Social media tools were key to ‘Freedom Convoy’ protest, expert tells inquiry

Social media acted as the “central nervous system” of the “Freedom Convoy” protest in Ottawa last winter, the Public Order Emergency Commission heard Tuesday as it examined the role of misinformation leading up to the use of the emergency law.

This week’s political phase follows six weeks of fact-finding hearings on the events that led to this decision, including testimonies about online threats and the role played by social media in organizing the protest against COVID-19 measures in the area played public health.

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

“Social media was the central nervous system of the convoy, and research into its role spans numerous areas such as law, psychology, history, sociology, and public policy, to name a few,” Emily Laidlaw, Canada Research Chair in Cybersecurity Law at the University of Calgary, wrote in a report for the commission.

Social media has been used to raise funds, connect organizers and spread their message. It was also used to juxtapose traditional media reports and offer a different perspective on what was happening on the ground, said Dax D’Orazio, a political scientist and post-doctoral researcher at Queen’s University, during an expert panel discussion before the commission Tuesday.

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

The inquiry seeks the expert input to support its analysis of whether the government was correct in using the emergency law in response to protests that swept downtown Ottawa and halted trade at several border crossings.

The expert testimony will support Commissioner Paul Rouleau’s recommendations to modernize the emergency law and identify other areas for further study. It will also help him and his team investigate the impact of the intentional or accidental dissemination of false information during the protest, which has been explicitly included in the commission’s mandate.

Experts said that regulating disinformation is a difficult task, especially since it is not illegal to spread untruths.

“It’s legal, but terrible,” Laidlaw said during the panel discussion. “If the government enacts legislation aimed at legitimate expression of opinion, it probably won’t stand up to constitutional scrutiny.”

The experts described disinformation as the intentional dissemination of false information, while disinformation was used to describe people who disseminated false information that they themselves believed to be true.

It would be difficult to draft legislation distinguishing between the two, said Jonathon Penney, a law scholar at York University. “It’s a matter of intent,” he said.

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

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

People who subscribe to extremist views are increasingly turning to “fringe media” rather than getting news from traditional sources, said David Morin, a national security expert at Sherbrook University, who spoke on the panel in French.

He said “self-made journalists” associated with these fringe businesses were present during the Ottawa convoy protest and produced “alternative information” for viewers.

For example, Morin said some alternative media sources reported that hundreds of thousands of protesters attended the Ottawa demonstration, although police reports show the true number was far fewer.

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

These jobs account for 1.8 percent of all jobs in Canada, according to a report by economist François Delorme and business student Florence Ouellet.

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

If the federal government hopes to protect critical infrastructure through legislation, it should be very transparent in defining what that is and what is and isn’t permitted nearby, said Phil Boyle, a law professor at the University of Ottawa — otherwise the legislation could be overkill and used to suppress legitimate dissent.

But creating a list of what constitutes critical infrastructure could be difficult, explained Kevin Quigley, director at the MacEachen Institute for Public Policy and Governance at Dalhousie University.

Different infrastructures are critical for different people at different times, he said, depending on the context. For example, a small bridge serving as the main way of transporting food to a small community could be considered critical at a local level.

Ambarish Chandra, an economics professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough, pointed out that trade at Canada’s land borders is heavily concentrated in southern Ontario.

If something unexpected happens there, the impact could be catastrophic for the whole country, he said, adding that Canada could encourage diversification of truck networks to make greater use of Quebec and prairie border crossings.

The inquiry is on a tight schedule to complete its work, and Rouleau is expected to present final recommendations to Parliament in early February.

Policy panels continue Wednesday with experts on national security, emergencies and policing.

– Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

Parliament Hill Protest