Sanctioning independent news: brought to you by big tech

Dissenting journalists are being severed from their financial lifelines.

In late August, The Grayzone, an investigative journalism site, began a fundraising effort to provide full time positions for three of its contributing journalists. After raising over $90,000 using the popular fundraising site GoFundMe, they received a notice from the platform stating that their donations were being held pending a “review,” prompted by some external concerns.”

There is a disturbing trend emerging in the independent media space as tech platforms and government agencies continue to crush dissent and free speech on the internet. One method they have successfully harnessed is preventing independent voices and news sites from collecting donations from their supporters. Crowdfunding and payment processing platforms offer vague explanations for this and are almost never held accountable.

Among other dissenting voices (on the right and the left), anti-war and anti-imperialist journalists are being targeted with financial sanctioning. Investigative site MintPress News had a similar experience with GoFundMe in March 2022, and along with Consortium News, it was suspended from PayPal in the months that followed. Wyatt Reid, one of the three journalists The Grayzone sought to hire full-time, was also banned from PayPal and its subsidiary Venmo last year, likely due to his on-the-ground reporting in the eastern provinces of Ukraine.

By challenging conventional narratives about war and exposing what Western leaders would rather keep hidden, the above-mentioned outlets surely evoke the ire of governments and their security services—the likely parties expressing “concerns” to tech platforms. While The Grayzone’s supporters were inevitably able to receive refunds and the campaign was able to continue on another platform, questions remain about GoFundMe’s actions and the broader implications of the incident. 

Outlets like The Grayzone, MintPress and Consortium News are primarily supported by their audiences, allowing them to provide their sites to the public free of cost, advertisements and editorial constraints. In the times we’re living in, this model appears both as a strength and a vulnerability: streams of grassroots funding can be switched off in a keystroke. Though the frequency of this kind of financial sanctioning has recently increased, it isn’t a new tactic. After releasing a tranche of US diplomatic cables in late 2010, WikiLeaks was subjected to a banking blockade by Visa, Mastercard, PayPal, Bank of America and Western Union, preventing the transfer of donations to the controversial publisher.

Sanctioning journalism through online financial service providers has already become a weapon against freedom of speech on the internet. It is a concerted effort to take the legs out from underneath independent news organizations that challenge official narratives and orthodoxies.

We are subjected to a barrage of propaganda and disinformation daily from mainstream media outlets and Western governments. Especially with the recent eruption of violence in Israel and Palestine, the essential role of independent journalism—telling the truth about what is (and what has been) happening—has become abundantly clear.


Protesters at McGill cancel talk by law professor with ties to the LGB Alliance

The incident sparked debates between the balance of free speech and hate speech on University Campuses

On Tuesday Jan. 10, the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism (CHRLP) from McGill University hosted a talk called “The Sex vs. Gender (Identity) Debate in the United Kingdom and the Divorce of LGB from T.” 

The event was disrupted by more than 100 protesters due to the presence of controversial guest speaker and McGill alumni Robert Wintemute. Wintemute is a Human Rights Law Professor at King’s College London and a trustee of the LGB Alliance — an advocacy group funded in the UK that opposes certain policies for transgender rights on the grounds that they undermine those of lesbians, bisexuals and gay men and cisgender women.

The protestors occupied the first floor of Chancellor Day Hall and interrupted the professor’s talk by unplugging the projector, which then led to him being escorted out by McGill staff. 

Celeste Trianon, a law student at Université de Montréal and trans rights activist, helped organize the campaign against Wintemute’s seminar.

According to Trianon and other queer advocacy groups, one of the LGB Alliance’s main goals is to oppose policies that aim at protecting and advancing trans rights. 

Trianon explained that the organization had, among other things, lobbied against the “legal recognition of gender identity in the British and Scottish contexts” and works “in collaboration with other anti-trans organizations in the United States.”

She added that, in Canada, the LGB Alliance opposed the inclusion of transgender people in Bill C-4, which prohibited conversion therapy.

“Their whole idea is based on a far-right concept called ‘drop the T’ which is a strategy to divide the queer community by separating transgender people from the rest of the community,” said Trianon. “It is an organization that disguises itself as a pro-women’s rights and pro-gay and lesbian organization.”

