Vaccines, the Super Bowl, and Microwaved Brains: How Americans Caught ‘Freedom Convoy’ Fever

Vaccines, the Super Bowl, and Microwaved Brains: How Americans Caught ‘Freedom Convoy’ Fever
Photo: Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP, AP

A burgeoning effort to replicate Canada’s “Freedom Convoy” protest here in the United States shows every sign of becoming mired in dysfunction, as adherents of diverging conspiracy theories struggle to find common cause to ignite their own nationwide trucker-themed movement.

Calls to stage a protest Sunday at the Super Bowl in Inglewood, California, for example, were met with mixed reactions throughout the week, as Americans hoping to siphon off momentum from their vaccine-mandate-opposed neighbours to the north clashed in a host of right-wing forums over, quite literally, which direction they should go.

“I have a bad feeling about Super Bowl. I feel something really big is going to happen and truckers are going to get the blame. Something is brewing up over there in Cali,” a user in the Freedom Convoy’s largest Telegram channel wrote Wednesday.

Many others agreed: “What are you guys thinking? What’s the goal? Super Bowl is over in a week. So what does it accomplish? How do you prove anything? Who is running this show?”

But for practically every naysayer, there came another user strongly in favour of disrupting the country’s biggest sporting event — presumably with the help of what is so far a theoretical convoy of semi-tractor-trailers, blockading major roads around SoFi Stadium, where the Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals face-off at 10:30 am AEDT this Monday.

What began as an uproar over the strict COVID-19 protocols required to enter the stadium — proof of vaccination or a negative PCR or antigen test within 48 or 24 hours of the game, respectively — promptly took a series of wrong turns down the labyrinth of innumerable right-wing grievances. To the most conspiracy-addled denizens of the Telegram fever swamps, a ticket to the big game was practically a mark of the beast; evidence of obscene wealth or political clout that placed holders squarely in league with the sinister elites.

For a sizeable contingent of QAnon promoters, who believe Democrats and Hollywood celebrities are members of a planet-spanning cabal of pedophilic Satanists, the vaccine eventually took on secondary importance. The objective of a Super Bowl convoy would, instead, be unveiling the game’s true purpose: to distract the public’s attention from the existence of said conspiracy, or to provide cover for a child sex-trafficking operation underway somewhere in the deep bowels of the stadium. (The question of why, precisely, the pedophilic Satanists would host their unspeakable rites at the site of a massive public gathering is a logic pretzel best left twisted.)

“Trump said the Super Bowl would be a puppy bowl to what is coming,” wrote one user. “I have seen the evil acts of the deep state/satanic worship rituals. God will rescue us. Please pray for the children.”

“The Super Bowl is only a cover for little children to be sex trafficked,” wrote another. “Yes, shut it down! And save the children!”

Dark Social Media

Mentions of the Freedom Convoy have spiked by more than 8,600% in the past 30 days across a range of far-right digital conclaves catering to fringe and extremist beliefs, according to Pyrra, a threat detection company that uses natural language processing trained on hate speech and disinformation.

“These mentions were primarily on 8kun, but also appeared frequently on KiwiFarms, Minds, Gab, and GreatAwakening,” says a report shared with Gizmodo on Friday. (8kun, a site synonymous with child abuse content and flagrant neo-Nazism, was made infamous by a former user from Texas who gunned down 23 people in 2019.)

The location of people posting with these forums appears to be widespread, with Facebook groups ostensibly dedicated to the truckers’ cause drawing in tens of thousands of users. Among the most popular pages — some of which Facebook has removed — are several linked to a digital marketing firm in Bangladesh, according to an investigation by Grid.

Posts referencing the convoy across what the company calls “dark social media” came from more than 37,000 users. Of the more than 258,000 posts that Pyrra analysed, roughly 2.6% — or more than 6,700 posts — were flagged as “highly violent.”

Comparatively, users interested in blockading the Super Bowl appear slightly less prone to violent speech. The same analysis ran against more than 4,300 posts related to both the convoy and the NFL — a trend which Pyrra says has spiked by more than 1,400% in the past month — found only 58 “highly violent” posts.

According to Welton Chang, Pyrra’s co-founder and CEO, it was the rapid growth of the “trucker” channels that initially piqued his company’s interest. Organisers, he says, relied on what is now a standard audience-building tactic, leveraging Facebook’s reach to gather followers for nascent channels; what Chang calls the “Facebook to Telegram highway.”

“We continued to track the conversations as different extremist elements, including some propagating QAnon content, 5G conspiracy and 9-11 hoax theories started to put their fingerprints on the trucker brand,” Chang said. “What alarmed us was the use of violent language and threats, which is what our AI is set up to detect. This, despite the best efforts of others in the channel who wanted nothing to do with violence.”

