We examine how Rebel Media, the flagship media company of Canada’s burgeoning new right politics, has quickly grown with the help of YouTube’s algorithms.
Who, what, when, where, why, and how did we get here?
Rebel Media is the lynchpin of the Canadian alternative right news sphere. Founded from the ashes of the now-defunct Sun News Network by former commentators Ezra Levant and Brian Lilley, the Rebel distributes its content on its own website, rebelnews.com — however, these articles are oftentimes contextual links to its primary content distribution platform, newscast-style videos on its YouTube channel. To illustrate just how important this YouTube channel is to the Rebel, we can compare it to the web properties of the CBC, Canada’s public broadcaster. The Rebel’s homepage popularity, as measured by Alexa.com, is #98,778 globally and #3,913 in Canada as of July 19 20191 in comparison to that of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Canada’s public broadcaster, with a #1,221 global ranking and #28 ranking in Canada.2 Yet on YouTube, the Rebel’s subscriber base has grown from 80,819 on February 15 20163 (one year after its launch) to 1,247,251 as of July 19 2019,4 while the CBC’s subscriber base is just a slight notch above the Rebel’s at 1,372,393.5 The CBC has had 82 years to establish its own media presence in Canada, while the Rebel has achieved this in a little over 4. How did it achieve this meteoric rise in such a short amount of time, considering the relatively stagnant state of Canadian media? And what role has it played in crafting the “public” of the new Canadian right? Below, we answer these questions by first running through the history of its founder, Ezra Levant, before investigating the contemporary political and media climates that the Rebel fits itself into. After this, we’ll run through some quantitative data to define the shape and themes of the Rebel’s content itself, and then expand on this quantitative analysis in order to investigate how and where, exactly, the Rebel exists within the broader Canadian news media ecosystem.
The Rebel yell: a history
The Rebel’s rise has been heavily documented by many established media properties, because the only thing more insular than Canadian politics is Canadian media, and Ezra Levant is a long-standing figure in both spheres. But taking a step back and mapping his personal trajectory alongside that of Canadian politics in general allows us to see the common lineage among both industries in Canada. Ezra the politico came out of the gate running as a vocal member of the province of Alberta’s Reform Party while attending the University of Calgary as an undergrad between 1990 and 1993. In this time, he also spent a summer in DC doing an internship arranged by the Koch Foundation and later working for the Fraser Institute, an influential right-wing thinktank based in Alberta. The Reform Party and the Fraser Institute traditionally had close ties, the way that American thinktanks often have express party affiliations: think the Heritage Foundation and the Republican Party, or the Centre for American Progress and the Democratic Party. The founder and leader of the Reform Party, Preston Manning, is a longtime affiliate of the institution. Manning himself was once the vanguard of the right-wing in Canada. In 1987, he founded the Reform Party as a flank from the right to the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, the historic right- or “Tory”-side of the binary mirrored by the Liberal Party of Canada. The Reform Party’s claim was, essentially, that the Progressive Conservatives did not understand the particular flavour of conservative politics that ran through Western Canada — more libertarian and nationalist than the globalist, diplomacy-oriented reign of then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney (whose chief accomplishments included the first version of Canada’s Environmental Protection Act, as well as the negotiation of the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement and NAFTA, the latter of which especially came under fire by Manning and associates for its devaluation of Western labour and commodities). Underlying this scorned outlook, though, was ultimately the issue of Quebec separatism — the Reform party viewed Quebec as receiving special status from Ottawa as opposed to treatment as just another province, which fuelled the party’s first policy platform: the idea of reforming the Canadian Senate from an appointed body to an elected body.
By Ezra’s undergrad years, the Reform party was a relative presence in Canadian politics — a fact bolstered by Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Kim Campbell’s short reign and subsequent loss in 1993’s election, where the PCs’ parliamentary seats were reduced to two while the Reform party gained 54 seats in the house (it should be noted that the PCs still placed third in the popular vote, but because of Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system this did not translate into a win for the party). The Reforms became the official opposition to Jean Chretien’s Liberal Party and their brand of conservativism the dominant strain in Canada.
