Canada’s The Rebel Media has been causing upset ever since it was founded in 2015. The alternative media outlet is well known for highly controversial coverage of sensitive political topics. But although many outlets have criticized The Rebel and its founder, Ezra Levant, an exhaustive examination of their operations has never been undertaken. Closer inspection reveals that not only does The Rebel make a business of promoting Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment, it also has deep ties to Canada’s political establishment as well as individuals and organizations with connections to intelligence agencies.
The revelations are certain to generate a discussion about ways in which the new generation of internet-based media outlets should self-investigate and police themselves.
I. Inside The Islamophobia Industry
In August 2017, Press Progress revealed that Ezra Levant was listed as receiving an undisclosed amount of funding from the Middle East Forum (MEF), a Philadelphia-based think tank that “promotes American interests in the Middle East and protects Western values from Middle Eastern threats.” The Center for American Progress has fingered the MEF as one of five key think tanks that are at the center of a network of anti-Islamic organizations. The financial tie between Levant and the MEF seriously calls into question the incentives that The Rebel has in focusing on a message that is heavily anti-immigrant, but is based mainly on emotional appeal rather than intellectual discourse.
Ezra Levant’s ties to MEF are longstanding and not merely financial in nature. Levant has a strong relationship with Daniel Pipes, an anti-Donald Trump conservative who is the founder and president of the Middle East Forum. Levant and Pipes’ history extends beyond the relationship through MEF. Both served as advisors to the anti-Muslim International Free Press Society along with others such as Dutch politician Geert Wilders and Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) consultant David Harris.
Both Pipes and the MEF hold a number of surprising connections to parties who apparently are involved with the Islamophobia industry for personal benefit. The membership of the Middle East Forum includes individuals who have worked for the Israeli government. Prominent names include MEF’s Israeli office head Daniel Seaman, who headed Israel’s Government Press Office, and Gregg Roman, MEF’s Director and former political advisor to the Deputy Foreign Minister of Israel.
Israel’s involvement in fueling anti-Muslim sentiment comes at a time where large numbers of Jewish people in Europe and the United States are considering migration to Israel over antisemitism fears. It has long been alleged that certain Zionist factions use Islamophobia as a tool to encourage immigration to Israel. Such accusations date back to the 1950’s, when both British diplomats and Iraqi authorities accused Zionists of being involved in a series of bombings that caused over 120,000 Iraqi Jews to flee to Israel during Operation Ezra and Nehemiah. Zionist groups have long played on Jewish concern over mistreatment that intensified due to persecution in Europe during the Second World War. The affiliation also has other practical purposes – it allows Israel to maintain propaganda pressure against geopolitical opponents of the Israel-Saudi nexus such as Qatar and Iran.
Non-state actors such as the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) also have members who involve themselves with promoting Islamophobia. Daniel Pipes is included on the CFR’s membership roster and broadly networks with other affiliates of the CFR in his industry. Pipes is listed as an author at the Gatestone Institute along with CFR member Elliot Abrams and other luminaries such as John Bolton and Alan Dershowitz. Abrams has been connected to the MEF for decades. In 2000, he participated in the Lebanon Study Group which was jointly sponsored by the Middle East Forum and the U.S. Committee for a Free Lebanon. He is also tied to Daniel Pipes through their mutual membership with The Washington Institute for Near East Policy where Abrams is an outside author and Pipes is an adjunct scholar of the Institute. Organizations such as Swiss Propaganda Research have exhaustively outlined the extensive involvement of the CFR in media corporations across the political spectrum.
The MEF’s extensive connection to nation-states and special interests is indicative of the kinds of influences which drive The Rebel to espouse extreme views that are blamed for causing societal offense.
II. Pervasive Involvement Canada’s Political Establishment
Although The Rebel portrays itself as anti-establishment or an “outside the system” alternative media outlet they are in fact very much the opposite. As a young man, Ezra Levant was mentored by Tom Flanagan, former advisor to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Flanagan has previously landed himself in trouble after a number of controversial statements which include a defense of viewing child pornography and calling for an assassination of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.
Levant’s long time employer Sun News Network was the brainchild born out of a secret meeting between Stephen Harper, Harper’s then-communications director Kory Teneycke, Rupert Murdoch and former Fox Executive Roger Ailes. Teneycke would eventually go on to become the vice-president of Sun News and continues to collaboratewith Levant on certain projects. The Rebel was itself largely a more extreme version of the (now defunct) Sun News. Many former Sun News employees have worked with The Rebel including Brian Lilley, Michael Coren, Marissa Semkiw, John Robson, Faith Goldy, and former IDF intelligence officer Jonathan Dahoah Halevi. Although many of these individuals have left The Rebel or been fired, their involvement indicates that the outlet is still very much tied into established interests and is intended to play a role in the mainstream media ecosystem.
The heavy association of former Sun News Network employees with an outlet that has now shifted so far to the right is ironic considering that Sun News was a subsidiary of Québecor Média. Québecor’s CEO, Pierre Karl Péladeau, was once an avowed Marxist who was formerly a leader of the social democrat Parti Québécois. Mr. Péladeau, whose avid social media use has drawn comparisons to President Donald Trump, seems not to mind ideological differences when it comes to working with parties that share a passion for bombastic behavior.
