Why would a major publisher in Toronto knowingly communicate unsubstantiated threats to the public and to businesses, without providing evidence? This is serious.
Over the past week in Toronto, rumors have circulated. The rumours were spawned from a campaign of deliberate and malicious misinformation that was perpetuated by a person or persons acting with malicious intent. Chain e-mails and text-messages, tweets and other social media posts were widely distributed, alleging that riots had been planned for Black-led protests in Toronto.
The rumors further alleged that white ‘anarchists’ and something called the ‘black bloc’ would be in Toronto to cause damage. These rumors went viral. It is apparent that white supremacist groups are trying very hard to defame the legitimate grievances of the Black community while also trying to isolate and criminalize their non-Black anti-racist supporters.
Toronto Police stopped short of naming specific groups or plans, the Chief of Police stated that Toronto Police Service was monitoring “chatter” from “bad actors”. The mayor went on to say it was a few people in their basements. Neither the Police Chief, nor the Mayor did any extra leg work in their statements to fact-check or debunk the rumours though.
Interestingly, the Associated Press (bastion of left-wing bias that it is) did actually fact-checked similar claims which were made in the United States and came up with what they termed ‘scant evidence’.
Businesses across Toronto, already hard-hit by COVID-19, responded to the unspecified, unsubstantiated threats by spending money. Many increased security, more made executive decisions to close their doors as unfounded rumours were reported in tabloids.
Along protest ‘routes’ many businesses actually boarded up their facades, as though preparing for the creation of an urban warzone in the heart of the city. It is the definition of ‘hostile architecture’: many brands that pledged vocally anti-racist positions on Twitter hardened their facades against Black-led protests. As one Black Twitter user said “We see you.”
Why did Toronto businesses respond in such a panic? Well, the rumours were bad enough, but tabloid publishers in Toronto apparently decided this would be the perfect time to wilfully spread those threats and rumours, perpetuating fear and terror in the heart of the city.
We get it, things are a little bit tense “in these uncertain times”, which is precisely why spreading threats against the city, its infrastructure and defaming its social movements, simply can’t go unaddressed.
Not that we’d ever call on the police to investigate and arrest people who cost the business community millions by spreading false rumors (we’ll leave that to the impacted businesses), but it’s worth noting that it is highly illegal to communicate threats as facts.
If someone were to pick up the phone and call a business saying “Someone is going to set your business on fire later this week,” they could expect to be charged under the Canadian Criminal Code statute for uttering threats, unless, of course, such were true. This is illegal even (or especially?) if you were trying to put the blame on someone else at the same time. You don’t have to be the source of the threat to be responsible for uttering it.
BlogTO verifiably shouted ‘FIRE!’ in a crowded theatre.
Section 264.1(1) of the Canadian criminal code indicates that knowingly spreading fake rumours about fires, destruction or property damage is a serious offence.
264.1 (1) Every one commits an offence who, in any manner, knowingly utters, conveys or causes any person to receive a threat
(b) to burn, destroy or damage real or personal property;
So, why would a major publisher in Toronto knowingly communicate unsubstantiated threats to the public and to businesses, without providing evidence? This is serious.
We want to call your attention to the journalist Lauren O’Neil, who made the decision to publish and spread the threats. She goes by ‘@laurenonizzle’ on Twitter. Yes, Nizzle in this case IS a stand in for the N-word. Yikes.
She is the Editor of BlogTO.
According to a byline with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, O’Neil also “covers internet culture, digital trends and the social media beat for CBC News.”
She is undoubtedly one of the best known and most outspoken white millennials in Canadian media. Her LinkedIn profile states that she is an ‘internet culture’ expert.
O’Neil is also a vocal vegan, animal rights activist and frequent participant in Toronto’s (Pre COVID-19) party scene.
She has also apparently given ample play on BlogTO to groups protesting against COVID-19 lockdowns. Since O’Neil seems to believe that random opinions cherry-picked from Twitter constitute good journalism, we’ll point out that some Twitter users think her platform has actually given preferential treatment to anti-lockdown demonstrators.