And now we can peg Ezra’s rise. He was instrumental in shifting the Reform Party to its final form, the Canadian Alliance, which was part of an overall effort to unite the party with the Progressive Conservatives in order to defeat the Liberal Party. In 2003 his effort were rewarded with the merger of the two parties into the Conservative Party of Canada6 and the election of none other than future Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper, former Reform and Alliance MP, as leader. Ezra, too, ran for the reform party in 2002 — against Harper, although he lost. Such marked the end of Ezra’s brief political career, and he went on to found the Western Standard in 2004, a print newspaper focused on Reform-style Western conservativism that held steady in the face of Harper’s moves to the centre, such as 2006’s (rhetorically useful, but meaningless in terms of policy) motion that Quebec be recognized as “a nation within a state”. He also gained notoriety for being the first print newspaper in the West to publish the cartoons depicting Mohammed, originally published by the Dutch newspaper Jyllands-Postern.7
After the Western Standard shuttered its print issues (see note 7), Ezra sold the property in 2008 and remained within the nebulous speechwriting/consultant/lobbying sphere (for companies like Rothman’s Tobacco and the Alberta oil industry) before being hired as a columnist for Sun News and later as a marquee anchor on the media company’s failed TV network, Sun News Network. This is around the time where he really nailed his voice, landing himself as the subject of three of Sun News Network’s six overall complaints to the Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council, two for using slurs against Mexicans and Romanis respectively and another for identifying Idle No More protestors as “professional protestors.”8 Sun News Network was shuttered on account of an empty wallet on February 13 2015, and the Rebel’s YouTube channel was launched two days later—as this video introduces it, to be a direct successor to SNN. As for its raison d’etre, the previously-linked National Post profile by Richard Warnica says it better than I can:
“He was already saying to people, look we don’t need the filter of the broadcasting authorities,” said Michael Coren, who worked at Sun TV and became an early Rebel contributor. “We can say whatever we want if we do this.”
Rebel with a cause: content, themes, beats
And say whatever they want, they do. A brief list of topic beats on the Rebel: George Soros, Assad trutherism, anti-immigration rhetoric, antisemitism, anti-Palenstinianism, Islamic terrorism, transgenderism and its perils, SJWs, Trump, Trudeau, carbon taxes, Islamic terrorism, and guns.9 While Sun News Network may have aimed to be the Fox News of Canada, the Rebel’s goal is to be the Breitbart. Their most prominent contributors are a mixture of homegrown talent and figures that are famous in the space between Breitbart and 4chan’s /pol/, with the Rebel having launched the careers of Lauren Southern and Faith Goldy while also bringing on significant figures such as Sebastian Gorka and Tommy Robinson. And while there may be some ideological disagreements (Faith Goldy’s firing after appearing on the Daily Stormer’s podcast in 2017, or Ezra having to tell new hire and prominent #pizzagater Jack Posobiec that “the facts of the world are crazy enough—there is never a need to indulge in conspiracy theories” upon his hiring), it’s clear that the Rebel occupies an edge perspective in Canadian politics.
But there is some (circumstantial) evidence that this edge perspective isn’t so far from the political nexus after all, and that evidence comes from the campaign of Andrew Scheer, the current leader of the Progressive Conservative Party. His campaign manager, a man by the name of Hamish Marshall, is one of the founders of the Rebel and its former director–and did not publicly absolve himself of any business ties until 2017, when he was hired by the Scheer campaign. Marshall’s longstanding Conservative Party links are noteworthy: as far back as 2008 he was working as Harper’s manager of strategic planning and as the campaign pollster during the 2008 election. After managing Scheer’s leadership run, he worked with Brian Jean’s campaign in Alberta to become the leader of that province’s United Conservative Party, an Alliance-PC-style merger of the province’s right-libertarian Wildrose Party and the provincial wing of the federal Conservative Party (Jean lost the leadership election to longtime Conservative operative Jason Kenney).
So why the Rebel? Because no discussion of the nascent new-right media ecosystem in Canada can begin without acknowledging the central role that the website has played in serving this herefore-undefined media audience in Canada. And in contrast to the Sun chain of newspapers, or even Postmedia’s National Post, the Rebel makes no attempts to parallel the infrastructures of traditional media. Levant himself has been quoted as intentionally modelling the website after Steve Bannon’s Breitbart, which Bannon once referred to as the “platform of the alt-right”. While ‘platform’ is far too nebulous to be of any use here, it does hint at Ezra’s systemic strategy. Far from tying oneself down to the sort of material considerations that are slowly dragging traditional Canadian media into the grave,10 the Rebel exists in two main media forms: a YouTube channel for video distribution, and a newsblog-style website that, considering most-all articles on it are embedded YouTube videos with 100 or-so words of copy underneath, functions more as a branding exercise than a mode of distribution.
