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Humans and technology

Online activists are doxxing Ottawa’s anti-vax protesters

Experts warn this is blurring the line between activism and vigilantism.

February 11, 2022
Photograph of protestors in Ottowa Canada.
Photograph of protestors in Ottowa Canada.
Getty images

Over the past few weeks, convoys of truckers and sympathizers protesting vaccination mandates and covid restrictions have cut off Ottawa’s busiest border with the US. The sounds of air and truck horns have filled the air at all hours, to the point where an injunction has been required. Some protesters are camping in parks and various corners of the city and harassing passersby. Their noisy resistance has sparked upcoming copycat events in cities in the US and around the world. 

Many Ottawans have had enough and are now taking things into their own hands. While some are simply compiling crowdsourced maps of the convoy’s hot spots, others have gone further, publishing the faces and names of participants to shame them publicly. In doing so, they are potentially overstepping the line of what is acceptable in online activism and veering into vigilantism, experts warn.

Leo (who asked to use a pseudonym because he fears for his safety after receiving threats) is a cybersecurity professional who lives in the residential neighborhood surrounding Ottawa’s government buildings. On February 2, Leo used Ushahidi, a Kenya-based open-source software mapping tool more commonly used for election monitoring, to set up a crowdsourced site, End the Occupation. His goal was to create a real-time map that Ottawans could use to see where locals had reported being harassed or blocked. 

Leo saw it as a way to combat what he saw as an inadequate response from the local police, who he believes have often sided with the protesters. To publicize the map and get his neighbors to input information, he asked Ottawa city councilor Shawn Menard to share the link on his Twitter feed. 

Menard says he felt it was his duty to do so. “The site shows how residents organizing, supported by technological tools, can allow for powerful knowledge sharing and community crowdsourcing, which paints a larger picture that would normally be reserved for traditional forces such as police,” he says. “I shared it because of a lack of support for Ottawa residents by traditional institutions.”

The project was the focus of quick retaliation. Within hours, the site was flooded with spam. “There were pretty graphic pornographic images, racism, antisemitic material, misogyny,” Leo says. The spam got so prolific that he had to temporarily shut the site down.

Leo’s activity is aimed at warning local residents rather than going after the protesters themselves—and it does not identify specific people. But other activists in Ottawa are taking things further. One site, Convoy Traitors, is using WordPress to host photos of protesters, license plates, company names emblazoned on trucks, to try to figure out who they are. 

“Our mission is to document every business identified as being involved in the 2022 Truckers Convoy occupation of Ottawa,” the site’s mission statement says. “This includes truckers, supporting businesses, hotels, and restaurants. By naming and tagging we hope to ensure that any future internet searches reveals the true nature of these businesses.” (There was no contact information available to request comment.)

Another source, @ottawaconvoyreport on Instagram, has posted photos and reels of people and trucks engaged in possibly illegal behavior. The account is reminiscent of @homegrownterrorists, which used its feed to name and shame  people who participated in the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol. On February 10, @homegrownterrorists, which remains an anonymous account, shared @ottawaconvoyreport’s information on its Instagram stories, suggesting it approved of the approach.

Experts are concerned. What these campaigners are engaging in is borderline doxxing: posting a person’s name and other personal information on the internet, which often invites threats to personal and family safety. 

That can be dangerous, particularly if the internet comes after someone who was misidentified and wrongly accused. It’s also a matter of ethics and intention, says Casey Feisler, an assistant professor of information science at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who studies online communities and ethics. Do we want the person who is driving that truck to get fired and not have an income? Does that solve the injustice a person on the internet may feel?

This new form of online activism is making some people do things they wouldn’t normally do, she adds, and many of those involved may not realize in the moment of their anger that this behavior is not only unethical but illegal.

“What is the difference between public shaming and vigilantism?” she asks. “And what’s the difference between ‘good’ vigilantism and ‘bad’ vigilantism?”

As of Friday, cities as far away as Auckland, New Zealand, were planning to protest their own regional vaccination mandates. It’s not unreasonable to expect similar activist sites to pop up in the coming days. Feisler says people should increasingly ask themselves as they are confronted with the opportunity to dig for someone’s personal information: “What are the potential consequences? And is that really what you want?”

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