There is growing momentum in the U.S. anti-vaccination community to conduct rallies similar to Canada's “Freedom Convoy” that has paralyzed Ottawa, Ontario, and the effort is receiving a boost from a familiar source: overseas content mills.
Some Facebook groups that have promoted American “trucker convoys” similar to demonstrations that have clogged roads in Ottawa are being run by fake accounts tied to content mills in Vietnam, Bangladesh, Romania and several other countries, Facebook officials told NBC News on Friday.
The groups have popped up as extremism researchers have begun to warn that many anti-vaccine and conspiracy-driven communities in the U.S. are quickly pivoting to embrace and promote the idea of disruptive convoys.
Researchers at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy first noted that large pro-Trump groups had been changing their names to go with convoy-related themes earlier this week. Grid News reported on Friday that one major trucker convoy Facebook group was being run by a Bangladesh content farm.
Many of the groups have changed names multiple times, going from those that tap hot-button political issues such as support for former President Donald Trump or opposition to vaccine mandates, to names with keywords like “trucker,” “freedom” and “convoy.” Facebook allows groups on its platforms to change names but tracks the changes in each page’s “about” section.
The motivations of the people behind the content mills are not clear, but Joan Donovan, director of the Shorenstein Center, said the pattern fits existing efforts to make money off U.S. political divisions.
“In some ways, it’s normal political activity,” Donovan said. “In other ways, we have to look at how some of the engagement online is fake but can be a way to mobilize more people.”
“When we see really effective disinformation campaigns, it’s when the financial and political motives align,” she added.
The groups frequently directed users away from Facebook toward websites that sold pro-Trump and anti-vaccine merchandise, a spokesperson for Meta, the parent company of Facebook, said. The spokesperson noted that the majority of the content posted in these groups came from real accounts and that the company has removed the groups tied to foreign content mills.
“Voicing opposition to government mandates is not against Meta’s policies,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “However, we have removed multiple groups and Pages for repeatedly violating our policies prohibiting QAnon content and those run by spammers in different countries around the world. We continue to monitor the situation and take action.”
The details of foreign interference come as anti-vaccine protesters, pro-Trump groups and QAnon supporters have shifted their full attention to making trucker convoys a reality on American roads. Anti-vaccine protesters, some of whom are truckers, have clogged roads in Ottawa for more than a week, demanding the Canadian government remove mask and vaccine mandates.
American far-right groups on Facebook, Telegram and the voice chat app Zello have aimed to replicate the demonstration in cities across the United States. People have passed around flyers in group chats urging truckers to stop traffic at this Sunday’s Super Bowl in Los Angeles, but the groups have found a three-day window to be too short for sufficient mobilization.
Discussion in the anti-vaccine communities has largely coalesced around a different date for road closures — March 5 — with plans for convoys headed toward Washington D.C. and Los Angeles in the days prior.
Major websites and social media accounts behind the anti-vaccine mandate protest that marched on Washington last month are rebranding as “trucker convoys,” part of a widespread effort to bring versions of Ottawa’s anti-vaccine road closures to American cities.
The official website for the “Defeat the Mandates” event has changed its homepage and is now advertising a trucker convoy in Southern California in March.
“There’s a misconception that every participant in these chats is a trucker, but that’s not true at all. It’s really anybody who’s been a part of these movements who’ve been waiting for an excuse to do something — QAnon, anti-vaccine, sovereign citizens,” said extremism researcher Sara Aniano, who recently published a report on QAnon’s growth after Jan. 6 for the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, a London-based nonprofit group. ”This feels like the culmination of everything that’s happened since Jan. 6th.”
Social media-based foreign interference in domestic politics first came into public view in the aftermath of the 2016 election after researchers found that Russia’s Internet Research Agency was conducting an elaborate influence campaign across American social media sites in an effort to support candidate Donald Trump. Since then, foreign social media interference has been tempered by efforts by major social media platforms to crack down, though various influence operations are still frequently identified.
Donovan, of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center, said Vietnamese spammers specifically sell what they call “Nick” accounts at scale, which are credible-seeming Facebook accounts that moderate high-profile groups.
Once purchased, the accounts and the groups they run can be used for any purpose, from selling T-shirts to executing a foreign influence campaign.
Some content mills even offer to help if Facebook takes action against a certain page or group.
“The fake account trade is alive and well,” Donovan said. “Really, they act as something like customer service. Whether it’s a person or an organization, if you bought an account from a person, and they do get taken away, you can contact him and he will reimburse you with more accounts. It has some dark marketing aspects to it.”
The point of renaming larger groups is not only to retain and spam the already-existing community but to also appear higher in Facebook’s search and recommendations bar, which helps lend credibility to those curious about the movement.
Facebook said it would “continue to monitor the situation” for more inauthentic activity.
“We continue to see scammers latch onto any hot-button issue that draws people’s attention, including the ongoing protests,” the Meta spokesperson said. “Over the past week, we’ve removed groups and Pages run by spammers from different countries around the world who used abusive tactics to mislead people about the origin and popularity of their content to drive them to off-platform websites to monetize ad clicks.”
Aniano, who said she recently spent several days listening in on audio chats in convoy-related Telegram groups, said the communities largely consist of a mishmash of anti-vaccine groups and QAnon supporters.
Aniano said the groups, which have tens of thousands of subscribers, flow between logistical discussions about essentials to bring on a long-haul car trip and getting followers up to date on QAnon-based conspiracy theories.