Sun readers were recently given a dire warning in an opinion piece by one Gus Portela – “Fake News” is here in Canada, and if nothing is done, this “yellow journalism” will “spread like a cancer.”
And who brought this cancer to Canada?
Apparently, I did. I am guilty of a “pattern of misinformation,” writes Portela. The “most troublesome” example, he says, is an error I made in 2014 on my podcast CANADALAND, in a story about the Greater Essex County District School Board. It’s a mistake I corrected the following week.
What was going on here? I’m a journalist with many critics. Any one of them could cite more recent examples of my supposed misdeeds than this 2014 footnote. Why did Portela not contact me for comment before publishing such serious claims? Doing so is a bare minimum in journalism. And who is this Gus Portela?
According to his Twitter profile, he is a Washington-based Republican strategist, a Fox News regular, and the executive director of the group Accuracy In Media.
This only raised more questions.
Why was an American pundit listening to an old podcast about an Ontario school board? What motivated him to write about it for a Toronto paper? As far as I can tell, this is the first time Portela has ever written about Canada. I asked him on Twitter if he had a few minutes for a call, to let me know how he came to take an interest in my work and why he felt it was so dangerous? He refused.
Something was odd about the whole thing.
In fact, apart from this, strange things had been happening for weeks. First, my small news company’s website was knocked offline for days by a cyber attack. Also, we were targeted by a Twitter-bot attack where 33 fake accounts simultaneously shot us suspiciously similar criticism, all about a recent investigation we had published looking into the WE Movement, a large and influential philanthropic organization.
In fact, all of these things started happening after we ran that story.
To be clear, there is absolutely no reason to believe that WE is behind the attacks on my company and my site. WE has denied having anything to do with the Twitter-bot attack. I don’t think they would be involved in anything so unethical and secretive. And after all, the Kielburgers, who founded WE, have thousands of admirers around the world – any one of them could be after us.
I did learn that in defending itself to its corporate partners, WE shared a link to Portela’s damning editorial, the day after it had been published.
As a journalist who covers the media, I know a bit about fake news. Fake news, as initially defined, is not simply journalism that you disagree with, or even journalism that you think is wrong.
The original stories that launched the fake news crisis were a bunch of deliberate lies cooked-up by anonymous, hidden entities in another country, presented as “news” and intended to inspire angry division among newsreaders for undisclosed reasons. It was spread by swarms of Twitter bots impersonating real people.
Nobody knew who was behind it or why they were doing it, and there was nobody you could call to find out.
On one point, I will agree with Gus Portela: Canadians don’t need that here.