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The funding behind 'Freedom Convoy' protests


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We're going to take another look now at those protests against vaccine mandates and other COVID prevention measures that have been going on in Canada for the past three weeks. Authorities in the Canadian capital of Ottawa have moved decisively over the past 24 hours to force protesters in the city's downtown to leave. Yesterday and today, police officers clashed with demonstrators near the country's parliament. Police say more than 100 arrests have been made. Earlier this week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took aim at the protesters' finances, issuing emergency orders to cut off funding for the organizers.

We wanted to learn more about who has been supporting the protests and how, and for that, we turned to Steve Reilly, an investigative reporter with the startup news website Grid. Reilly and his colleagues have been looking into social media and online donation activity supporting the so-called freedom convoy protests in Canada. Reilly says they found that some of the largest social media groups galvanizing support for the demonstrators were being run by accounts outside of Canada.

STEVE REILLY: So early last week, we began looking into a network of Facebook groups with more than 300,000 followers that was encouraging people to support and donate to the protesters. What we found were that they were all administered by the account of a woman in Missouri, which we thought was interesting. Why is a woman in Missouri supporting these Canadian protests? And we looked into it further. We found her account had been, in fact, hacked into, and someone else was using it to create these Facebook groups that were galvanizing support for the protest movement.

MARTIN: Let me note here that Facebook's parent company, Meta, pays NPR to license NPR content. That is a disclosure that we routinely make when we reference Facebook in any way. Now, according to your reporting, a couple of these Facebook groups supporting the protest were created by a marketing firm based in Bangladesh. Can you just tell us a bit more about that?

REILLY: That's right. So Facebook shut down dozens of groups early last week that were related to these protests. We continued to look into it and found that some of the groups that continued to exist after that were connected to a marketing firm based in Bangladesh, which, again, raises questions about the authenticity of the actors behind this social media support system for the protests that are happening in the streets of Ottawa.

MARTIN: Well, just - as you just mentioned that Meta has since removed some of these groups from the platform, but you spoke to someone with that marketing firm in Bangladesh. Were you able to find out if the firm was paid to create those Facebook groups and, if so, by whom?

REILLY: The founder of the marketing group told us that he was not paid to create those groups. However, we don't have any way of verifying that or knowing whether that's the case. After we asked Facebook some questions about these groups, they were eventually shut down late last week. So there are questions that continue to persist about the authenticity of a lot of the online social media activity supporting these protests.

MARTIN: You also found Facebook groups filled with QAnon rhetoric and other people connected to those right-wing, conspiracy-driven movements. Based on your reporting, what's the connection between the people organizing these protests and right-wing fringe groups like QAnon?

REILLY: Well, we don't know precisely, but what we do know is that we've seen on the streets of Canada symbols of the American right, including Confederate flags and the emblem of the Three Percenters group, have shown up in the Canadian capital. And a lot of that kind of sentiment is mirrored online. We saw in some of the donation activity references to the QAnon conspiracy theory. And so there are, you know, in any protest, some mix of various ideological groups. And what we can say is that there are signs of some extremists' group symbology showing up in these protests, both in real life and online.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, I mean, there's sort of been rumblings about sort of a convoy-style protest in the United States. And has your reporting turned up anything about that?

REILLY: There have been rumblings, and there are people who say there are organizers of a convoy they expect or plan to have start up in the coming weeks. We don't know whether this will come to fruition, but we do know that a lot of the support for the Canadian protests has come from the United States, both in the form of rhetoric from politicians here and some fundraising. And so we'll see in the coming weeks whether there's any type of similar movement here in the US.

MARTIN: That was Steve Reilly. He's an investigative reporter at Grid news focusing on threats to democracy. Steve, thanks so much for sharing your reporting with us.

REILLY: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.