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Follow the Leader: Tracking the People’s Convoy Online

Follow the Leader: Tracking the People’s Convoy Online

In early-to-mid February 2022, the initial plans for a U.S. anti-vaccine mandate trucker convoy were sprawling and vague. But weeks later, just as the Canadian trucker convoy’s occupation of downtown Ottawa was coming to a close, several conflicting U.S. convoy routes and maps began circulating on social media. Across the country, disparate groups of willing organizers with a range of locations and agendas made it difficult for anyone to determine whose plan was the most likely to be carried out.

However, as several right-leaning news outlets began to discuss the likelihood of a “copycat” convoy in the U.S., the most organized routes and plans became clearer. On February 23, The People’s Convoy – largely considered the “main” convoy in the United States – departed from its initial meetup location in Adelanto, California with plans to end up in the D.C. area. What they intended to do when they arrived near D.C. never became too well-defined, but their official demands did: To persuade the U.S. government to lift all COVID-19 related vaccine mandates and rescind the national public health emergency that was put in place due to the ongoing pandemic.

Who are “The People?”

Anti-mandate groups in both Canada and the United States often claim that they promote a bipartisan or even nonpartisan cause, with messaging centered around defeating “tyrannical” government overreach and reclaiming “bodily autonomy.” Of course, much of their arguments are also accompanied by anti-leftist discourse, Trump flags, medical misinformation, and religious, Christian rituals – all of which are commonly espoused by the American far right. For this reason, convoy support grew increasingly popular among far-right social media users throughout the months of February and March. There have since been documented links between convoy supporters and members of far-right extremist groups, including the Proud Boys and QAnon.

Attendees of the People’s Convoy in Monrovia, Indiana hold hands and bow their heads in prayer. Image source: screenshot of a March 2 convoy livestream.

Leigh Dundas, an anti-vax attorney who also appeared at the Capitol riots on January 6, was still hailed as a major voice of the People’s Convoy in early March. However, on March 3, convoy organizers announced on Telegram that they were distancing themselves from Dundas. The alleged reasons behind this separation vary depending on the source, including Dundas herself. But a recent fraud scandal involving the American Foundation for Civil Liberties and Freedom (AFCLF) – the organization through which the People’s Convoy donations are collected – may have something to do with the split, as AFCLF president Christopher Marston had joined forces with Dundas to push the U.S. anti-mandate agenda. Since then, the main voice of the convoy has been trucker and anti-mandate advocate Brian Brase, who has appeared on right-wing television programs such as Tucker Carlson. The somewhat sudden shift in leadership roles, as well as the ethically questionable histories of both Dundas and the AFCLF, speak to the messy nature of the initiative overall. These factors also explain the confusion that researchers, journalists, and even convoy supporters experienced in late February/early March while determining who was going to organize these demonstrations and how.

Routes, Maps, and Misunderstandings

There has been a notable amount of public misunderstanding surrounding the U.S. convoys, partially due to the movement being inherently decentralized, but also due to conflicting media coverage early on. In late February, for example, Maryland gubernatorial candidate Kyle Sefcik announced on Instagram that his convoy, Freedom Convoy USA, would be absorbed into the People’s Convoy after attempts to get it off the ground ultimately failed. Still, he held a demonstration at the National Mall in DC on March 1, which only attracted a few attendees, most of which were journalists. Following this incident, media outlets were quick to cast aside the idea that a U.S. convoy could materialize, in many cases painting it as an embarrassing flop. However, the People’s Convoy was still very much in motion at the time, holding a large rally at one of their overnight locations in Monrovia, Indiana on March 2. 

The Role of Social Media

While social networking has been important for convoy updates, the strategy hasn’t been particularly streamlined. Twitter user and researcher Streets4Dreamin, who has been following the convoy closely but wishes to remain anonymous, says that a wide array of platforms have been used by organizers, attendees, and supporters in the past several weeks. These include Zello, Facebook, Telegram, Gab, YouTube, Gettr, Instagram, TikTok, Rumble, and Twitch. But Streets4Dreamin acknowledges that the range of options through which participants communicate, as well as the constant ebb and flow of new anonymous users, has made it “hard to tell who is a sincere poster and who is a troll, and what is/isn’t misinformation.”

The relatively uncensored Telegram channels and chats dedicated to convoy planning boast a plethora of conspiratorial content, ranging from election fraud theories and vaccine misinformation to blatant QAnon tropes.

Still, a glimpse into some of these public yet esoteric networks gives us an idea of the potentially radicalizing content that an everyday user might come across while trying to obtain convoy information. The relatively uncensored Telegram channels and chats dedicated to convoy planning – which, at first, were so numerous that most could not discern which was an “official” channel or not – boast a plethora of conspiratorial content, ranging from election fraud theories and vaccine misinformation to blatant QAnon tropes. Users also use these spaces to share news stories from around the world, and while that may seem unrelated to domestic movements, it has had a meaningful effect on the attitudes of supporters. For example, the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24 did not sit well with many on far-right social media, generating suspicions that false flag operations or crisis actors were set up deliberately to distract from the convoy, which had officially embarked on their journey just a day beforehand. As evidenced by the messages below from convoy-centric Telegram channels, it’s possible that this diversion of attention from convoy news contributed to attendees’ emboldened attitudes later on as they competed for media coverage.

