Convoy to Canberra protest/Facebook account claiming to be based in Bangladesh (Images: Supplied/Facebook)

As the Australian Federal Police sound the alarm bells about an increase in foreign interference in the lead-up to this year’s election, there’s new evidence about the foreign involvement in the promotion of the anti-vaccine, anti-government Convoy to Canberra protests and, simultaneously, the involvement of Australians in protests in Canada. 

Last week Crikey reported that Facebook groups being used to organise and promote the Convoy to Canberra protests were being run by what appeared to be fake or international users, including an account using an AI-generated face and an account run from Bangladesh.

Since then, another Facebook group for the Canberra event has changed hands from an anonymous “Freedom Convoy 2022 Truckers” account to a seemingly real Facebook account belonging to be a Bangladeshi teacher, Md Saiful Islam, who did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, another convoy Facebook account group previously linked by Crikey to a Bangladeshi Facebook account has been removed. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, has been asked for comment.

Why are Bangladeshi accounts involved?

Late last week, reporters at Grid, a US online publication, were able to link a Bangladeshi digital marketing firm to the two biggest Facebook groups related to the Canadian Freedom convoy. They confirmed with the founder of the firm, Jakir Saikot, that he was behind the “Freedom Convoy 2022” and “Convoy to Ottawa 2022” groups, which had more than 170,000 members between them.

“In an interview with Grid after this story first published, Ahasan said Saikot told him he charged the equivalent of $23 per day to promote Facebook pages with hundreds of thousands of followers, and indicated that he worked with organisers of the protests in Canada on the Freedom Convoy Facebook groups,” they wrote.

Harvard Shorenstein Centre director Joan Donovan explained to NBC News that there’s a thriving industry of people seeing “Nick” accounts, which are real-seeming Facebook accounts that run high-profile, engaged groups.

Their customers buy these accounts for everything from promoting scam links, merchandise, or even executing a foreign influence campaign.

“When we see really effective disinformation campaigns, it’s when financial and political motives align,” she said.

Crikey has been unable to link either Bangladeshi Facebook accounts to any organised efforts. Despite being run by seemingly international accounts, these Convoy to Canberra Facebook groups appear to be filled with Australian protesters and supporters, some of whom have even noticed the international administrators behind the groups.

Australians funding the Canadian protests 

New data has emerged that also shows how Australians are contributing to international protests.

Christian fundraising website GiveSendGo emerged as an alternative platform to GoFundMe after the latter site froze and then refunded millions of dollars in donations intended for the Canadian convoy protests.

On Monday Australian time, GiveSendGo’s website was hacked and a dataset containing the private details of those who had donated more than US$8.3 million to the protest was released online.

Crikey’s analysis of this data reveals that 588 donors contributing US$33,734 identified themselves as residing in Australia. This makes Australians the fourth biggest contributors to the Canadian convoy fundraiser after the US, Canada, and the UK. 

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned last week about the impact of “foreign money to fund this illegal activity”. He has since declared a state of emergency citing “illegal obstruction” by protesters who have been “occupying streets, harassing people, breaking the law”.

This donation data shows how Australians are playing their part in funding and participating in global misinformation movements undermining faith in vaccines and governments.