Trianon is worried about the international scope that the Alliance is gaining, including in Canada. 

“This is reflected in the fact that all the hate I received after the demonstration came from all over the world and not only from Quebec,”

Said Trianon.

Trianon went on to elaborate on the hate messages and death threats she received via email and social media.

In an interview with The Concordian, Wintemute said that part of his talk was to argue that trans people’s rights, particularly those of trans women, sometimes infringe on cis women’s rights and that legislation against discrimination was “full of contradictions.” He asserted the belief that many cis women agreed with his position but were too afraid or intimidated to speak up against pro-trans rights policies.

“What I was doing was no hate speech at all. Freedom of expression covers even ideas that can offend or disturb. There’s a tendency today that says disagreement equals hatred, but it doesn’t,”

Said Wintemute.

Wintemute argued that the protestors had no right to disturb his talk, comparing the event to “a mini version of the US Congress in Jan. 2021 or the Brazilian capital in Jan. 2023.”

McGill University declined to comment on the incident. A spokesperson from the CHRLP sent out an email saying, “Every year, the CHRLP organizes a range of events on a variety of human rights issues […] They are not an endorsement of any speaker’s views. McGill recognizes and supports the rights of its students to peaceful protest on campus.”

“This defense of academic freedom as an absolute concept is used to defend hate speech,” said Trianon. “We really have to ask ourselves who was really violent? Was it the protesters or this speech that puts trans people in danger? How do we define violence?”


Freedom of expression on campus

Why the JCCF’s findings on Concordia’s free speech policies are not credible

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) has published their 2017 Campus Freedom Index. The index grades universities and student unions on their defence of free speech on campus—on paper and in practice. According to the index, Concordia’s policies regarding free speech receive a B, while its practices earn a C for 2017. The Concordia Student Union (CSU) was given an F for its policies and a C for its practices.

These findings seem quite concerning. As I’m sure most people would agree, universities are meant to be bastions of free speech. Various media outlets seem to share this concern. Articles by Maclean’s and the CBC have outlined the supposed demise of free speech on Canadian university campuses, citing the Campus Freedom Index as evidence.

As with so many discussions in the media about the free speech debate, these articles fail to critically engage with the ideology behind the Campus Freedom Index and other free speech crusades. In particular, considering the known ideological leanings of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, it’s imperative that we frame any of their findings appropriately.

So, in the interest of free speech, here is the other side of the argument. The JCCF is an organization that spends much of its time defending campus anti-abortion groups. We must remember that abortion rights in Canada are not a given. Many groups are still actively working to undermine and reverse current protections. Last month, the membership of the second-largest federal political party in Canada nearly voted to revoke restrictions on anti-abortion legislation being introduced in Parliament.

When abortion rights are limited or revoked, mothers die. It’s as simple as that. Moreover, the tactics used by anti-abortion groups frequently cross the line into direct harassment. Even so, the JCCF is actively defending a group that set up a prominent anti-abortion display in the middle of the University of Alberta campus. Vulnerable members of our communities are targeted by such displays. And so, by giving a platform to these sorts of ideas, we risk further marginalizing people and silencing their voices and ideas.

Universities and student organizations have a duty to protect their students. They are responsible for creating a space where everybody can engage in academic debate and discussion. If universities allow harassing, violent speech on campus—if they help foster unsafe spaces—they are limiting the number of voices that will be heard in any given debate.

Paradoxical as it may seem, reasonable limits on speech are necessary for free speech to thrive. Limits on paper are necessary to eliminate greater restrictions in practice by those with more structural power. I am proud to be a member of a student union whose policies actively bolster the voices of the marginalized. I am proud to study at a school that understands that totally unfettered speech on campus is not a standard to which we should aspire.

The debate over free speech on campus likely won’t end anytime soon. In a political and philosophical minefield, there aren’t any easy solutions. What I do hope for, at least, is that we can lift the veneer of neutrality in calls for “free speech on campus.”

