts about the Canadian COVID-19 vaccine mandate protest, per German Marshall Fund data shared exclusively with Axios.

Driving the news: Ottawa's "Freedom Convoy" has ballooned into a disruptive political protest against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and inspired support among right-wing and anti-vaccine mandate groups in the U.S.

Why it matters: Trending stories about the protest appear to be driven by a small number of voices as top-performing accounts with huge followings are using the protest to drive engagement and inflame emotions with another hot-button issue.

  • "They can flood the zone — making something news and distorting what appears to be popular," said Karen Kornbluh, senior fellow and director of the Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative at the German Marshall Fund. 

What they're saying: "The three pages receiving the most interactions on [convoy protest] posts — Ben Shapiro, Newsmax and Breitbart -—are American," Kornbluh said. Other pages with the most action on convoy-related posts include Fox News, Dan Bongino and Franklin Graham.

  • "These major online voices with their bullhorns determine what the algorithm promotes because the algorithm senses it is engaging," she said.
  • Using a platform’s design to orchestrate anti-government action mirrors how the "Stop the Steal" groups worked around the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, with a few users quickly racking up massive followings, Kornbluh said.

By the numbers: Per German Marshall Fund data, from Jan. 22, when the protests began, to Feb. 12, there were 14,667 posts on Facebook pages about the Canadian protests, getting 19.3 million interactions (including likes, comments and shares).

  • For context: The Beijing Olympics had 20.9 million interactions in that same time period.
  • On Twitter, from Feb. 3 to Feb. 13, tweets about the protests from have been favorited at least 4.1 million times and retweeted at least 1.1 million times.
  • Pro-convoy videos on YouTube have racked up 47 million views, with Fox News' YouTube page getting 29.6 million views on related videos.

The big picture: New research published in the Atlantic finds that most public activity on Facebook comes from a "tiny, hyperactive group of abusive users."

  • Since user engagement remains the most important factor in Facebook's weighting of content recommendations, the researchers write, the most abusive users will wield the most influence over the online conversation.
  • "Overall, we observed 52 million users active on these U.S. pages and public groups, less than a quarter of Facebook’s claimed user base in the country," the researchers write. "Among this publicly active minority of users, the top 1 percent of accounts were responsible for 35 percent of all observed interactions; the top 3 percent were responsible for 52 percent. Many users, it seems, rarely, if ever, interact with public groups or pages."

Meanwhile, Foreign meddling is further confusing the narrative around the trucker protest. 

  • NBC News reported that overseas content mills in Vietnam, Bangladesh, Romania and other countries are powering Facebook groups promoting American versions of the trucker convoys. Facebook took many of the pages down.
  • A report from Grid News found a Bangladeshi digital marketing firm was behind two of the largest Facebook groups related to the Canadian Freedom Convoy before being removed from the platform.
  • Grid News reported earlier that Facebook groups supporting the Canadian convoy were being administered by a hacked Facebook account belonging to a Missouri woman.
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