Major Canadian News Outlets Keep Giving Platforms to Conspiracy Theorists and Racists
Last week, The National Post and BlogTO published positive stories about a conspiracy theory organization with ties to alt-right movements. Both outlets left out crucial background information.
On Wednesday, The National Post published a piece about Vladislav Sobolev, the founder of Hugs Over Masks, and his new spin-off group We Are All Essential, that faced criticism for both its sympathetic tone and details that it left out. The piece was also featured in The Edmonton Journal, despite it’s mentions of specific Ontario’s policies that wouldn’t apply to Alberta. The article cites recent coverage from a BlogTO article that portrays Sobolev positively.
In what some saw as a controversial and unexpected omission, the National Post did not mention Hugs Over Masks, despite the organization being Sobolev’s biggest claim to fame. When asked for comment, author Margarita Maltceva confirmed that not mentioning Hugs Over Masks was an intentional decision, stating, “I didn’t mention about Hugs Over Masks because the story was about the reopening of small businesses. That’s why I mentioned just the WAAE (We Are All Essential)”.
Update: On Feb. 8 The National Post revised their story to include a mention of Hugs Over Masks.
The piece also doesn’t mention Sobolev’s recent comments about dragging the children of Toronto police officers out of their homes, his work for controversial multilevel marketing scheme Herbalife, or that he frequently pushed disproven conspiracy theories about Covid-19, including theories that the virus does not exist or that Bill Gates created it. It doesn’t mention that he frequently offends the families of Holocaust survivors by comparing the state of modern Canada to Nazi Germany, that he moderates Facebook Groups that allow openly racist and violent sentiments, that he claims George Soros staged the Capital Hill riots, or that he has a long history of anti-vaccine activism.
Nor did they mention his well known associations with figures accused of unabashed racism like David Icke and Chris “Sky” Saccoccia, who used to work alongside Sobolev as a Hugs Over Masks Co-Founder and who has called Muslim Canadians “sub-human”.
As a matter of fact, The National Post didn’t mention any of Sobolev’s high profile and well-documented controversies. It discussed Sobolev’s pandemic activism without even mentioning that he doesn’t believe it’s a “real pandemic”.
The National Post and BlogTO were not the only major Canadian news outlets that covered We Are Essential last week. Global News mentioned We Are All Essential in a Feb. 4 story that did not include Sobolev’s name.
We Are All Essentially Screwed
February 3rd’s National Post article links twice to We Are All Essential’s Facebook page and once to its website, which talks about their partnership with alt-right media outlet Rebel News and contains a resource page filled with false and misleading medical information.
One page alleges that “Anyone who died from a primary cause of death, like heart attacks, Alzheimer’s, suicide, cancer — their death record was changed to COVID-19 if they had tested positive or showed symptoms.” This claim has been widely disproven.
The site features a Microsoft Word template for signage targeting police and by-law officers, claiming that any authority attempting to set foot on a business not fulfilling certain requirements would face a set fine of $100,000.
Vladislav Sobolev rose to national prominence last year for his conspiracy theory vlogs and his intersecting anti-vaccine and anti-mask activism. Although he is most well known as the founder of Hugs Over Masks, Canada’s largest anti-mask group, he is also heavily involved with Vaccine Choice Canada.
Sobolev’s conspiracy theory vlogs and social media posts often echo beliefs from followers of Q Anon, including the theory that prominent politicians are suppressing life-saving Covid-19 treatments for the virus in order to assert “globalist communist” control.
One of Sobolev’s Facebook posts from November reads, “Masks are mandated as compliance tools used to take away people’s freedom as the first step to bringing Communism to a Democracy, this is what’s taking place. Medical experts and main stream media are pushing the Globalist Agenda to destroy the economy and take away our rights, these are crimes against humanity. All those involved in this scam are guilty of Crimes against Humanity.”
In July of last year, Sobolev organized and spoke at a Hugs Over Masks event that he promoted using the hashtag “#Savethechildren”, a Q Anon slogan. In January, Sobolev spread the conspiracy theory that Holocaust survivor George Soros had actually funded the January 6 attacks on the United States Capitol building, and that one perpetrator’s tattoo was proof of Communist involvement. George Soros’ name is often invoked by alt-right figures, including Q Anon, to push antisemitic rhetoric.