In particular, when the free speech debate enters the world of actual policy—such as Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s threat to withhold funding from universities that do not comply with his government’s narrow definition of free speech—we need to engage with the deeply ideological frameworks that calls for free speech rest upon. Free speech, as championed by the JCCF and the Ford government, among others, limits the speech of the marginalized. Media that report on these groups must grapple with that reality, lest they be complicit in that same marginalization.

Archive graphic by Zeze Le Lin



Banning and suspending users is problematic

Twitter is wrongly censoring certain swear words in order to prevent potential abuse

Twitter helps disseminate an idea quickly and provides users with a large audience to convey their messages to, no matter how many followers or important figures follow them. Although this is great when it comes to promoting an event or a social cause close to your heart, it can also have negative outcomes. As we have seen, social media platforms can lead to abuse and the spread of hateful messages. It might be easier to share your well-intentioned ideas, but it’s also easier to share ill-intentioned ones.

Twitter has been criticized by the public for inefficiently dealing with “trolls”—people who spread hateful comments to start fights. But lately, Twitter is using a new system. According to the Washington Post, instead of reviewing content that was signalled as abusive, Twitter detects certain keywords that, if used, will cause the platform to mute users for 12 hours. Muting is not the same as banning. You can still use your account, but if you mention someone who doesn’t follow you, the mentioned account won’t be notified about the tweet. And if someone retweets from the punished account, only those following the punished account will be able to see the retweet.

While this mute feature is not as drastic as a ban, I still find it highly problematic. What exactly is considered abusive speech? Twitter is a bit vague about this. The message Twitter issues when an account gets muted is: “We’ve temporarily limited some of your account features […] We’ve detected some potentially abusive behaviour from your account, so only your followers can see your activity on Twitter for the amount of time shown below.”

One user, Victoria Fierce, was recently muted for tweeting: “Fuck you, I gotta piss, and you’re putting me—an American—in danger of assault by your white supremacist brothers,’’ to Vice President Mike Pence. Twitter didn’t give a specific explanation for why she was muted—it might have been her use of the F-word or even the phrase “white supremacist.” It’s incredibly ambiguous. I’m assuming she was muted because of her swearing. While it’s not the most elegant way to speak, swearing has its purpose when trying to show outrage or convey emotion toward a certain topic. In my opinion, swearing, while being shocking, is a useful tool and should not be censored just to prevent potential harassment.

Using algorithms to punish users, rather than a human who can understand context, is problematic. Everything has context, and words that generally shouldn’t be used might be acceptable depending on the user’s intention. For example, how does a bot designed to oversee abusive tweets detect sarcasm, which is all about context? In its attempt to prevent abuse, Twitter may be silencing people who shouldn’t be silenced. That is terrifying, and we should be careful not to confuse “preventing hate speech” with “preventing people from using certain keywords.” I also find the 12-hour mute policy problematic. Since it’s done automatically, your ability to communicate with a larger audience is being restricted without understanding exactly what you did wrong. Twelve hours in today’s intense information-sharing cycle is a long time.

Some Twitter users have also pointed out that it seems the ban is mostly being used against people who tweet at a verified account. If this is actually the case, it causes another problem. Twitter is protecting public figures who can rely on a strong community of followers to help them fight the abuse. Meanwhile, small users with few followers or little influence become victims of abuse and are not prioritized by this new preventative system.

Since Twitter is its own entity, one could argue the platform has the right to put all the restrictions it wants on users. Yet as a major communication tool, I think it’s Twitter’s responsibility to make sure users’ right to free speech is being respected. I don’t wish for anyone to be the target of abuse on social media, but I think preventing innocent people from using certain words can fall into the category of censorship—which is a whole other serious action that cannot be accepted.

Graphic by Alexa Hawksworth


The line between conversation and action

France’s new catcalling law brings up a larger question about meaningful change

In light of the Harvey Weinstein scandal in Hollywood and the rise of the #MeToo movement, sexual harassment has become an issue at the forefront of everyone’s minds. France is hoping to take action against one particular form of harassment—catcalling.

Catcalling is the act of whistling or shouting sexually suggestive comments to passers-by, usually women. France is looking to make this form of sexual harassment a ticketable offence. A CNN report states: “Men who catcall, harass or follow women on the street in France could face on-the-spot fines under a new sexual abuse law.” However, France isn’t stopping there, according to a report in The New York Times. The law would extend the statute of limitations on reporting sexual assault involving minors as well as fining men who make overt, lewd comments or are aggressive towards women.

