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Russian propaganda sites attacked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, making false accusations about his government “ordering” the use of violence against demonstrators, and tore into Canada’s mainstream media during last year’s “Freedom Convoy.” The protest occupied downtown Ottawa for three weeks and cost the Canadian economy nearly $4 billion.
But beyond overt propaganda outlets, like Russia’s RT, disinformation spread through proxy sites and on social media messaging apps, like Telegram, which was widely used by the convoy’s genuine grassroots supporters.
Russian proxy websites are another pillar of Russia’s disinformation ecosystem. These websites, which include SouthFront and Canada-based Global Research, have been previously linked to Russian intelligence agencies and have at times even published articles authored by fake personas created by Russian intelligence agencies.
The purpose of websites like these is to disseminate Russian propaganda while maintaining a degree of plausible deniability. The use of proxy sources creates the appearance of independence and manufactures false consensus by making it appear as though the content is supported by multiple independent agencies when really it is just more Russian-backed sites, writers and commentators.
SouthFront and Global Research both produced ongoing coverage of the “Freedom Convoy” that often included disinformation and inflammatory rhetoric, as well as repeated calls for Trudeau to step down.
Global Research produced much more extensive coverage, but SouthFront’s coverage was much more inflammatory and conspiratorial. SouthFront made claims about protesters being “demonized” and “abused” by the media and the government, and accused the Trudeau government of “ordering” the use of violence against them.
Both SouthFront and Global Research also made unfounded claims about “agent provocateurs” sent in by the Trudeau government to incite violence — a common trope deployed by Russia as part of its active measures campaigns. The two proxy sites republished each other’s content, as well as articles from other Russian proxy sites, demonstrating the tightly connected and co-ordinated nature of Russia’s disinformation ecosystem.
Russian proxy sites shared coverage of the “Freedom Convoy” that often included disinformation and inflammatory rhetoric, @RVAWonk writes for @natobserver. #FreedomConvoy #cdnpoli
In January and February 2022, a large number of public Telegram channels were created or repurposed under the auspices of supporting the “Freedom Convoy.” These channels initially shared information about the convoy route(s), solicited donations, discussed ongoing convoy-related events, expressed opinions about politics and COVID restrictions, posted links to news stories, spread conspiratorial content, shared calls to action and encouraged people to take part in the protests. But over time, many of these channels — including some with tens of thousands of members — started to feature Russian propaganda intermingled with convoy-related content.
Eventually, part of this network of Telegram channels effectively became a repository for Russian propaganda, including some channels that regularly post Kremlin press releases and Russian-language content. Some of these channels still post convoy-related content, too, including plans for upcoming events and rallies, while others have pivoted away from the convoy entirely and now only post a mix of Russian propaganda, QAnon conspiracy theories and other conspiratorial content.
Many of the conspiracy theories posted in these channels either originated from or circulated widely in Russian propaganda networks, including allegations that COVID-19 is a bioweapon and/or that Russia invaded Ukraine to shut down U.S.-backed biolabs, claims that Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election was a hoax and various conspiratorial narratives about COVID vaccines, 5G technology and tracking chips. Some of the most widely shared content on these channels portrays the Canadian government as being overrun with Nazis and claims Canada supports Nazis in Ukraine. These claims align with some of the most dominant propaganda narratives used by Russia to justify its invasion of Ukraine.
On a tactical level, the strategies employed by operators of these Telegram channels — including multilingual posting, repurposing existing channels, creating networks of interconnected channels and using Telegram to co-ordinate talking points on other social media platforms — have previously been linked to Russian influence operations. This is important, as it demonstrates alignment with known influence campaigns both in terms of content and tactics.
For now, we don’t know the impact of Russia’s influence activities, and the findings don’t mean organizers of the convoy co-ordinated with Russian operatives. Instead, the findings show Russian state actors and affiliates had a strategic interest in the convoy and reveal a pattern of activity that is characteristic of Russian influence campaigns.
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Note: This article is based on Caroline Orr Bueno’s research published as “Russia's Role in the Far-Right Truck Convoy: An analysis of Russian state media activity related to the 2022 Freedom Convoy” in The Journal of Intelligence, Conflict, and Warfare.