We examine the other media properties that, along with the Rebel, make up Canada’s new right new mediasphere and set up a new space of digital political discourse.
In our previous post, we outlined the history and of Rebel Media before analyzing the ways in which they’ve used YouTube (and YouTube has used them) to become a major player within Canadian news media. The Rebel is, far more than any other news source, the go-to place for a daily dose of anti-Trudeau rhetoric, tirades about feminism, and fear-mongering about everything from a carbon tax to the invasion of immigrants from south of the border. Breitbart North, if you will.1 But just as Breitbart was at the centre of what Yochai Benkler calls a “right-wing media ecosystem” in the lead-up to the 2016 American presidential election,2 the Rebel, too, has fellow travellers on the road trip across the Trans-Canada Highway of the new right. Benkler’s thesis is that in the face of an ideological and economic rebellion against traditional news outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post, websites that focused on low-quality yet ideologically-rich news articles like Breitbart and the Daily Caller created a pocket on the right-wing of American political media that was highly referential within itself and pushed itself as an “alternative” to these mainstream media sources. But while Benkler’s “alternative media ecosystem” included major traditional players such as Fox News, there is no media company in Canada–especially on the right–with Murdoch money. This means that the new Canadian right has had to build itself from the bootstraps with online media such as websites and Youtube channels, creating what I’ve termed a sphere of “new right new media”. In this blog post, we’ll outline the three other major players that constitute the core of the Canadian “new right new media”, and then in a follow-up post we’ll work with some data to show how the four together have created a new right media ecosystem in Canada with the traffic, shared issues, and political ties to match.
The Post Millennial is an online-only news property, and the third-most popular website amongst Rebel fans (what I’m terming those who our data3 shows have tweeted to the Rebel at least once since July 1st; the first two are, naturally, the Rebel’s website and the Rebel’s YouTube page). In contrast with the two websites below this post, the Post Millennial doesn’t seem to be masterminded by anyone with a history in party politics — the website’s first founder, Matthew Azrieli, has a web presence that is mostly populated by ephemera related to his music career (with a voice that sounds like a mix between Nick Drake and Bob Dylan), while the second founder, Ali Taghva, had a stint as the president of the Richmond Hill New Democratic Party riding association in 2014 according to his LinkedIn, 4 but has been a Montreal transplant since 2013.
Lest we think that Taghva’s brief NDP fling has any influence on the website’s contents, the Post Millennial’s content is decidedly clickbaity and right-wing in theme. While the website’s “About” page makes no ideological claims beyond “The Canadian government grows in importance every day. This potential for overreach impacts Canadians of every race, ethnicity, and creed,” co-founder Azrieli’s LinkedIn page is a bit more straightforward: while his summary section states that he is the “Founder of The Post Millennial, a moderate centre-right news platform,” his description of the website under his “jobs” tab says that the website he founded is “an online Libertarian [sic] media platform, advocating for small government.”5
The Post Millennial is an interesting case because of this lack of an initial political attachment or agenda — it seems that Taghva and Azrieli were more concerned than anything with building a media platform that makes them money, as opposed to pushing any particular agenda or maintaining their influence in the Venn diagram of Canadian politics and media. This could be the reason the website itself has such a benign name and nonsensical name, as opposed to the rhetorical positioning of the Rebel or the patriotic rhetoric of True North Canada News, below.
