The Media Today

The ‘Freedom Convoy’ and the press

February 15, 2022
Trucks, are parked in front of the Chateau Laurier as a protest against COVID-19 restrictions continue in Ottawa, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022. (Justin Tang /The Canadian Press via AP)

Late last month, as groups of Canadian truckers and ideological allies started to converge on Ottawa in protest of vaccine mandates and an assortment of other grievances, reports started to filter through of hostile behavior, on the part of some participants, toward journalists covering the convoy. Dale Manucdoc, a reporter with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto, texted the contact number of a local convoy representative to request an interview and received messages, from a different number, targeting him with a racial slur and telling him that he would “swing” as a “traitor.” Another journalist, Frank Gunn, reported being spat at by supporters of the convoy; Evan Solomon, of CTV, was about to film a live shot when a protester threw a beer can that narrowly missed his head. (“I could use a drink,” Solomon quipped, “but not like this.”)

As the days went by and the protests spread, the harassment of journalists intensified, both online and off. Canadian lawmakers passed a resolution “deploring” the intimidation. Some outlets assigned security guards to accompany their reporters in the streets, while other news crews took their logos off of equipment or downsized their cameras to make it harder for protesters to identify them. This week, Elizabeth Payne, a reporter at the Ottawa Citizen, told the Committee to Protect Journalists that she’s avoided wearing a mask while covering the protests for fear of provoking backlash, and that downtown residents whose lives have been disrupted by the convoy have “begged” her not to identify them in her stories “because they’re getting death threats.” Last night, the Canadian Association of Journalists convened a Twitter Space to discuss the rising hostility toward reporters in the country, a trend that predates these protests and has been particularly acute for women and journalists of color. “It’s totally surreal to me to need security to report in my hometown,” Raisa Patel, an Ottawa-based reporter for the Toronto Star, said of covering the protests, adding that harassment also follows her home. Newsroom managers, she said, don’t seem to realize “how much work we’re doing on our own personal time to keep each other safe.”

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From their early days, the protests have attracted intense interest from Canadian media. (Too much, some have argued.) Major US news organizations have increasingly grown interested, too, particularly after one group of protesters blocked a bridge at the Canadian border near Detroit that serves as a crucial trade artery. American outlets showing up “was like oxygen to the protesters,” Seán O’Shea, a journalist with the Canadian outlet Global News, wrote yesterday. “Many in the group loved the attention. They especially doted on the Detroit Fox TV reporter.” O’Shea added that his team at the bridge “interviewed many people,” and that “they variously hated government, hated mandates, didn’t believe there were any COVID-related deaths, repeated conspiracy theories, and kept asking us when the news media was going to start telling the truth.” Late Sunday, the bridge reopened after police finally cleared the protesters. Portions of Ottawa and other locales, however, remained snarled up. Yesterday, Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, declared a rare, nationwide state of emergency, saying that it would give law enforcement more leeway to deal with disruptive elements.

On the US side of the border, right-wing media figures, in particular, have gleefully flocked to the protesters’ cause. Tucker Carlson—whose online store is selling “I ❤️ Tucker” t-shirts edited to say “I ❤️ Truckers”—has called the convoy “the single most successful human rights protest in a generation”; according to Media Matters for America, a liberal watchdog group, Fox News had devoted nearly fifteen hours of airtime to the story by Sunday night, much of it on Carlson’s and Sean Hannity’s shows. “This is unparalleled for a Canadian event,” Alex Panetta, CBC News’s Washington correspondent, said last week, of the volume of coverage. “You could not genetically engineer in a lab a storyline better scripted for conservative media in the US.” An anonymous Canadian official told the AP that Fox has “fanned the flames and contributed to misinformation.” Last night, Carlson referred to Trudeau’s emergency declaration as “a defining moment” in “the history of the English-speaking West,” and called Canada “a dictatorship.”