We first raised questions about Lauren’s writing on June 5 in response to her article about controversies and rumours surrounding a Toronto protest.
That piece specifically named O’Neil after she wrote an inaccurate article directly attributing an unrelated protest to Black Lives Matter Toronto. Black Lives Matter Toronto wound up asking its supporters to avoid that protest.
Almost verbatim from what we wrote elsewhere: Publishing that as fact before even bothering to wait for comment wasn’t just untrue, it was harmful fake news which furthered misinformation.
When Black people say that systemic racism lives in the institution of Canadian media, this is what they are talking about.
O’Neil has been called out elsewhere before over racial bias in her reportage. Now, here she is, inventing the narrative yet again.
After thorough analysis, it seems like O’Neil used her platform, BlogTO (which has an audience in the millions across multiple platforms) to promote malicious and false allegations about anti-racist activists.
The platform also directed these threats toward the city and its business community. That’s not just irresponsible, it’s probably criminal.
There wasn’t even a cursory attempt to fact-check the story: she simply ran it as truth and the effect her fear-mongering had on Toronto’s business community was apparent.
Real people made decisions and spent money on security during an already dire public health crisis, because of the baseless allegations she and others put forward. It needs to be addressed, hard questions must be asked.
The headline reveals all
The first clue that reveals an editorial agenda is that she phrased her headline as a fact: “Why are they coming to Toronto?” It’s bizarre because there is zero evidence anywhere that any organized group of out-of-town protesters entered Toronto to peacefully attend rallies, let alone to cause violence.
Well written headlines might read “Could the black bloc come to Toronto?” or “Who is behind riot rumours in Toronto?”
There were lots of ways to address this without provoking a panic.
Even the article’s URL simply reads ‘black-block-coming-to-toronto’
Chain e-mails circulated by unknown actors claiming police affiliation
The rumour shaping this “black bloc” narrative was flagged early by anti-racist activists who pointed out that a malicious chain e-mail was circulating promising riots in Toronto.
Here is the full text of that e-mail, provided to us by a confidential source:
“The message below is from a friend whose daughter is a police officer in Toronto~
I am sending this to you to pass along to anyone who may be close to the area.
Nothing may come of this but it’s better to be aware just in case.
Stay well and safe everyone.
[THIS IS THE FORWARDED EMAIL]
Family and Friends………..I just received a notice from Ellie that BLACK BLOC is planning riots around now ……. this is NOT Black Lives Matter — these are a group coming from Montreal for the sole purpose of causing distruction. The riots are going to be along Yonge Street ……. Yorkdale and Eaton Centre are already beginning to board up windows. The tip came in from Crime Stoppers………….they are urging anyone who lives in or near the downtown core to leave the area and to stay as far away from there are possible.
Please pass along to friends and family who you know that may live in the city.”
There are also two social media postings we managed to track down, both since deleted. Both seem to indicate an intent to spread the rumour that rioting was planned in the city of Toronto on June 6, 2020. Neither would pass even the most cursory fact-check.
It is worth mentioning at this point, that one of the above postings is by the group “Free North Patriots”. Free North Patriots is linked to the anti-lockdown protests “nationwide”. Their rallies are attended by far-right groups, conspiracy theorists and known white supremacists. Their explicit position on ongoing Black-led demonstrations is “All Lives Matter”.
Free North Patriots also shared an ominous video on June 5, making the claim there would be looting and riots in Toronto. The video also purported to show bikers ‘gearing up’ to attack demonstrators. It was, in fact, filmed at a weekly motorcycle meetup unbeknownst to the other motorcycle enthusiasts present.
The weekly anti-lockdown protests organized by Free North Media are also the same protests to which O’Neil has been accused of giving preferential treatment. Huh. But that’s just Twitter’s opinion. Here’s ours:
White moderates accusing racial justice protestors of possible rioting and insisting that because people hold certain political ideals, look or dress a certain way, they will engage in violence, is a pressing risk to the blossoming anti-racist movement. It also perpetuates harmful stereotypes and bigotries about Black-led protests. It is white supremacy in action.