This platform positioning, combined with their newness6, has allowed them to enter the scene with relative ease and lack of blowback (although they are beginning to be noticed by Canadian journalists, mostly due to the website publishing pieces from people with clout such as Barbara Kay and Lindsay Shepherd.7
Yet this theory both comes a little late and is a little wrong, as the duo announced the hiring of Jeff Ballingall in May 2019 to be their Chief Marketing Officer.8 Not exactly Stephen Harper, but Ballingall does have explicit ties to the Conservative party: his LinkedIn9 shows a string of parliamentary aide-style gigs with the Harper conservatives, as well as time spent with Sun Media and later as a consultant with the government relations/crisis management firm Navigator, owned by Conservative strategist Jaime Watt.10 He is more recently infamous for founding the Facebook meme page Ontario Proud, which was one of the first experiments in Canadian politics to build the sort of partisan social-media based activism that people think had an effect on the American election. Ontario Proud is credited by some11 for having swung the Ontario premiership election of Doug Ford his way by building a rhetorical memebase of attacks against Kathleen Wynne, Ontario’s much-maligned former three-term Liberal premier.12 Ballingall joining the Post Millennial is an interesting development, as Ontario Proud’s platform reach has only really extended itself to other Facebook pages such as Canada Proud (which, notably, has over 118,000 likes). Ontario Proud’s last website post was November 21 2018; Canada Proud’s was on May 9 2019, which was exactly one day before the Post Millennial announced Ballingall’s joining the company.
While Taghva was quoted as saying that Ballingall has no influence on the editorial direction of the website, the inverse can’t exactly be said:
A few interesting things to note: if Ballingall had a plan, it was set in motion by April. The black bars represent links to the Post Millennial on each of the Facebook pages. The shadowed zeros along the x-axis of each graph emphasize what we’re seeing: not a single link posted from the Post Millennial in any of the 4- to 6-months leading up to Ballingall’s joining the Post Millennial team. Instead, there’s a steady-ish presence from thenectarine.ca, which seems to be linked to Ballingall — one of their final tweets was a retweet of Taghva’s announcement regarding Ballingall.
However, the most recent archived copy of the Nectarine available on the Wayback machine shows us that it was essentially similar in sensationalist, hyperconservative tone to the Post Millennial. And interestingly, the website lists Taghva as the Editor-In-Chief, with no mention of Azrieli. On his LinkedIn, Taghva lists his tenure at the Post Millennial having started in 2017, with the Nectarine starting in April 2018 and lasting until April 2019. So it’s clear that Taghva and Ballingall had some sort of preexisting relationship prior to him joining the Post Millennial — but the exact form of that relationship, and the function of the Nectarine as a short-lived clone of the Post Millennial, isn’t something that can be figured out through the means available.
While the Nectarine is a very intriguing question, it might also be a bugaboo — and the most significant part of the graphs above is the rate at which Ballingall utilized these Facebook pages, with over 400,000 and 180,000 followers respectively, to boost the Post Millennial and create some sort of obscured synergy between these platforms.
“Election Fellow” for the “National Citizens Coalition”, Fernando’s claim to fame is that he seems to have created the #TrudeauMustGo hashtag that he himself is pushing very strongly – and based on our Twitter data, is the anti-Trudeau hashtag that has picked up the most steam (193,000 tweets since we started tracking it on July 15, which is second overall next to #ClimateBarbie, a smear against climate minister Catherine McKenna that has been around since November 201713 and a hashtag that we’ve been tracking for longer). His website, next to the Post Millennial and the Rebel, is the third-most popular alternative media website based on tweeted hostnames between July 1 and September 21, so we can see that he is playing a significant role in Twitter discourses about the election. But who is he?
His website’s About page doesn’t tell us much beyond the fact that he worked a bunch of different jobs (from photography clerk at his dad’s store to the ever-nebulous “policy analyst”) until pulling himself up by the bootstraps and starting one of Canada’s “fastest-growing websites” (direct quote; citation needed; but qualitatively speaking, he doesn’t seem to be far off). It also notes that he is the son of a Trinidadian immigrant father and an Irish mother (whose citizenship status is not detailed). Far from being a resume, however, the website itself is essentially a media property. It publishes stories, all under his own byline, that aren’t necessarily false but present a particular rhetoric through their selectivity (almost every article is a barb at something Trudeau has done, from the reemergence of Gerry Butts to “Why is Trudeau silent on Communist China Concentration Camps?”). Unlike the Rebel and their love for Maxime Bernier, or the “anyone but Trudeau” stance of the Post Millennial, he is firmly in the Andrew Scheer camp, with stories that focus on Scheer’s popularity polling higher than Trudeau, or the Liberals polling behind the Conservative Party. The frame ultimately seems to be a pro-Scheer by way of anti-Trudeau stance.
