Saturday April 13, 2019
By Craig Silverman, Jane Lytvynenko, Marco Chown Oved and Alex Boutilier
Ben Kothe / BuzzFeed News
Never Again Canada’s creator says the page has "spiralled out of [his] hands.”
A popular Canadian political Facebook page that promotes the far-right Jewish Defence League uses a deceptive technique that evades Facebook’s content bans and drives traffic to anti-Muslim websites.
Never Again Canada, which has nearly 235,000 followers, posts dozens of images, videos, and articles every day. The page says it is a platform to combat anti-Semitism, though its posts also stray into unrelated Canadian political topics, like the carbon tax.
Between the Facebook page and Never Again Canada’s Twitter feed, the group has a large platform to push out political messaging — and amplifies that message through synchronized posting with dozens of other anti-Muslim Facebook pages.
The trouble is people can never be sure about what they’re clicking on.
For months, the Never Again Canada page has been sharing links that appear to send users to sites hosted on Google’s Blogger platform, such as fpf-blog.blogspot.com. Once clicked on, the reader is redirected to sites such as freepressfront.com or speech-point.net. These obscure domains are filled with articles that twist and torque the news or fabricate headlines, such as “Canadian minister calls to criminalize criticism of Islam” or “Canadian PM calls on Canadians to welcome ISIS terrorists ‘If we welcome them, they won’t attack us.’”
As part of an ongoing series looking at the impact of online misinformation on the federal election campaign, the Toronto Star and BuzzFeed News identified 23 distinct Blogger domains posted by Never Again Canada that redirect to other websites, six of which are still active.
“What we’re seeing here raises two questions,” said Fenwick McKelvey, an assistant professor of information and technology policy at Concordia University. “One, do people know what they’re clicking on? And two, are these redirects being used to get around Facebook’s rules and standards?”
McKelvey, who researches political messaging online, says link redirection can be a harmless way to fix broken links, but it can also be used to deceive people about whom they’re interacting with.
Link redirection is a common technique used to share domains on Facebook that would otherwise be blocked by the platform. There are online tutorials that describe how to use a blog post to redirect to an otherwise blocked domain.
The practice violates Facebook’s community standards, which ban “misrepresentation,” including posting links with a URL that does not match the destination URL.
Never Again Canada also promotes events, including a recent recruitment campaign for the Canadian chapter of the Jewish Defence League.
In the United States, the FBI considers the JDL a “violent extremist Jewish organization” and deemed it a “right-wing terrorist group.” In Canada, JDL has hosted a far-right speaker, published anti-Muslim rhetoric and worked with the white nationalist group Soldiers of Odin, which was banned from Facebook this week.
Never Again Canada / Facebook
Avi Shomer, Never Again Canada’s founder, did not respond to written questions about link redirection. In an emailed statement, he said he can’t be held responsible for all the content on the page because he is simply one of 34 administrators and doesn’t know all of the others.
“The NAC Facebook page has no group meetings or plans or anyone who could be considered as its leader … There is no administrator who takes on the responsibility of monitoring or reviewing the thousands of daily comments that get posted on the page,” a statement from Shomer, through his lawyer, said.
“I was the guy who got it started, that does not mean that I now own or control it. Since it has grown, it has spiralled out of my hands,” Shomer’s statement read.
Shomer declined to put the Star and BuzzFeed News in touch with any of the other administrators. The page’s information tab lists the other administrators as living in Israel, the United States, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Spain. The page was created in 2014 and at one point was named “Palestinian Lies Exposed.”
Helping amplify Never Again Canada’s message are at least 25 other Facebook pages that collectively have more than 1.5 million followers. These pages, including “United American Infidels Against Tyranny,” “Obama Enemies,” and “Deport the Grand Mufti” post the same misleading Blogger links as Never Again Canada within seconds of one another in what appears to be a coordinated effort to ensure they reach the maximum number of Facebook users.
The Star and BuzzFeed News observed these pages boosting the same content, all using the Blogger redirecting tactic. The articles they post are not exclusively on Canadian issues. Some target foreign politicians and international organizations.
Shomer said he is not aware of any effort to coordinate with other Facebook pages.
“I don’t know those sites. What I do know is that an administrator can post a series of articles on the Facebook page and then post the same articles elsewhere as well … [but] I don’t think the other administrators have any knowledge about who is exactly posting what and where either,” Shomer wrote.
“You just don’t appreciate how decentralized a Facebook page with multiple administrators can be.”
Joshua Braun, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who studies online news, says Blogger links are unlikely to get blocked because of the large number of legitimate blogs hosted there.
“It could be a strategy to avoid getting themselves blacklisted,” Braun said in an interview. “It’s like if you have a problematic YouTube channel. They’re not going to block all of YouTube.”
Facebook Canada could not respond to a detailed list of questions about whether Never Again Canada violated its terms of service and community standards by Friday evening.
“We are continually reviewing activity on our platform for potential violation of our policies and will take action in line with our Community Standards as warranted,” the spokesperson said.
Two statements posted on Never Again Canada’s website denounce hate speech and “the general disparagement of Muslims,” yet many posts on the Facebook page cross the line into anti-Muslim rhetoric.
The Star and BuzzFeed also found ties between Never Again Canada and the Jewish Defence League. Facebook removed the JDL from its platform in 2017, according to the Canadian Jewish News, calling it a “dangerous organization” that violates its community standards. “Never Again” is the JDL’s official slogan.
A statement on Never Again Canada’s website states the group isn’t associated with the JDL, and “neither comprise a formal network nor affiliate with one another in any other fashion.”
But the online store BuyIsrael.ca, which sells Never Again Canada T-shirts and accepts donations for the group, has identical privacy and refund policies as the Jewish Defence League’s online store. The two also use the same address in Thornhill and the same email address for inquiries.
Shomer, who runs a web marketing business, says he has done work for many organizations in the Jewish community and “sometimes in setting them up pages, common addresses may be used as well as common merchant policy templates.”
Shomer cautioned against “trying to establish ‘links’ in order to suggest something [is] more sinister than it is.”
Karen Mock, the president of JSpaceCanada, said that even the Canadian branch of the JDL is seen as an extreme fringe group — but one with an extensive mailing list and network.
“[Most] people in the Jewish community would not agree with their approaches of sending out what really amounts to hate mail and these memes that are so anti-Muslim,” Mock, the former head the League for Human Rights of B’nai Brith Canada, said in an interview Friday.
“When they hobnob with people, organizations like the Soldiers of Odin and other horrific white supremacist groups … making common cause with neo-Nazi groups, white supremacist hate groups, is not the way to fight anti-Semitism.”
Last October, Never Again Canada endorsed white supremacist Faith Goldy when she ran for mayor of Toronto, writing, “Make sure you Vote for FAITH ... We need strong Leadership in Toronto to Save it from the Corrupt Liberals and the Creeping Sharia Law.”
Goldy, along with other groups and public figures who “spread hate, attack or call for the exclusion of others,” was banned from Facebook last week.
Shomer said that not all of Never Again Canada’s administrators are Jewish. He also said the page brings together people from all faith backgrounds to fight anti-Semitism.
“Though NAC cannot police all the comments that are posted on this page, we want Muslim Canadians to feel they are welcome here, that they, too, have a place to come and to contribute their voices in the common fight against anti-Jewish incitement,” reads a post on the page.
Ishmael N. Daro contributed reporting to this story.