Announcing that groups and individuals are planning violence or property damage constitutes a pressing risk to public safety. It leads to vigilante justice. It also invites bad-actors, including white-supremacists, to actually physically attend rallies in order to mete out justice or provoke disorder. It also might signal people who actually want to riot that they’ll be in good company if they show up. It’s irresponsible and unethical at best, stochastic terrorism at worst.
Rumors of ‘black bloc’ type demonstrations have spread like wildfire across American social media, with the group ‘Antifa’ (literally, anti-fascists) being blamed by everyone from journalists, police, mayors and governors right up to the United States President who tweeted that he would formally designate ‘antifa’ (black bloc participants) to be a terrorist organization, as if such were actually possible.
For her own part, Lauren O’Neil effectively named a group completely unaffiliated from the protests as primary instigators. This seemingly deliberate innacuracy effectively libeled tens of thousands of activists by directly stating that they planned to cause property damage or violence. It is an accepted trope that if you’re anti-antifa, you are simply telling on yourself for being pro-fascist. That’s a hell of a thing to admit in a tabloid you edit. It’s also how Faith Goldy got her start.
Rumors of planned ‘riots’ were news to left-wing groups. The media response has intensified fears that people may face targeting, reprisals and violence over their political opinions alone.
Deliberately inflaming public opinion against anti-racist and anti-fascist demonstrators at a time when the United States President is trying to do the same, is simply doing his work for him.
More to the point, these narratives have verifiably lead to actual cases of Black and Brown people being targeted simply because they are suspected of ideologically opposing fascism and racism.
It is The Scaffold’s view that BlogTO contributed to this dangerous atmosphere, promoted unsubstantiated threats against the city and effectively helped to create a public safety issue where none was present.
O’Neil’s apparently malicious writing also prevented public participation in protests by people on the left, many of whom felt it necessary to stay home from protests because they were uncertain who was organizing them or whether there would be problems for which they would be falsely blamed.
It appears that some folks like O’Neil and the white supremacist conspiracy theorists she has apparently surrendered her platform to, were trying to incite a problem at a Black-led protest with the intent of blaming unrest on one particular group within that protest.
Of course, nothing in the article suggests that there are any facts which substantiate her claims. Most of the content in the article itself is poorly formatted tweets from random people perpetuating the same rumours themselves. Some of those are replies to actual known white supremacists. It’s frightening stuff.
The article does quote Toronto Mayor John Tory who says the people behind the threats “want to wreak havoc downtown” this weekend.
Tory called these people a “tiny little minority of people who sit in their basements in the dark”.
Of course, and despite the evidence, O’Neil made great efforts to name groups other than Free North Patriots. She wrote that the supposed rioters “most-often identify as anarchists, anti-fascists, anarcho-communists or anti-capitalists.” Who does she think she is, Joseph McCarthy?
As Canadaland contributor and media critic Jonathan Goldsbie pointed out on Twitter, O’Neil has been tweeting condemnation for left-wing protests for over a decade. Apparently her feelings were very, very hurt in 2010 when activists smashed the window of a downtown Starbucks.
Our questions for Lauren O’Neil are simple:
Were you actually upset enough about a broken window a decade ago that you were willing to help white supremacists defame Black and anti-racist demonstrators a decade later?
Was this transparent and shoddy attempt worth staking your credibility as a journalist, and your outlet’s reputation on?
Then of course there’s this account which tweeted allegations of anti-Black racism at BlogTO on June 3, two days before we began monitoring the situation.
We haven’t had time to fact-check it or dig into the drama and the website linked in the tweet is about as coherent as a Lauren O’Neil article.
We only provide this link because O’Neil, editor of an online tabloid, clearly established that random samplings of twitter opinion were A-OK for sourcing facts.
It is certainly interesting to note that purportedly Black twitter users have called out BlogTO for racial bias on a completely unrelated issue.
Anyhow, maybe it’s nothing, but experience shows us that where there’s smoke—
We’d never shout it though.