One has to do a bit more digging than Spencer’s self-reporting in order to get his background, which ends up being quite interesting. Around September 12 2014, he was fired from the Manitoba Progressive Conservative Caucus for a blog post supporting an inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.14 The blog post can be found on the Wayback machine’s snapshot of his blog from December 18 2014, alongside articles making other progressive arguments supporting Pride, ending the war on drugs, and “choosing kindness.” According to his website’s whois records, his domain was registered on July 9 2014 — just two months before his firing from the Manitoba Conservatives. This event seemed to have scared him away from blogging, and there’s no trace of how he spent 2015. But we can track him to a March 2016 article on the CBC that outlines his recent resignation from the role as the chief of staff… of the Manitoba Liberal Party.15 “After dedicating nearly 10 years to political life, I have come to the difficult realization that politics is no longer the career path for me at this time,” he told the CBC. He does not list this role on his LinkedIn page. He also runs a consulting business on a WordPress website that was last updated in August 2016.16
“After dedicating nearly 10 years to political life, I have come to the difficult realization that politics is no longer the career path for me at this time.”Spencer Fernando, 7 March 2016
Fernando seems to have spent the summer of 2016 meditating long and hard on his choice of a career in politics. There is a large gap in the Wayback machine’s copies of his website between March 11 2016 and October 8 2016, but examining the cached copy of the October 8 version, we can see that by then he had burst forth from his journey through the desert of the mind into the desert of the realpolitik. The March archive shows an inactive blog, one whose last post was the aforementioned post about ending the war on drugs from January 27 2015. Visiting October’s archived copy of his website, the first page has headlines that include “Hungary’s PM Compares EU to Soviet Union”, “Venezuela Crisis: Opposition Brands Maduro A Dictator,” “October Surprise: FBI Opens New Probe Into Clinton Emails,” and “Why Is the UK Training Saudi Pilots?”,17 posts that are still available on his blog — while the posts from January 2015 and prior had, naturally, been deleted. If a MMIW inquiry, support for Pride, and an argument for ending the war on drugs was 2014 liberalism bingo, then Hillary Clinton’s emails, anti-EU stances, Venezuelan socialist horror stories, and Saudi terrorist dogwhistling gets the line on the new right card. The summer of 2016 seems to have spawned a libertarian capitalist — there are posts from May supporting a Universal Basic Income, while September 18 saw a post called “Political Lies Won’t Stop. You Must Trust Yourself” that fits into a broader posting and tweeting framework railing against corporate elitism (yet seeing Trump as the manifestation of this, as opposed to Clinton). The first mention of Trudeau on his blog comes from December 6 2016, with a link to an external post entitled “When Will Justin Trudeau Visit Canada?” which paints Trudeau as an elite globalist. A January 3rd post entitled “One Set of Rules for Canada’s Elites, Another for the Rest of Us” — with Trudeau as the header image — is the beginning of the explicit anti-Trudeau bent. He also softened on Trump around this point: In a December 30 2016 post about Trump’s removal of US sanctions against Russia, he claims that “time will tell whether Trump is willing to apply ‘America First’ to Americans he disagrees with” — a much more moderate tone than some of the tweets in the previously-linked search. By February 6 2017, he had begun to sing Trump’s praises.
