Copycat protests have been staged as far away as New Zealand and Europe. PHOTO: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
In London, a rabid COVID-conspiracist mob hounded Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, sending him rushing into a police vehicle for his own safety. In the capitals of Australia and New Zealand, hundreds of protesters have been camped out amid high tensions in front of their national parliaments for days, decrying a so-called COVID “genocide.” In Helsinki, Finland, about 200 vehicles blocked roads outside Parliament, while protesters, demanding the resignation of the government and an end to COVID restrictions, threw bottles and slashed tow truck tyres.
And across the United States and continental Europe, anti-government anti-vax, COVID-conspiracist networks are mobilising to organise their own “freedom convoys,” making plans for their movements to descend on Washington and Brussels to drive home their rage to the powers that be.These protests across Western countries have all emerged as a direct response to the so-called “truckers convoy” protests that have caused chaos in Ottawa, the Canadian capital, for two weeks. Initially mobilised in opposition to 14-day quarantine rules impacting unvaccinated truckers crossing the US-Canada border, the protests were swiftly co-opted by various anti-vax, alt-right and other anti-establishment movements as a generalised expression of rage against the government and its coronavirus regulations. READ: WTF is going on with the anti-vax “freedom convoy” in Canada?Now, experts say that the protests have become a cause célèbre for the so-called “freedom” movements worldwide – the ragtag, increasingly radical milieu of conspiracy theorist, anti-lockdown, and anti-vax movements that has emerged in response to coronavirus restrictions during the pandemic. The protests resulted in a wave of expressions of international solidarity, donations, and now a string of copycats has been sparked by the scenes in Ottawa.
The copycat movements appeared to be strongest so far in Europe and the United States, where there were plans being made for regional convoys to descend on Brussels – the capital of Belgium and the administrative centre of the EU – and Washington, respectively.In Europe, the convoy was being coordinated in what O’Connor described as “quite a sophisticated Telegram operation,” centred around a Telegram channel with more than 50,000 members. Users were encouraged to join channels for their individual country to organise national convoys that would converge on Brussels on Monday, the 14th of February.A graphic promoting the proposed event, featuring the flags of European Union and Canada, states that the protest is “not about vax or anti-vax, it is about the people’s right to choose.” “This is not about politics, it is about the freedom of the human race,” it states. “All convoys will arrive in Brussels to demand an end to tyrannical rules.”On Thursday, French police announced a ban on protest convoys from entering Paris, following reports that convoys of vehicles had already left half a dozen French cities intending to block roads in the capital from Friday, before moving on to Brussels on Monday.Footage has also circulated online purporting to show a group of trucks gathered in an unspecified European city, en route, the poster claimed, to the protest in Brussels.
Meanwhile, in the UK, plans are being circulated for a “second wave” of convoy protests to descend on the capital on Monday, following an initial protest the previous Monday. That effort was seen as underwhelming – with attendees complaining on Telegram that virtually no one was there – until a group of hardliners surrounded Labour leader Starmer late in the day, angrily spouting misinformation that he had “protected” a notorious paedophile in his previous role as director of public prosecutions.
That incident dominated the news cycle for days, media coverage that some anti-vaxxers celebrated as being like “gold dust,” despite the universal public condemnation of the protesters.Misinformation analysts monitoring the so-called “freedom convoy” movements say the concept has generated so much excitement in the global COVID conspiracist scene in part, due to the “spectacle” of the Ottawa protests, said Joe Ondrak, the head of investigation for Logically, a tech company that combats online disinformation.Ciarán O’Connor, an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue who monitors COVID misinformation, agreed.“I think the possibility of causing mass disruption with a large-scale convoy or occupation at the HQ of political power is quite appealing to these groups,” he said.
The rapid emergence of copycat protests was also a symptom of the deeply interconnected nature of the so-called “freedom” movements internationally, especially in the echo chambers of the encrypted messaging app Telegram, where content – messages of solidarity, footage from Ottawa, COVID misinformation – was constantly shared between channels to swiftly reach huge audiences.
“The groups promoting and encouraging these protests have been developed for close to two years, and are the result of COVID protest groups across the world who have become highly networked,” said O’Connor.He said that amplification of the cause by US right-wing or far-right politicians and influencers with a massive online reach had also played a pivotal role.O’Connor said there were also concerning indications in US networks that plans were developing for a convoy to descend on Washington. He said that given the high passions behind the campaign, the involvement of extremist figures, and the prevalence of conspiracy theories and misinformation in the networks, he saw growing parallels with the buildup to the US Capitol riots on the 6th of January, 2021 “that can’t be ignored.”“I think political officials, law enforcement, social platforms and wider society must remain vigilant,” he said.
The ongoing protests in Australia and New Zealand are also dominating news headlines there. “This is unprecedented for New Zealand,” Superintendent Corrie Parnell, the New Zealand police’s Wellington district commander told a press conference on Thursday evening. “We've never had an occupation of [this] scale.”
Both O’Connor and Ondrak said that so far, it seemed that the protests appeared to be growing largely organically – unlike a wave of anti-lockdown demonstrations that were seeded by a German COVID conspiracy group last year.However, suspicious social media activity has been detected around some protests. Australia’s Crikey news website reported that some Facebook accounts with fake pictures of non-existent people had created Facebook groups for the Convoy to Canberra protest.O’Connor said that the rapid emergence of the global “freedom convoys” offered a concerning glimpse of the future of the evolving COVID protest movement, which would be characterised by “transnational movements empowered by various anti-government, anti-vaccine, conspiracy-minded and extremist ideologies finding common cause with each other” through social media.“This really is the future of COVID protest mobilisation,” he said.