“Fake news” and the lay-offs at the Canary

A picture of a white T-shirt with a logo reading "Stop funding fake news" underneath a man in a two-tone beige/brown shirt holding a red flag in his hand
Some “Stop Funding Fake News” merchandise

Last week The Canary, a pro-Corbyn activist ‘news’ and comment site, announced that it was “leaving the gig economy”, reducing its staff to a core of seven full-time editors and writers (smaller than their current “leadership team” of nine) rather than the previous much larger number of freelancers, following a fall in advertising revenue that has been attributed to a campaign by “Stop Funding Fake News”, which has also targeted Evolve Politics and three far-right news/comment sites, Politicalite, Rebel Media and Westmonster. The Canary has appealed to readers to donate so as to keep the site alive although they are still carrying advertisements (although there are still advertisements on the site today, including one from a major insurance company). Kerry-Anne Mendoza, the site’s founder, has claimed in an email to readers that her site has been vulnerable to attacks from “political Zionists”, which has been seized upon as proof that it is run by cranks and racists after all. But the claim may have some truth to it.

I’m not an admirer of the Canary; on this blog I’ve previously rebutted a false story they ran claiming that Manchester might join Liverpool in “banning the Sun”, which was simply untrue but widely shared by people on my feed. To me it is a site which does not let facts get in the way of a good rant; it is widely (and rightly) described as hyperpartisan to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party; it is often sensationalist. I never share stories from that site and when I see a link to it on my Twitter feed, I do not bother opening it because I know it will likely be sensationalist nonsense and that the story might not even justify the headline. However, friends of mine today described the Canary as a “missed opportunity”, a site founded with good intentions but which ruined its reputation by printing false stories and conspiracy theories. In one case, they undermined a real story about a report into the social care system by printing an unrelated false story, that was widely and prominently exposed the week before the real story ran. One of them (a long-standing disability activist but who tweets privately) wrote, “They do periodically have some excellent content about the impacts of austerity; but no-one pays any attention to it because it’s mixed in with so much untrustworthy, fake, hyper-partisan, antisemitic, bullshit, amateurish content”.

I’ve had a look at the SFFN website. Two things are very noticeable: one is its opacity. They declare:

We would like to be open about our identities, but doing so could put activists at risk. The Sleeping Giants campaign in America took on Steve Bannon’s alt-Right site, Breitbart, to huge success. In fact, their success inspired us to set up Stop Funding Fake News. But their family members’ details were published online by their opponents.

This is somewhat suspicious and convenient. It’s a fact that think tanks, while they have talking heads that are open about their identities, often conceal the sources of their funding. When, back in 2002, Brian Whittaker wrote about the Israeli-backed outfit MEMRI, which circulated news stories generally calculated to “reflect badly on the character of Arabs or … in some way further the political agenda of Israel”, he also noted that they had no named contacts or office address and a former employee explained this as being because “they don’t want suicide bombers walking through the door on Monday morning”, which as Whittaker said was “a somewhat over-the-top precaution for an institute that simply wants to break down east-west language barriers”.

A second suspicious feature is the selection of websites they choose to target for publishing “fake news”: four far-right sites (Politicalite, Rebel Media, Westmonster and TR News) and two pro-Corbyn sites (The Canary and Evolve Politics). One headline from the Canary justifies comparing the Israeli government to that of Nazi Germany; another (from a far-right site) denounces the campaign for a People’s Vote as merely a “Soros Vote”. The right-wing sites are noted for sympathy with Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (Tommy Robinson) and Nigel Farage and one of them (Westmonster) was founded by Leave campaign bankroller Aaron Banks. What is notable, however, is that the anti-Semitism identified in the Canary seems to target the state of Israel, often in response to genuine human rights abuses against Palestinians, while the hate identified on the right-wing sites targets Muslims and migrants in the UK — individuals, in other words, not a foreign government. While some of the Canary’s contributors have produced material that crosses the line into anti-Semitism (like Steve Topple, as they note at length), even this does not consist of incitement to hatred or violence against ordinary Jews in this country, while much media Islamophobia does target ordinary Muslims and this is not limited to the fringe sites targeted by SFFN. This is rather reminiscent of the asymmetrical way the political Right presents ‘extremism’: where Muslims are concerned, it only takes a tenuous and very dubious link for a group to be branded ‘extremist’, such as anyone with Muslim Brotherhood sympathies on the executive board or as a regular speaker, while for the Far Right, it takes actual violence or open advocacy of racism. Looking at their Twitter feed and replies to it, it appears that they have been approached to add Guido Fawkes to their list of fake news sites, but have refused.

There is also no criticism of right-wing mainstream media, which is also heavily implicated in the spread of false ‘news’ which demonises migrants, minorities, poor people and real or imagined benefit claimants including disabled people. There are no links to other sites which combat bogus news or which fact-check stories in mainstream media (e.g. Stop Funding Hate, Full Fact, Channel 4’s Fact Check). There is also no satisfactory definition of “fake news” which is a term which seems to be used nowadays just to mean falsehood, as defined by the person alleging it. Fake news used to mean stories manufactured to look like they came from a real news source but did not, or attributed to a newspaper or other apparently legitimate outlet which in fact does not exist. The site’s list of the Canary’s failings really does not provide any evidence that they publish fake news, just (in some cases) false or unethical stories. Much the same is true, in fact, of most of their claims about all the other websites they encourage advertisers to boycott.

As a Muslim, I can say that I am more worried about damaging stories in the mainstream media about Muslims than on fringe pseudo-news websites like Politicalite; they get seen by a far wider audience even if the fringe sites give space to the likes of James Goddard and other Tommy Robinson hangers-on. They have real impact on ordinary people’s lives; they sometimes spur political action, as when the Labour government responded to a tabloid campaign against “foreign criminals” being allowed to remain in the UK by re-arresting non-citizens who had served their time years ago for offences committed years ago. The things that appear in those newspapers are then shouted in people’s faces in the streets. If SFFN really cared about improving the British media ecosystem, they might take a stand against the hatred and falsehood coming from the commercial right-wing media, not just obscure websites that advertisers feel they could do without advertising in. So, while many may not see the diminishment of the Canary as such a bad thing, it should disturb us that a shadowy, anonymous, politically partisan pressure group can bring a media outlet that they do not like to its knees while leaving far more damaging outlets untouched.

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