If summer 2016 was the capitalist coccoon, then spring 2017 is when Fernando became a beautiful Breitbartian butterfly, especially around the May 27 2017 election of Andrew Scheer as the Conservative Party of Canada’s party leader — perhaps due to Scheer’s rhetoric about Canada being run by “Ottawa insiders” matching much of his own feelings about the Liberal party and their elitism. This rhetoric has continued, and it seems to be what has gained him his following — see this follow-count graph that illustrates a spike in followers on February 13 2019, which coincides with former Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould’s testimony that Trudeau tried to pressure her into not prosecuting executives at SNC-Lavalin for corruption charges18 and this video, one of his highest engagement tweets accompanied by ALL CAPS new right grammar calling the SNC-Lavalin scandal a “CORRUPT COVERUP.”
Lest thou question the syrup running through their veins, “TNC” stands for “True North Canada”, and their news website is an offshoot of the True North Centre for Public Policy, a nebulous thinktank/nonprofit/charity/news organization run by Candice Malcolm of Rebel and Sun News fame. Posting on truenorthinitative.com until after January 15 2019, the switch to TNC.news could be out of the desire to make a more palatable and neutral URL. The website also plays host to Anthony Furey, a current columnist for Sun News; Raheed Raza, the author of “Their Jihad… Not My Jihad”; Danny Eisen, cofounder of the Canadian Coalition Against Terror; Andrew Lawton, former Rebel host and widely-published columnist (not just the Sun, in this case) who ran for the London West provincial seat as a Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario candidate in the 2018 election that saw Doug Ford elected (he lost to Peggy Sattler of the NDP19), and others.
While the Rebel started out as a haven for Sun Media personalities, the fact that they deal mostly in video asks for a different skillset than the writing that has buttered Sun Media’s bread. TNC, however, seems to be the place where Sun Media personalities go to write whatever column got spiked by their editors. Other than Lawton, their regular contributors are all known from their time as Sun columnists, as opposed to the Ezra Levant mold of those who earned their six inches based on previous works. Candice herself, while particularly outsized in her influence, falls under this category as well: she’s spent a total of 19 months working in politics itself, 6 months as an aide for Alberta’s Wildrose party in 2011 and then 13 months as Jason Kenney’s press secretary.20 She has also spent time with a bevy of right-wing Canadian think-tanks and policy groups like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, and the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. Her early career mimicks Ezra’s start, with time spent in the same Koch Summer Fellow program and a stint as a student at the Fraser Institute. Her personal network may very well reflect these ties, but her six years as a twice-weekly syndicated columnist for Sun News is probably what most reflects her influence.
Content-wise, the site carries the sheen of decent prose from seasoned opinion columnists — no wire stories pulled off the Canadian Press here, as we saw in the early days of the Post Millennial. Examining the Internet Archive’s cached versions of truenorthinitiative.com, the domain previous to TNC.news, shows more of the same opinioneering as TNC.news, albeit with less frequency. Actually reading the website gets you the average crop of Sun News takes that Gen-Z kids seem to make memes about on Twitter. While our data shows that the site is mildly popular, a slight notch below the Post Millennial and Spencer’s website, it deals with similar issues as the Sun and is not attempting to play along the syntaxes of the “new right new media” in the same way as the remainder of our Canadian alternative media ecosystem.
- To jog your memory (and to know that we’re not making a leap in comparing the two): “Levant has cited Breitbart, the American alt-right news hub, as an inspiration.” In Warnica, Richard. 2017. ‘Inside Rebel Media: How Ezra Levant Built an Extreme Media Juggernaut’. National Post. 18 August 2017. https://nationalpost.com/features/inside-ezra-levants-rebel-media.
- Benkler, Yochai, Rob Faris, and Hal Roberts. 2018. Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics. New York, NY. Oxford University Press: 13.
- We’ve been tracking over 150 keywords and users that relate to Canadian politics on Twitter since July 2019 using the University of Amsterdam’s Twitter Capture and Analysis Toolkit.
- ‘Ali S. Taghva’. n.d. LinkedIn. Accessed 24 July 2019. https://ca.linkedin.com/in/alitaghva.
- ‘Matthew Azrieli’. n.d. LinkedIn. Accessed 24 July 2019. https://ca.linkedin.com/in/matthew-azrieli-428b5669.