III. Connections To Special Interests
Levant is an old hand at going to war on behalf of his benefactors. While a student at the University of Calgary, Levant interned for the infamous Koch Brothers in Washington D.C. as well as the Fraser Institute in Vancouver, Canada. The Frasier Institute also receives funding from the Koch Brothers. While Levant worked at Sun Media, he authored the book “Ethical Oil” and helped found the Ethical Oil Institute with former director of issues management for Stephen Harper Alykhan Velshi. Ethical Oil engaged in an all out assault on environmentalists concerned about the impacts oil companies were having in Canada and targeted groups such as Tides Canada.
The push came at a time where Koch Industries was heavily lobbying Canada’s government to allow more unrestricted oil sands drilling and cut backs on environmentally-friendly restrictions. Clearly, Levant’s primary concern is not ideological purity but only the size of the paycheck he accepts to espouse particular views.
It is possible that The Rebel may continue to covertly receive funding from the Koch brothers by indirect means. According to research by DeSmogBlog, the Koch family-controlled Knowledge and Progress Fund has funneled millions into the non-profit Donors Trust. An examination of the groups funded by the Donors Trust shows that they have given $1.6 million to the Middle East Forum, who have in turn financed Levant and maintained professional ties to him.
IV. Potential Ties To Intelligence Agencies
The Rebel and their employees have consistently affiliated with individuals who have either an indirect or direct connection to various intelligence agencies. While some of these cases could be written off as circumstantial when viewed alone, in aggregate the various examples raise serious questions about whether or not a longstanding willingness to allow media assets of intelligence agencies to use The Rebel as a platform for propaganda exists.
Former Trump administration official Sebastian Gorka was a one-time contributor to The Rebel and used the outlet to promote propaganda including a defense of US air strikes in Syria which were unpopular with Donald Trump’s generally anti-foreign intervention voter base. Gorka, who has been lambasted for his ties to neo-nazi militia groups in Hungary and faced criminal charges there, was previously a member of the British Army’s 22 Intelligence Company of the Intelligence and Security Group which operated under the auspices of NATO. In January 2019, Gorka’s relationship with the Integrity Initiative, a British propaganda operation supported by UK’s military intelligence and Foreign Office, was exposed during a series of leaks online.
The Rebel also previously employed controversial media figure Laura Southern until March 2017. Southern is known for making offensive media content that has lead her to be the target of intense criticism. Her intended career path had been to become a member of Canadian military intelligence, but Southern’s application process was interrupted after Ezra Levant noticed her at a Toronto conference posing challenging questions on oil drilling and pipelines to his speakers.
Although Southern denies links to extremism, she has directly referenced concepts such as “The Great Replacement” in her videos. The “Great Replacement” is a far-right ideology that focuses on what they describe as the replacement of the white, Christian population of Europe by non-Europeans.
The Great Replacement was directly referenced by Christchurch shooter Brenton Tarrant, who named a manifesto he released after the ideology. Tarrant travelled extensively to locations such as Pakistan, North Korea, Turkey, parts of Africa, Portugal, Spain, France, Afghanistan and Xinjiang, China while ostensibly unemployed. Turkish state-owned media source TRT World directly accused Tarrant of entering the country in 2016 with the intent “to carry out a terror attack and/or an assassination” in connection with the coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that same year.
There are also indications that The Rebel has had no issue associating with other media outlets accused of having been infiltrated by intelligence services. Former talk radio station LBC and Daily Mail employee Katie Hopkins spent one year with The Rebel before departing in December 2018. Hopkins lost her previous positions after attending the Defend Europe initiative alongside one-time Voice of Europe writer Peter Sweden. Defend Europe unsuccessfully attempted to disrupt ships carrying migrants into Europe via the Mediterranean before retiring to the Alps for what could reasonably be interpreted as an apparent vacation. Sweden, whose real name is Peter Imanuelsen, has since disavowed Voice of Europe and with the help of his family blown the whistle on infiltration of the outlet by British intelligence services. Although The Rebel seems to have removed most references to Voice of Europe from their social media, reports from outlets such as the Guardian and Bellingcat reveal concerted work the two outlets have done to mutually promote various issues and stories to news consumers online.
V. Concerning Collection Of User Data
An examination of The Rebel’s website reveals that they are utilizing software company NationBuilder. NationBuilder provides database services to clients which allows them to expand their reach to target larger audiences. Political figures such as Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump have both used NationBuilder’s services to request voter files, as did the Brexit campaign. But in the wrong hands, such information could be weaponized to build databases of online users who might be considered “extremist” or dangerous. Anyone who accesses The Rebel’s website may find that at least some portion of their information is being logged and retained.
Considering the worrying ties Levant and The Rebel have to various intelligence agencies and political parties it is possible that such information could be used to monitor and track the activity of anyone fooled into following The Rebel due to their espousal of extreme anti-migrant and right wing views. Much like how the infiltration of Voice of Europe raised fears that British intelligence was monitoring and even weaponizing populist and nationalist followers for political ends, the affiliations of certain individuals with The Rebel raise similar concerns.
The deep ties held by Levant to organizations who make a business out of promoting Islamophobia, his longstanding work with the political establishment of Canada and various special interests undermine the journalistic integrity of his outlet. The continual involvement of intelligence services-tied individuals with Levant and The Rebel is also a worthy cause for self-reflection and worry in alternative media.
With political division continuing to intensify since 2016, there is an ever-increasing need to self-regulate the community and hold each other accountable. When individuals like Ezra Levant are allowed to establish large operations that involve many prominent media figures who are often associated with nationalism or populism, the skeptical regard with which more mainstream organizations and independent news consumers view these ideologies and individuals cannot be said to be unmerited. Perhaps it is time all of us to strive to be better.