The Rebel ‘alliance’, or where it fits within the Canadian media ecosystem
Nascent the alt-right media ecosystem in Canada may be, but the Rebel’s YouTube channel is about as mature as that of Canada’s public broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Some basic information as detailed above illustrates its significant position within YouTube’s Canadian media sphere. The Rebel’s entire viewcount, for all of its videos on YouTube, numbers 463,501,532 as of September 9 2019; this is within the same echelon as the CBC’s 641,355,836, and the former’s subscriber base numbers 1,268,800 to the latter’s 1,440,000.11 Furthermore, as we showed in “Streams of the Deep Web,”12 YouTube’s particular configurations place the Rebel within its own definition of a Canadian news sphere, with video searches for election issues such as “carbon tax canada” or “Trudeau” returning a tightly-interwoven network of Rebel videos alongside CBC videos, videos from private Canadian broadcasters, and videos from Canadian politicians:
All green nodes are videos published by traditional Canadian news sources; red nodes are Rebel videos, and we can visually interpret their location as one that is placed squarely within the related video networks of YouTube.
What does this mean? It means that YouTube provides the Rebel with a means through which it can become integrated into the issue sphere that otherwise groups traditional Canadian media. And we see that as far as the decisions that YouTube makes when serving content to users, the Rebel belongs alongside these traditional media sources in any naive user query for information regarding particular Canadian election issues.
And such an exercise gives us insight into the Rebel’s role in the Canadian news sphere more broadly. Given the network’s beats as outlined above, this is a powerful position — and one that frames our investigations of the growing presence of new right ideologies and political forms in Canada today.
- Alexa.com. ‘Ranking: therebel.media’. Webpage Ranking, 19 July 2019. https://www.alexa.com/siteinfo/therebel.media
- Alexa.com. ‘Ranking: CBC.ca’. Webpage Ranking, 19 July 2019. https://www.alexa.com/siteinfo/cbc.ca.
- Rebel Media. ‘YouTube Channel Page’, 14 February 2016. Accessed from the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. https://web.archive.org/web/20160214040447/https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCGy6uV7yqGWDeUWTZzT3ZEg.
- Rebel Media. ‘YouTube Channel Page’. YouTube, 19 July 2019. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCGy6uV7yqGWDeUWTZzT3ZEg.
- CBC. ‘YouTube Channel Page’. YouTube. Accessed 19 July 2019. https://www.youtube.com/user/cbcnews/about.[by]: https://nationalpost.com/features/inside-ezra-levants-rebel-media
- ‘Conservative Party of Canada | History, Beliefs, & Values’. Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed 24 July 2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Conservative-Party-of-Canada.
- ‘The Shotgun: 150 Million Pages of Fighting the Good Fight’. Accessed 24 July 2019. https://westernstandard.blogs.com/shotgun/2007/10/150-million-pag.html.
- ‘CBSC Decisions’. Canadian Broadcast Standards Council. Accessed 24 July 2019. https://www.cbsc.ca/decisions/.
- These themes were determined using topic modelling on over 11,000 transcripts of Rebel Media YouTube videos by Burton et. al. in “Streams of the deep web: Rebel Media, YouTube, and the algorithmic shaping of media ecosystems.”
- Torstar, the owner of the Toronto Star daily as well as multiple weekly papers across the country, was worth $15 a share in 2011 and $0.70 a share in 2019; Postmedia, the owner of the Sun newspaper chain as well as the National Post daily, was worth $330 a share in 2015 and $2.33 a share in 2019; and while the Globe and Mail is privately owned, it is often included in the death knells of traditional Canadian media, such as this report from 2014 on the economics of Canadian news media.
- Data accurate as of September 9 2019. See https://web.archive.org/user/cbcnews/about and https://web.archive.org/channel/UCGy6uV7yqGWDeUWTZzT3ZEg/about for snapshots of the CBC’s page and the Rebel’s page, respectively.
- Burton et. al., “Streams of the deep web: Rebel Media, YouTube, and the algorithmic shaping of media ecosystems.”