While this appears to be a major step forward for women in France, I have doubts about the effectiveness of these potential laws. In a perfect world, this new legislation would come into effect and women in France would feel much safer in their day-to-day lives. These kinds of laws could also set a precedent for other countries in Europe and around the world. However, for all that to happen, these laws will have to overcome many obstacles, the first and most cumbersome being existing free speech laws.

The right to express opinions is ingrained in the French constitution. The constitution states, “Any citizen may therefore speak, write and publish freely, except what is tantamount to the abuse of this liberty in the cases determined by Law.” Based on this, can catcalling be qualified as an “abuse” of this right? In my opinion, there is potential for catcalling and other forms of street harassment to be considered as such in France.

Also, there is a risk that even if this law does get passed, it will be respected and policed the same way jaywalking is. Most people jaywalk because, if they aren’t caught in the act, they won’t face consequences. I believe catcalling could fall into the same trap. If someone isn’t caught in the act, they won’t face any repercussions. The law would be on the books in France, but I think it would serve more of a symbolic role than anything else.

Symbolic laws and movements, like hashtags, have their advantages. Take the women’s marches that happened around the world after Trump’s election, or the #MeToo movement. All these actions started conversations. However, they also run the risk of fading away. In my opinion, real and recognizable action, like this potential law, is needed for meaningful change to occur.

Laws like the ones being considered in France could be the beginning of that real change. However, I worry this is just a really nice idea that will calm peoples’ rage about sexual harassment rather than actually take a step towards solving a real and pervasive problem.

The fact that these powerful movements have created such a strong outpour of emotion and caused governments to consider new laws fosters great hope. But talking about it and actually getting it done are very different things. The phrase “actions speak louder than words” rings true in this case. I don’t want to undermine how incredible it is that people are starting to have very open and honest conversations. Talking about important issues is always helpful for getting the ball rolling. However, if real, enforceable action isn’t taken in some capacity, whether it be through education or, in this case, new laws being implemented, then we risk living in an endless cycle of talking instead of doing.

Graphic by Zeze Le Lin


The right to learn comes before the right to free speech

Why universities should encourage developing knowledge-based opinions

I believe freedom of speech on college and university campuses should be limited when it jeopardizes academic endeavours. Academic institutions were originally intended to provide a wide understanding of the world through the lenses of the fields students were interested in. Research was mostly done to be able to understand certain phenomena, rather than to prove a certain ideology right or wrong.

This is where programs such as gender studies, First Peoples studies and exchange programs can be beneficial. When completed with academic rigor, they shed light on issues and perspectives that are unknown to those who don’t experience them firsthand.

As learners of the world, students should be exposed to as much knowledge as possible in order to take informed stances and develop thoughtful perspectives on various issues. I believe that advocates for free speech on university campuses often skip over another important right: the right to know as much as possible about a topic. The right to access information as free from censorship, bias and prioritization as possible before forming an opinion on a subject. However, the atmosphere of higher education has shifted to a more active and socially involved mindset which leads people to skip this first step that is necessary for them to form accurate and truthful opinions.

Universities have become a place where students can be more active about social issues and take on more significant roles inside the learning institution. For instance, the student strike in 2012 and the much earlier Concordia computer riots of 1969 proved it’s possible to apply physical force to disrupt classes and stop people from learning in order to demonstrate one’s political beliefs.

I fondly remember the first few times I entered the Hall building in the winter of 2016 and saw the big red and black CSU banners decrying tuition hikes and advocating for fossil fuel divestment. I was a new student at the time, and I felt intellectually too young to take a side. I needed to learn more about what was going on before I could jump on the bandwagon and express myself with words and slogans I’d feel comfortable standing by.

This is where the shift has occurred on college and university campuses. Students today form arguments on matters prior to considering all of the existing arguments and facts on the topic. I don’t think this is a positive change, as it makes it easier to disrupt people’s learning by creating tensions between those who hold opposite views. We must consider the possibility that many students advocate for ideas they hold as truths before they even fully understand what their message entails.