Real Truckers, Real Problems

The trucker protests, which began in earnest on Jan. 29, have had a significant impact on daily life in the Canadian capital of Ottawa, where uninvolved residents have reported feeling trapped in a proverbial nightmare — “a never-ending tailgate party,” as one Toronto reporter put it.

On Friday morning, Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, declared a state of emergency, following Ottawa earlier this week. At a press conference, Premier Doug Ford said promised to “urgently enact orders” to prevent the protesters from blocking the movement of “goods, people, and services along critical infrastructure.”

“This will include protecting international border crossings, 400-series highways, airports, ports, bridges and railways. It will also include protecting the safe and essential movement of ambulatory and medical services, public transit, municipal and provincial roadways, as well as pedestrian walkways,” Ford said.

The decision follows announcements from several major automakers, including Ford, GM, and Toyota, which have reported parts shortages that the automakers say have led to shorter shifts, and may result in layoffs. By Wednesday, Ford had already halted production at an engine plant on the Canadian side of the border, citing a trucker blockade along the Billionaire-owned Ambassador Bridge, a key passage between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, responsible for some 27% of all U.S.-Canadian trade.

The Ontario Superior Court of Justice on Friday afternoon heard a request for an injunction to remove the protesters from the Ambassador Bridge. The court order, considered by Chief Justice G.B. Morawetz, was sought by the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, with support by the City of Windsor and the attorney general of Ontario. If the injunction is granted, according to the Toronto Star, police could begin forcing protesters off the bridge as soon as later on Friday.

Coverage of the events in the U.S. by right-wing media personalities, firmly opposed to the public health measures aimed at curbing the spread of the virus, is largely aspirational.

“So far, that blockade has forced the Ford Motor Company to shut down one of its manufacturing plants and to operate another plant with a skeleton crew,” Fox News host Tucker Carlson said Thursday, framing the economic sabotage as “the single most successful human rights protest in a generation.”

Major blocks of airtime on the network have been dedicated to praising the truckers clogging the border, its hosts barely disguising their hopes that some iteration of the protests soon erupt in the U.S. An array of grifters and provocateurs have emerged as the convoy’s biggest proponents, among them Pizzagate promoter Jack Posobiec, far-right pundit Candace Owens, and Wendy Rogers, a state senator and Oath Keepers member from Arizona, who backed the hoax audit of votes out in Maricopa County.

Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, echoed support for the Ottawan truckers. “I hope the truckers do come to America,” he told the Daily Signal this week, adding: “I hope they clog up cities.” What purpose this would serve is unclear. American truckers whose routes do not cross the international boundaries face virtually no vaccine requirements. And despite the best efforts of some to ignite a similar protest inside the U.S., it’s unknown how many actual truck drivers would be interested in losing wages to join the effort.

But the trucker-themed protests do appear to offer Carlson and the rest something they sorely need at a time when their identities have become inexorably linked to conspiracist ideation and white ethnocentrism, among other fringe beliefs — an opportunity to once again rebrand themselves as champions of the working class Joe.

An Epic Backfire

“Football has nothing to do w/ COVID, Trafficking, Slavery. You are going to ruin countless Superbowl Parties,” a member of the Freedom Convoy’s Telegram channel wrote Wednesday, one of many trying to divert focus away from the game.

“You’re gonna piss off the fans… You’re gonna piss off the players… You’re gonna piss off the entire league… You’re gonna get sued from the Sponsors… You’re gonna get sued by the NFL…. You’re gonna get NO LOVE from the media… You’re gonna tank the cause…It’ll be an EPIC BACKFIRE,” they continued.

Among the throngs of users in the now dozens of channels dedicated to the Freedom Convoy — one, at least, for every state in the union — discussions of where to stage the first protest on U.S. soil frequently cascade into a ceaseless chorus of disputes. Coalitions form suddenly to amass thousands of followers and vanish just as fast. One group that garnered thousands of users bent on sending a convoy of truckers from Ottawa to Washington, DC, seemingly folded on itself within a matter of days. “Big news is coming,” the admins promised, before rebranding the page with more generic goals and going radio silent.

“DC is dead. We are a republic. Head to Super Bowl first, then disperse to state capitals, targeting those with unlawful mandates & voter fraud first. We need our country back and fair elections,” another Telegram user wrote Thursday, part of a smaller contingent of MAGA followers working to inject 2020 election fraud conspiracies into the flailing movement’s repertoire.

