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UPDATE: Social media tools were key to 'Freedom Convoy' protest, expert tells inquiry

The Public Order Emergency Commission is turning its attention to the role of online misinformation as it probes the federal government's use of emergency legislation to dispel protesters.
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The Peace Tower is seen behind police at a gate along Queen Street as they restrict access to the streets around Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022.

Social media acted as the "central nervous system" of the 'Freedom Convoy' protest in Ottawa last winter, the Public Order Emergency Commission heard on Tuesday, Nov. 29 as it considered the role of misinformation in the lead up to the invocation of the Emergencies Act. 

The policy phase this week follows six weeks of fact-finding hearings into the events that led to that decision, which included testimony about online threats and the role social media played in organizing the protest against COVID-19 public health measures. 

Before thousands of trucks started rolling toward Ottawa last January, a loose group of protest organizers communicated mainly over TikTok and Facebook, the commission heard over those weeks of testimony. Many of them had never met in person until the protest began.

"Social media was the central nervous system of the convoy, and exploration of its role crosses numerous domains, such as law, psychology, history, sociology and public policy, to name a few," Emily Laidlaw, the Canada Research Chair in Cybersecurity Law at the University of Calgary, wrote in a report for the commission. 

Social media was used to fundraise, connect organizers and spread their message. It was also used to contrast the accounts of traditional media outlets and provide a different view of what was happening on the ground, Dax D'Orazio, a political scientist and post-doctoral fellow with Queen's University, testified during an expert panel discussion before the commission Tuesday.

"It was a way of creating meaning, finding community and building, eventually, momentum for social and a political movement," he said.

The inquiry is seeking the expert input to bolster its analysis of whether the government was right to use the Emergencies Act in response to protests that took over downtown Ottawa and halted trade at several border crossings.

The expert testimony will inform Commissioner Paul Rouleau's recommendations about how to modernize the Emergencies Act and identify other areas for further study. It will also help him and his team study the impact of the purposeful or inadvertent spread of false information during the protest, which was explicitly written into the commission's mandate.

Experts testified that regulating disinformation is a difficult prospect, especially since it's not illegal to spread falsehoods.

"It's lawful but awful," said Laidlaw during the panel discussion. "For the government to create legislation that targets lawful expression, it likely won't survive constitutional scrutiny."

The experts defined disinformation as the intentional spread of false information, while misinformation was described as people spreading false information that they themselves believe to be true.

It would be difficult to draft laws that distinguish between the two, said Jonathon Penney, a legal scholar at York University. "It's a question of intent," he said. 

The panellists also explored the relationship between extremist views and social media, which can provide an echo chamber that serves to confirm people's existing biases. 

Studies have shown the internet can help entrench extremist values, said Vivek Venkatesh, an education professor at Concordia University.

People who subscribe to extremist views increasingly turn to "fringe media" instead of taking in news from traditional sources, said David Morin, a national security expert with Sherbrook University, who spoke at the panel in French.

He said "self-made journalists" associated with those fringe outlets were present in Ottawa during the convoy protest, and produced "alternative information" for viewers.

For example, Morin said some alternative media sources reported that hundreds of thousands of protesters attended the Ottawa demonstration, when police reports show the true number was far lower. 

The inquiry is on a tight timeline to complete its work, with Rouleau expected to submit final recommendations to Parliament at the beginning of February.

Another panel on the flow of essential goods and services, critical infrastructure and trade corridors was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 29, 2022.

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