Most of us don’t take enough time to wonder why we hold certain opinions, as it just seems “obvious” that it’s the right one. Freedom of speech allows you to say what you believe, but what many forget is you first need to know whether what you want to say is, in fact, true.

This is where the rigor and methodology of academia comes in handy. In class, you need to cite evidence, formulate sound and logical arguments that stand together and, more importantly, you have to understand the opposite view.

I hope this won’t be forgotten as many more students use their freedom of speech to become involved in activism of all sorts. A new academic year is beginning at Concordia, and I know that many students will jump in the ring to advocate for certain issues that resonate with them.

I hope they won’t forget that Concordia means “harmony” in Latin. Even though no one will ever be satisfied with the level of free speech they are given on campus, hopefully we’ll all strive to create a harmonious place of learning with a safe and self-improving mindset.

Graphics by Alexa Hawksworth


Concordia is not an intellectual “free market”

Why liberal bias on campus hurts freedom of speech

Free speech has recently become a contentious topic at The Concordian. Last week, the newspaper published an article titled “Safe spaces: Both useful and necessary,” refuting my previous objections to safe spaces.

One of the article’s main arguments, stated that “the increase in safe spaces across university campuses is a sign that the concept of a safe space is succeeding in this ‘free market.’” But claiming that all universities, and Concordia specifically, represent a free market is not just intellectually dishonest—it’s laughable.

Liberal bias is institutionally entrenched by students and universities. Dissenters can do little to be heard when universities, university groups and students stifle opinions.

The Toronto Sun reported that Generation Screwed, a group opposing expanding entitlements and government control, was kicked off a parking space at Laval University last month for “unsanctioned activism.” The university demanded the group get a permit to protest, which the school refused to give, without stating a reason.

“The very concept of having to get a permit to express yourself we think is just absolutely ridiculous,” said Aaron Gunn, executive director of Generation Screwed, according to the same article in the Toronto Sun. Protesting is a right—one university’s should not institutionally control.

Even when universities do the right thing, many students help perpetrate this authoritarian control of the narrative. According to CBC News, a student from Mount Royal University in Calgary was recently threatened and robbed of his “Make America Great Again” hat by students who called it “hate language.”

I like to wear my “Make America Great Again” hat too. The pro safe spaces article in The Concordian indicated speech limitations in safe spaces are no more extreme than Canada’s Charter. But when political disagreement is deemed hateful, like the incident in Alberta and through my own experiences as a conservative have shown me it is, we’re left with no choice but to succumb to Big Brother or be shunned.

Narrative-control happens at Concordia too, albeit more insidiously. Recently, Reggies hosted a Rap Battle for Climate Justice, organized by the CSU and student groups, to discuss the topic of pipelines, fossil fuels, and tar sands through a rap battle. Despite featuring arguments and counterarguments for environmental justice, the event was anything but a real battle.

The pro-economy performers were caricatures “dressed in suits, walking around throwing fake $100 bills in every direction,” it was written in The Concordian article covering the event. Participant Mutatayi Fuamba even admitted that everyone present shared the same opinions. “We are all against fossil fuels—we are all for social justice and climate justice,” he said.

Climate justice is complex. Yes, protecting the environment and communities is important—but so are the millions of jobs and dollars tied up in Alberta’s oil industry.

I’m tired of our campus pretending it wants to tackle big issues, then asserting its bias as inherently correct through careful manipulation of speakers. We’re not having discussions so much as lectures in echo chambers.

The opinions of marginalized students should be heardbut dissenters shouldn’t automatically be labeled hateful, racist, sexist or anything else.

I don’t want liberal or marginalized speakers silenced—I want a variety of speakers. I want to be persuaded with well-formulated arguments from both sides. I want to be encouraged to share my opinions and political affiliations without fear of attack, theft or character assassination.

When Concordia organizes events with speakers from the same side of the argument under the guise of discussion, not all sides are being truly addressed. Those who haven’t done a lot of research on some of these complex issues might assume all sides are being represented, and that liberal ideas are winning. But they’re not—they’re just not competing.

Graphic by Florence Yee

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