“Here is what I think,” wrote another. “Shut it all down,” they said, referring to roughly 11,265 km of the U.S. border. “Put 1,000-5,000 trucks at every single commercial crossing in the southern and northern states. Close Mexico and Canada.” Similarly, another individual or group, calling themselves Truckers for Christ, Children, and Country, made its pitch on Telegram, promising to position truckers at what it called “Strategic Locations,” welcoming anyone willing to serve on “our Border.”

A post Friday by TruckersForFreedom, which has amassed an impressive 81,000 Telegram subscribers and more than 51,000 followers on Gettr, blasted its own U.S. followers for “lack[ing] the balls to descend on DC.” By Friday, the account had turned part of its focus to promoting 5G-coronavirus conspiracy theories, which claim cell towers are, somehow, responsible for propagating the virus.

“They’re micro-waving people’s brains,” one user wrote, responding to a TruckersForFreedom post promising a “very lucrative work from home partnership” with an Oregon-based company that sells “anti-radiation stickers” for mobile phones.

The Super Bowl Myth

News would break late Wednesday that the Department of Homeland Security had begun eyeing rumours online of U.S.-based activity connected to the convoy. The agency is “tracking reports,” an official told Gizmodo. Potential convoys headed not only to the Super Bowl, but “several U.S. cities,” they said, have piqued the agency’s interest.

“Tracking reports” is often code for “reading the news.” Where protests are concerned, the optics of even appearing to surveil Americans engaged in First Amendment activities often leads DHS to generate bulletins based solely on news articles and social media chatter. The bulletins are rushed out along a network of counterterrorism offices founded in the wake of 9/11 to enhance intelligence-sharing with state and local partners.

The reliance on publicly reported details often forms a kind of feedback loop in the media, wherein journalists end up reporting on DHS’s interest in information, for which the journalists themselves are the source.

But as the Super Bowl nears, it remains unclear who, if anyone, will show up to try and shut it down. For virtually every user promoting the idea, another stands adamantly opposed. “Shutting down the Super Bowl isn’t a good plan. When the Super Bowl is over there’s no reason to be there anymore,” one Telegram user argued Friday, believing it would only anger a majority of Americans, and sour them on the group’s multifarious cause.

Few seem truly aware of the vast amount of military and law enforcement resources diverted to protect the event. DHS alone is sending 500 personnel. The FBI and its SWAT teams have been on the ground for over a week. Threats to the game, which generates billions upon billions of dollars each year, face the might of a literal army armed with machine guns and armoured vehicles, K-9 units, snipers, and Black Hawk helicopters. Those are just the defence you see.

“The superbowl shut-down is very important, if you don’t know why, then ask why,” another user said, punctuated by the well-worn Qanon hashtag: #savethechildren.

The myth that the Super Bowl is the “largest sex trafficking event” in the world has persisted for years, but many of the organisations dedicated to working with sex-trafficking victims and survivors say the title is largely undeserved. “There is no evidence that a huge influx of traffickers descend on the host city or that human trafficking happens at greater rates during the Super Bowl,” writes Freedom Network USA, a human-rights group fighting human trafficking in the U.S. Despite this, there is an annual rush to muster law enforcement resources to hunt down the traffickers working the game, even though prosecutions are few and far between. This year, some of the nation’s largest banks have pledged their support to help and stamp out the scourge.

Sex workers, meanwhile, say the campaigns often lead to increased targeting of women who are not victims of trafficking but consensually offering sexual services by choice or financial need. “The media coverage and increased police presence certainly leads to more arrests, but few lead to human trafficking prosecutions,” Freedom Network USA adds, noting that resources would be better spent identifying survivors the rest of the year, and tackling the root causes that leave people vulnerable to trafficking in the first place.

Polaris, which operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline, notes that while the Super Bowl has been used “as the impetus” to raise awareness of the issue, traffickers of young children and others forced to sell sex are just as likely to be found “at motorcycle rallies in South Dakota, in the fields of Florida, in gangs in California, and in brothels in Washington, DC.” It goes on to note that the criminals operating within the multi-billion dollar underground industry are “savvy businessmen,” aware of the deluge of resources poured into policing the game.

It is in this light that some experts tend to cast a pall on the efforts, arguing that the enduring myth serves not so much the victims of trafficking, but the NFL itself and the cities that host it. It is invariably a fly-by-night operation, offering a veneer of social responsibility with fleeting resources no sooner there than gone.

More cynically, it is a perpetually lapsing cause of the week, ignoring countless other victims across the country. Their only failing? Having the misfortune not to be forced into sexual servitude within range of a football stadium.