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Unveiling Canada’s biggest Jewish Facebook page

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A Jewish Defence League protester rallies against supporters of Gaza in May 2018. (Michael Fraiman photo)

It’s a pleasantly overcast Saturday afternoon in downtown Toronto, and two groups of people have gathered on opposite sides of Bloor Street to scream at each other. About 150 protesters shout in solidarity with Gaza – some wave banners calling Israel a terrorist state, one guy’s shirt claims “9/11 was a Zionist job.” Across the street, in front of the Israeli Consulate, half as many counter-protesters defend Israel’s retaliation against Hamas. Two dozen police officers flank the crowds, looking equal parts intimidating and bored.

The Israeli side is not as loud, energized or unified as the pro-Palestinians. But one protester wants to change that. Wearing impenetrably black sunglasses and glossy red lipstick, Mary Forrest deploys her dominating personality and raspy voice to galvanize her comrades: “Can we get ‘never again’ going?” she shouts, kicking off a chant: “Never again! Never again!”

Forrest’s mantra doesn’t quite take off, so she steps back and pulls out a cigarette. She wants to clarify that she is not Islamophobic, racist or sexist; she’s an immigrant herself, from Italy, and cherishes Toronto’s diversity. On the contrary, she says that it’s the demonstrators across the street who are closed-minded.

“They’re the ones that are taking over,” she says. “Canada was built on Judeo-Christian values.… They’re pushing their ideologies onto our society.”

Forrest, like many others here, heard about this counter-protest from a brazenly pro-Israel Facebook page called Never Again Canada (NAC). In 2016, NAC had 20,000 followers; today, it has more than 220,000, with hundreds of new fans joining every week. Its administrators post at a dizzying hourly pace, generating hundreds of weekly posts that garner an enviable 45,000 average engagements – shares, reactions and emotionally charged comments.

According to a 2017 Abacus Data survey, 21 per cent of Canadians rely on Facebook as their first source of news, making NAC a quietly dominating force in the political sphere. It is by far the largest-reaching and fastest-growing Canadian Jewish page on Facebook, with more followers than B’nai Brith Canada, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, UJA Federation of Canada, the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee and The Canadian Jewish News combined.

Mary Forrest, centre, counter-protests against supporters of Gaza. (Michael Fraiman photo)

Yet, while the above-mentioned entities are transparent about who runs and oversees them – boards of directors, paid staff, contact information – no such accountability exists for NAC. It is a rapidly expanding black box of right-wing political influence, comprising a largely anonymous group of administrators who are determined to expose and combat global anti-Semitism.

That goal, in itself, should not be controversial among Jewish-Canadians. But the page’s hyper-partisan tactics range from polarizing to dangerous, and it’s growing so rapidly that fake news and bluntly racist generalizations seep into its messaging – against the will of its creator.

Its followers, however, reject the idea that NAC is a hateful group. As Forrest says, if you want to see real antagonism, look across the street at the sea of Palestinian flags.

“I don’t understand why there’s so much hate towards Israel,” she says, nearly shaking with emotion. “This is pure hatred!”

* * *

Never Again Canada was born from a similar protest. In 2014, while Hamas and Israel warred over Gaza, a Toronto-area father named Avi Shomer casually decided to attend his first rally to support the Holy Land – a counter-demonstration against Al-Quds Day.

Shomer was not especially political and had never personally experienced anti-Semitism. He grew up in a tight-knit Jewish community where he thrived, personally and professionally, as the owner of a digital marketing company.

The Al-Quds demonstration, which drew 5,000 Palestinian supporters to Queen’s Park, petrified Shomer. “I saw thousands of people screaming ‘Death to Israel’ and saying all kinds of horrible things about Jews,” he told The CJN in an email. When he later recalled the event to his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, it reminded Shomer of a phrase he’d so often heard, but hadn’t fully absorbed: “Never again.”

“I wanted to create a platform for people to come and contribute their own voices in protest against all those horrible things that are being said today about Jews and Israel,” Shomer said. “I wanted us to feel that we’re not alone.”

“Other pages have positive messages. This one does not.”

– Ari Lightman, social media professor

Shomer is sturdy and protective, and was hesitant to discuss NAC publicly. (The Facebook page does not appear anywhere on his personal website or LinkedIn profile.) He only agreed to speak with The CJN on the condition that it be made clear that his role is akin to a webmaster’s – he created and maintains NAC, but does not post regularly or monitor its content.

Instead, NAC is currently run by around 20 administrators, according to Shomer, many of whom prefer to keep their identities anonymous due to similar safety concerns. Shomer invited some of them to participate early on, and they, in turn, invited others over time. Only a few administrators reveal their names on NAC, including Naveed Anjum, a Muslim man who operates seven other Zionist Facebook pages; Sandra Solomon, a radical anti-Muslim activist; and Meir Weinstein, the leader of the Canadian chapter of the Jewish Defence League (JDL).

Solomon could not be reached for comment, and Anjum, who initially appeared willing, stopped responding to messages from The CJN. Weinstein confirmed that he has used NAC to share JDL content in the past, but did not know if he still had admin access. (His videos promoting JDL Canada events, such as the counter-protest that Forrest attended, are still frequently shared on NAC. Facebook removed JDL Canada’s own page in November, alleging that it violated the site’s community standards.) While Weinstein acknowledged that he is close family friends with the Shomers – he even attended Avi Shomer’s bris – he denied that NAC and the JDL were closely related, and said he was “in the dark” about the page’s goings-on.

* * *

In 2016, Maclean’s published an article about Never Again Canada, which insinuated it was a hate group that’s inspiring Canada’s “angry, radical right.” In response, Shomer published a lengthy rebuttal condemning Islamophobia and defending NAC’s mission of protesting against anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish incitement.