Screenshots from a Telegram chat group about the convoy

While a typical protest may occur in a fixed place on a fixed day, the People’s Convoy has been going on for several weeks, as was the case for Canada-based convoys. For this reason, livestreaming has become an integral part of how supporters, journalists, and researchers alike are able to keep up with the convoy’s activities. As the movement gained traction both on and offline throughout the first week of March, a handful of attendees – who often describe themselves as independent journalists – started more consistently broadcasting the nightly rallies that occurred at the convoy’s overnight locations. From alternative sites like Rumble to extremely mainstream and accessible sites like YouTube, daily viewer counts increased from the hundreds to the thousands.

How do social media companies thwart this harmful rhetoric when it’s a constantly moving, real-time target?

There is something to be said about the participatory experience for viewers, as well as what this means for the future of similar movements. Streets4Democracy agrees, saying “the fact that so many people can ‘participate’, live, from their homes, seems significant.” Of course, the streams don’t only broadcast the nightly meetings from Brase or the activities of the drivers. They also include rants from the streamers themselves, who frequently criticize the government, spread unfounded conspiracy theories, and exchange hateful discourse about the left. This raises some important questions about tech’s role in moderating content, particularly when it comes to the live dissemination of misinformation and disinformation on their platforms: How do social media companies thwart this harmful rhetoric when it’s a constantly moving, real-time target? 

“It’s very interesting to watch, because to me it’s unprecedented to see play out live,” says Amanda Moore, an activist who spent a year undercover in MAGA groups for research and frequents the DC area. Moore’s first-hand experience with those who oppose COVID-19 safety measures, as well as her vested interest in being able to travel in and around DC safely, has sparked her interest in keeping up with the convoy. Yet she notes something familiar about attendees’ paranoia over social media censorship: “Truck streamers constantly complain about people bringing up the vaccine and medical disinformation because they're worried about their streams being taken down, since they’re still on mainstream platforms,” says Moore. “It’s something I haven’t seen in a really long time.” 

Altercations, Meetings, and Demands

On March 4, attendees of the People’s Convoy arrived in Maryland at their final staging area: The Hagerstown Speedway, where they’ve been staying ever since. While their gathering has mostly been without incident, a livestream from March 5 showed far-right activists Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman being removed from the location after they urged the crowd to move out of Hagerstown, alleging that the protest had “stagnated”. After their removal, some attendees posited that Wohl and Burkman were actually working for the “deep state” as plants assigned to incite violence and discredit the movement. This is not unlike what occurred in the aftermath of January 6, when many on the right accused those who stormed the Capitol of being Antifa infiltrators. 

However, Brase has urged attendees to be patient and to trust that the organizers would take meaningful action, which he has attempted to carry out in the form of political discourse. On March 8, several convoy organizers and attendees met with politicians such as Ted Cruz, Ron Johnson, and Marjorie Taylor Greene to discuss their demands and what could be done at the government level. While they were generally all in agreement about the mandates, the overwhelming response to convoy members was that they should use their voice to vote in the upcoming elections. Two days later on March 10, Ted Cruz visited and spoke to the crowd at Hagerstown, then rode with a truck into DC to speak in front of the Capitol building. The event, of course, was livestreamed on multiple platforms.

Although there has not yet been any notable violence from convoy attendees, their calls-to-action continue to be cryptic and ever-evolving, sometimes advocating for going into DC, and other times warning against it. It must be recognized that potential disruptions caused by traffic jams, car accidents, and arguments between participants and regular commuters should be reason enough for authorities to take the convoy seriously.

Where It Stands

For the first week or so after arriving in Hagerstown, attendees had been riding their convoy around the Beltway, seeming to be in good spirits. But shortly after Cruz’s visit, inclement weather and increasing paranoia over federal infiltration seemed to lower morale and trust. Concerns about the legitimacy of convoy donations continued to make the rounds on live streams and Telegram chats. Notably, organizers apparently applied for a permit to demonstrate in downtown DC, but the permit was partially denied due to already-scheduled conflicting events. With this, attendees were left wondering what the end-game would be and if they would mobilize in a more salient way.

But on March 14, the convoy rode again, and for the first time drove closer to DC on I-395 past landmarks like the Washington Monument. Police blockades to downtown, combined with the convoy itself, led to traffic jams and altercations with commuters. Back at Hagerstown, however, the attention provided attendees with a renewed sense of purpose. At the time of this writing on March 17, there is still no clear end in sight as the most enthusiastic and available participants of the People’s Convoy remain faithful to the movement and its mission. In a way, the U.S. convoy is doing the same thing physically as they are ideologically: Going around in circles, day after day, chasing a promise of unlikely change that has yet to be honored.

Attendees are finding each other, building friendships, networks, a sense of belonging…they are making connections... They will, I’m sure, stay in touch long after this convoy is over.”

As attendee numbers continue to drop, what follows remains unclear. Still, there is no reason to assume that this all ends with the convoy. What drives the movement, more than anything, is the community of people who keep it alive. Attendees are “finding each other, building friendships, networks, a sense of belonging…they are making connections,” says Streets4Dreamin. “They will, I’m sure, stay in touch long after this convoy is over.” 

Sara Aniano is currently a Communication graduate student at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey. Her primary research interests include QAnon, far-right ideologies, medical misinformation, and extremism on social media. Particularly, she aims to highlight Instagram’s role in the spread of conspiracy theories and its contribution to harmful offline events and violence. 

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