- Their whois records show that the website was registered on July 4 2017. ‘Whois Records for the Post Millennial’. Whois.com. 26 July 2019. https://www.whois.com/whois/thepostmillennial.com.
- Shepherd became a poster-girl for free speech issues after she was reprimanded as a Teaching Assistant at Laurier University for playing a Jordan Peterson clip during a tutorial. See Booth, Laura. ‘Who Is Lindsay Shepherd?’ The Waterloo Region Record. 12 December 2017. https://www.therecord.com/news-story/7992232-who-is-lindsay-shepherd-/.
- The Post Millennial. ‘We Have Some Very Exciting News’. Facebook post. 10 May 2019. https://www.facebook.com/ThePostMillennial/posts/811882072519062.
- Jeff Ballingall’. LinkedIn. 26 July 2019. https://ca.linkedin.com/in/jeffballingall.
- His affiliation as a strategist for the party can be found in Watt, Jaime. ‘Sunny Ways For The Conservative Party’. Navigator, Limited. 4 June 2017. https://www.navltd.com/insights/sunny-ways-for-the-conservative-party-watt/. Watt has a long history of working with the Conservative party in these types of roles, dating back to a role as communications director for Mike Harris’ successful Ontario premiership campaign in 1995. He did not last long in the Harris apparatus, however, once his past convictions for defrauding business partners came to light. See Ibbitson, John. ‘The Bruce Carson Affair: Notes on a Scandal That Won’t Stick’. The Globe and Mail. 5 April 2011, sec. Morning Analysis. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/ottawa-notebook/the-bruce-carson-affair-notes-on-a-scandal-that-wont-stick/article613138/.
- Yates, Jeff. ‘Canadian News Site The Post Millennial Blurs Line between Journalism and Conservative “Pamphleteering”’. CBC News. 27 June 2019. https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/the-post-millennial-journalism-conservative-advocacy-1.5191593.
- Gordon, Graeme. ‘The King Of Canadian Conservative Shitposting’. Canadaland. 24 November 2017. https://www.canadalandshow.com/ontario-proud-shitposting-king-jeff-ballingall/.
- DiManno, Rosie. 2017. ‘On “Climate Barbie” and the Art of the Insult’. Toronto Star. 11 July 2017. https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2017/11/07/on-climate-barbie-and-the-art-of-the-insult-dimanno.html.
- Lett, Dan. 2014. ‘Firing Young PC Staffer over Blog Wasn’t Smart’. Winnipeg Free Press. 9 December 2014. https://web.archive.org/web/20170627185536/http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/local/firing-young-pc-staffer-over-blog-wasnt-smart-274860561.html.
- ‘Loss of Chief of Staff “Very Bad” for the Manitoba Liberals, Analyst Says’. 2016. CBC News. 7 March 2016. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/manitoba-liberals-chief-of-staff-spencer-fernando-resigns-1.3479721.
- This is found in the website’s source code. When websites use WordPress templates, the software will usually post the last day the website was updated in the header of the HTML document.
- Many people cope in their own ways after losing a job.
- Harris, Kathleen. ‘Wilson-Raybould Says She Faced Pressure, “Veiled Threats” on SNC-Lavalin; Scheer Calls on PM to Resign’. CBC News. 27 February 2019. https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/wilson-raybould-testifies-justice-committee-1.5035219
- ‘Summary of Valid Votes Cast for Each Candidate’. 2018 Provincial Election. Elections Ontario. 2018. https://www.elections.on.ca/content/dam/NGW/sitecontent/2018/results/officialresults-yellowbook/votescastbycandidate/pdf/Valid%20Votes%20Cast%20for%20Each%20Candidate%20-%202018%20Provincial%20General%20Election.pdf.
- ‘Candice Malcolm’. LinkedIn. 28 July 2019. https://ca.linkedin.com/in/candicemalcolm.