“The overwhelming majority of Muslim-Canadians are peaceful, law-abiding and concerned about elements of extremism originating from within their ranks,” he wrote, inviting Muslim-Canadians to join NAC in the fight against radical Islam.

Regarding the thousands of weekly comments that are hateful or threatening toward Muslims and liberals, Shomer blamed Internet trolls and a small number of vocal extremists.

“We simply don’t have the capacity – nor is it the responsibility of the administrators – to monitor each and every comment in order to evaluate what is appropriate and what is not,” he wrote.

“Once you bring in the other administrators, it’s no longer your Facebook page to control.

– Avi Shomer, NAC creator

But Richard Warman, a human rights lawyer who specializes in hate propaganda, laughs when he hears those kinds of statements – what he calls “fantasy disclaimers.”

“There’s definitely legal responsibility there,” he says, noting a court precedent that found those kinds of disclaimers invalid. He adds that as the page’s creator, Shomer bears a legal responsibility to “only create something you feel you can properly administer.”

In order for NAC to be legally prosecuted, Warman says that an extremist would need to commit a hate crime and there would need to be clear evidence that the person was inspired by NAC.

That hypothetical inched toward reality in March, when police investigated NAC administrator Sandra Solomon for visiting multiple Mississauga, Ont., mosques, where she tore up pages of the Qur’an and harassed local Muslims.

Solomon believes that all Muslim people – not just extremists – want to die for Allah and propel a global jihad.

“I don’t see 1.5 billion Muslims really struggling to do good,” she said in a live video posted to NAC last year, which has been viewed more than 19,000 times. “They’re struggling to build the caliphate, yes. They’re struggling to take over and dominate the world.”

Her comments directly contradict NAC’s mission statement, but Shomer emphasizes that Solomon is just one voice and does not speak for the group. Nonetheless, Solomon solicits donations via NAC’s affiliated online store, Buy Israel. (Buy Israel appears to be NAC’s monetization arm, selling NAC-branded T-shirts, made-in-Israel products and Judeo-Christian jewellery for as much as $119.99.)

Solomon’s views fall on NAC’s extreme side, though, and she is not a significant contributor to the page. The CJN analyzed 725 posts between May 27 and June 11, and found that she was featured in less than two per cent of them.

A collage depicting the most popular words used by NAC administrators, according to hundreds of posts. (Data scraped by Alex Rose/Visualization by wordclouds.com. Click for larger image.)

The majority – 33 per cent – conveyed negative news about Muslims and Muslim-majority countries, while 13 per cent condemned everyday instances of anti-Semitism around the world, such as vandalism and public harassment.

Other recurring topics did not explicitly relate to anti-Semitism: derogatory posts about European migrants, political correctness and free speech comprised 22 per cent, while six per cent promoted federal and provincial Conservative party agendas, or attacked Canada’s mainstream media. Emotionally uplifting posts – often pro-Israel or hopeful interfaith messages – made up another six per cent.

“Other pages have positive messages. This one does not,” notes Ari Lightman, a Jewish-Canadian professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

That overwhelming negativity is critical to NAC’s success – and Facebook’s algorithm ensures it. In a Quartz article titled, “This is how your fear and outrage are being sold for profit,” technology researcher Tobias Rose-Stockwell details the ways in which Facebook, as the leading global driver of web traffic, rewards high-engagement content.

“Many news organizations have adopted a traffic-at-all-costs mentality, pushing for more engagement at the expense of what we would traditionally call editorial accuracy,” he writes. “You can quickly see how these strategies can be used to turn content hyper-partisan, divisive and/or outrageous.”

NAC’s administrators post verifiable news stories more often than not, but the lack of editorial oversight means that fake news does pop up from time to time. For example, on May 6, one administrator posted a link to a video with the headline, “Muslim ‘Refugees’ Refuse Food Aid Because of The Red Cross on The Boxes.” In fact, the video shows migrants (not just Muslims) protesting against Macedonian police after being locked in place for three days – a fact that was confirmed by the video’s creator back in 2015.

When posted to NAC in 2018, that long-debunked video got 398 reactions, 455 shares and 141 exclusively hateful comments expressing the same sentiment: “Let them starve.” It was the page’s third-most popular post that week.

Almost all the comments on one of NAC’s more popular posts from early May. (Click for larger image)

“When you’re not exposed to a different viewpoint, everything that comes through – whether it’s real, fake, propaganda – looks very much real to you,” Lightman says. “In theory, you’re a propagator of fake information.”

The CJN found several other instances of debunked news stories on NAC. One video depicted rioting soccer hooligans in Switzerland, but the NAC administrator who posted it claimed they were “wild Muslims” who were rampaging in Birmingham because the municipality refused to bend to their will. Another post baselessly asserted the bombing of an Indian restaurant in Mississauga was carried out by “Muslim terrorists” and linked to an unreliable news source that later deleted the article. (A NAC administrator also deleted the post, but not before it got 563 reactions, 161 comments and 670 shares, making it the second-most popular article that week.)

Shomer didn’t intend for any of this when he created NAC. “I honestly never gave it that much thought as to how it would grow and what it would become,” he said. His goal was to create a safe space for Jews and Zionists to defend their culture. To that end, he believes he’s accomplished his mission.

Any blame for the dissemination of fake news, the outpouring of vitriol and the unaccountability of secret administrators, he says, lies with the inherently opaque nature of these kinds of group-run Facebook pages.

“Once you bring in the other administrators, it’s no longer your Facebook page to control,” he says. “In an ideal world, I wish every single administrator and NAC Facebook commenter would be respectful.… Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world.”