Protests dogging Trudeau on the campaign trail are being loosely organized online

Canadians are seeing a very different type of political protest during this federal election campaign — a type organized largely online, through various social media platforms.

Observers say they don't see any centralized group driving the protests

A protester yells at Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau as he makes his way to a motorcade in Surrey, B.C., on Wednesday, Aug 25, 2021. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

It's something almost as old as elections themselves.

Demonstrators show up at political leaders election campaign events, chanting and holding signs. Often, the protests are organized by existing interest groups or political opponents. While they make a lot of noise, they are predictable.

But many of the protests following Prime Minister Justin Trudeau around during in this election don't fit that pattern. Their organization is more ad hoc, with protesters sharing information on a wide variety of social media platforms about Trudeau's whereabouts.

The protests themselves feature a more palpable level of anger and the use of language more obscene than is typical of political protests — and are often fuelled by what participants have been reading online about COVID-19, vaccines and pandemic-driven restrictions on economic activity and personal liberties.

Political but non-partisan?

And the protesters don't appear to be acting on behalf of any particular political party. At a rowdy demonstration in Bolton, Ont. on Friday, two supporters of Conservative candidate Kyle Seeback showed up in t-shirts with the Conservative Party logo — only to be disavowed by Seeback and Conservative Party Leader Erin O'Toole.

At the protest that greeted Trudeau in Sudbury on Tuesday, one demonstrator could be seen with a People's Party of Canada sweatshirt tied around her hips.

A group on the Telegram social media platform called Fighting For Our Children, which had been actively sharing information about Trudeau's events, attracted more than 500 subscribers but appears to have shut down after it was mentioned in a news report. Another group with the same name, but with only a few dozen subscribers, has switched to 'private' status.

Telegram isn't the only platform being used by protesters to exchange information on Trudeau's travels.

'Give him the welcome he deserves'

The fact that Trudeau was going to be in Sudbury on Tuesday was posted on Twitter as early as the evening before — even though his agenda had not been made public.

One demonstrator said they heard early Tuesday morning from a source at the airport that Trudeau would be there.

"We got on Facebook and spread the news to all the patriots," he said.

Protesters wait for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau to arrive at a campaign event in Bolton, Ont. on Friday, August 27, 2021. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Another protester, Daphne Donaldson, said in a video she posted to Facebook that she learned Tuesday morning that Trudeau would be in Sudbury and decided to "give him the welcome he deserves."

Donaldson told viewers her concerns centre on matters of personal liberty and being able to choose whether to get vaccinated.

"We're fighting for our freedom," she told viewers in the video, broadcast from the side of the road where protesters were waiting for Trudeau's motorcade. "This vax pass cannot go through."

Sometimes the protesters are informed of Trudeau's whereabouts by people like Chris Saccoccia, whose Chris Sky Twitter account has more than 92,000 followers. On Sunday, for example, he retweeted a post saying where Trudeau's event in Cambridge, Ontario would be held. In her video, Donaldson quotes his call for "united non-compliance."

No signs of 'primary organizers'

Experts who monitor what is happening online say they are seeing people sharing information on various social media platforms about where Trudeau will be, but they aren't seeing signs of central organization.

Elizabeth Simons, deputy director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, said there doesn't appear to be a single organizing force behind the online activity driving the protests.

"There are lots of Telegram groups sharing protest information but none that we've seen which are primary organizers," she said.

And Trudeau isn't the only target, she said, pointing out that plans to protest at the homes of Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce were also circulating in Telegram groups.

Barbara Perry, director of Ontario Tech University's Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism, said the online activity that is leading to real-time protests is another sign of increased coalition-building on the right.

"The anti-Trudeau folks seem to be a very loose collective of anti-statists, anti-vaxxers, etc., as well as right-wing adherents who are exploiting their own anxieties to swell their own ranks," Perry wrote in an e-mail. "Consequently, they are mobilizing across mainstream and fringe platforms on pages associated with a diverse array of "believers."

At McGill University, Mathieu Lavigne of the Media Ecosystem Observatory said he's also not seeing a centralized organization for the protests.

"We have been closely following the conspiracy theories behind these protests but do not have detailed information about the specific individuals or groups that have organized these protests at the moment," he said. "Given the number of people participating, we suspect that some of this organization might occur in private groups or forums."

Liberal leader discusses how he is dealing with angry anti-vaccination protesters at his public events.

2 years ago
Duration 2:41
Justin Trudeau spoke with reporters after the Liberal Party's platform launch in downtown Toronto on Wednesday.

Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca


Elizabeth Thompson

Senior reporter

Award-winning reporter Elizabeth Thompson covers Parliament Hill. A veteran of the Montreal Gazette, Sun Media and iPolitics, she currently works with the CBC's Ottawa bureau, specializing in investigative reporting and data journalism. She can be reached at: elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca.

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