It’s not just US media—sympathy for the “Freedom Convoy” movement, as supporters call it, has started to snake out globally. Sympathy demonstrations—albeit often small ones—have already taken place in the UK, France, New Zealand, and elsewhere (with authorities in the latter country blasting Barry Manilow and “Macarena” in a bid to get protesters to disperse); there’s been talk of a copycat convoy on US soil, too, with a ragtag coalition of organizers eyeing a possible March start date after plans to disrupt the Super Bowl on Sunday fizzled. In recent days, reporters who cover extremism and misinformation have worked to track the proliferation, and organic extent, of online convoy discourse in the US, tying some of it to scammy overseas content farms in Asia and Eastern Europe. The specter of foreign interference has shadowed Canadian convoy discourse, too, though some critics have cautioned against such narratives. “This occupation movement is Canadian, made up of Canadians,” a group called the Canadian Anti-Hate Network wrote last week. “There may be boosting, bots, money—but nothing concrete. Don’t absolve responsibility. Canada did this.”

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The true global reach, and backing, of the convoy movement remains somewhat murky and contested, and protesters who have latched onto it do not all share the same motives or aggressive behavior. As is increasingly the case in the right-wing culture wars, however, meaningful boundaries between countries are (perhaps somewhat ironically) starting to melt away here. “Canada is in the import/export business,” Panetta, of CBC News, said last week. “You’re taking in American ideas—and other countries’ ideas—and you’re propagating them out to the world.” These ideas include disdain for the work of the mainstream media, a trend that is far from uniquely “American” but has, in the Trump era, taken on a form, rhetoric, and visibility that has bolstered anti-press rhetoric worldwide.

Nor can we draw clear boundaries between the internet and the offline world, and this, too, has direct consequences for members of the press, as they face sharply specific threats in both domains. There is not much that’s new here—reporters have long faced intimidation while covering protests, a trend that has already intensified across demonstrations against COVID measures in numerous countries. A month ago today, AFP journalists covering a far-right protest against vaccine passports in Paris were surrounded by dozens of people who assailed them with death threats and wounded the two security agents assigned for the journalists’ protection, with one taking a bottle to the head. The same day, Canada’s convoy movement was officially born.

Below, more on the convoy protests:

  • Hacked?: Earlier this month, GoFundMe took down a fundraiser in support of the convoy; donors subsequently contributed money via a rival service, GiveSendGo, but on Sunday, that, too, went offline, apparently after being hacked. For a time, the site redirected to a video from the movie Frozen (to symbolize that it had been frozen), as well as text accusing GiveSendGo of “providing a platform for individuals and organized groups to fund hate groups, promote disinformation and insurrection disguised as ‘protests,’” and offering to give donation data to researchers and journalists “so that the impact of foreign political interference can be better understood.” (Donors have used the same site to contribute to the legal fees of Capitol insurrectionists.) Outlets including The Verge already obtained the data via the leak-hosting website Distributed Denial of Secrets, with many donations to the convoy appearing to have come from inside the US.
  • FREDOM: Yesterday, BuzzFeed’s Paul McLeod published a dispatch from inside the “nerve center” that’s keeping the Ottawa protests running—a site a few miles from downtown that boasts a supply store, a mobile bathroom unit, and two fully functional saunas. “Journalists are, generally, not welcome,” McLeod writes. “There have been no reports of violence, but intense-looking guys staring down reporters sends the message.” When McLeod showed up and identified himself as a reporter, “several people surrounded me, saying they needed to determine if I was good media or bad media.” (McLeod also observed a white van with the word “FREDOM” taped on the side. “It wasn’t a typo,” he writes. “The owner of the van said he just ran out of tape.”)
  • The view from the frontlines: The Canadian Association of Journalists posted a thread summarizing its Twitter Space on the protests and the press last night, featuring contributions from Patel, Solomon, and others. Desmond Cole, a Canadian writer, spoke in the Space about the flawed notion of journalistic objectivity. “If you work at a corporate shop, your boss is going to want you to work with the police,” Cole said. “Your boss is going to want you to take the police at their word; your boss is going to want you to get the opinion of the people who would shout you down in the street.”
  • The view from the backlines: For his Garbage Day newsletter, Ryan Broderick assessed Facebook metrics around convoy content and found that, while there are “plenty of real-looking users engaging with content about the convoys,” it’s “not as big as previous Facebook movements like this.” A top-performing convoy story posted by the Daily Wire, a right-wing site, was pushed heavily by accounts linked to the Daily Wire. “I think it’s probably time to call this what it is,” Broderick wrote: “a fringe Canadian protest movement being promoted by a glorified tweetdecking operation run by a bunch of American influencers as a desperate attempt to keep their accounts relevant.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.