In reality, the tattoo in question is a symbol from Dishonored, a popular video game series.
This Isn’t a One-Off
This is not the first time the National Post has faced criticism for their coverage of conspiracy theorists. In December, The National Post featured a front page interview with Kyle Kemper, the half-brother of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in which the Post detailed Kemper’s grievances with his brother’s Covid-19 response.
Independent journalist Justin Ling criticized the coverage, while the author, John Ivison emphasized that the coverage was not an endorsement.
In a Twitter reply to me last month, Kemper defended his appearance alongside David Icke in a Toronto conspiracy theory panel, asking if I was really familiar with Icke’s material. Icke has been a key figure in the Canadian anti-mask movement, having been featured in webcam speeches alongside Plandemic star Judy Mikovits as well as Canadian activists Lamont Daingle, Kelly Anne Farkas, Chris “Sky” Saccoccia, and Vladislav Sobolev himself.
David Icke’s core teachings revolve around his belief in The Archon — a race of human-reptile hybrids born of alien DNA — which Icke believes control most of the world’s governments. Icke has been called an antisemite for frequently echoing antisemitic conspiracy theories and for endorsing The Protocols of The Elders of Zion, a series of falsified texts alleging that all Jews were part of a secret plot to control the world.
Media company Freshdaily and its subsidiary BlogTO both suit a niche of Buzzfeed-style reporting specific to the Greater Toronto Area. Much of their part-time writing staff also work for larger, more established outlets including The Toronto Star, while others write for them while they’re still in Journalism school. Freshdaily and BlogTO have intersecting staff, and BlogTO is one of Toronto’s most popular news outlets with 749 thousand Instagram followers and 790 thousand Facebook fans, more than even the Toronto Star. Freshdaily has 1.4 million Facebook fans.
In September, Freshdaily actually published an article about Hugs Over Masks that sourced my time in their Facebook group. In their coverage, they linked back to my piece a couple times, but it also looked like they had copied, pasted, and modified a few sentences directly from my writing.
I later offered BlogTO a Toronto-centric story about a similar subject, not knowing at the time that it was owned by Freshdaily. I also didn’t know at the time that Lauren O’Neil, BlogTO’s senior editor and former CBC journalist had recently been accused of falsifying a since-removed story related to an activist group.
In September, BlogTO covered Moms Against Distancing (MAD) — an unregistered charity and accused scam founded by Chris Saccoccia, a childless man — with some skepticism and humour.
By January, their coverage of Saccoccia and his past and present organizations, Hugs Over Masks included, was much more favourable. Lauren O’Neil’s Feb. 3 story about Sobolev that included Saccoccia read like a wholehearted endorsement of the movement.
As if to balance the scales, O’Neil’s Feb. 6 follow up article referred to Saccoccia as a “conspiracy theory bro”, discussed public backlash towards We Are All Essential, and voiced support for Toronto police officers enforcing health and safety measures, stating, “Regardless of how customers and community members feel, laws are laws”.
Saccoccia is known for his roles in Hugs Over Masks, MAD, and Canada’s Yellow Vests, a defunct far-right activism group with ties to prominent neo-nazis. In December Saccoccia defended comments he‘s made in the past referring to Muslims as “sub-human” and “low iq animals”.
In October of last year, Saccoccia exchanged conspiracy theories about Jews with podcast host Derek Harrison on Plaid Army, an openly racist podcast series popular among Canadian white nationalists and white supremacists. In the past, Saccoccia has referred to Jews as “Those who shall not be named” and alleged that they “own the media”.
It may be the largest, but BlogTO is not the only Toronto media outlet that took a hard turn into alt-right territory in 2020. During the George Floyd protests last Summer, Toronto Caribbean Newspaper’s podcast positively discussed Black Lives Matter. In January, the same host spoke with David Icke about how Black Lives Matter was created by a “cult” of global elites in order to sow division. Icke maintained that the slogan “Black Lives Matter” was racist, but “All Lives Matter” was not.
National Post journalist Margarita Maltceva declined to comment on this article before publication, but did say that the National Post’s article would be updated, stating, “I would like to deny your offer to comment on this piece since this article will be further updated.”
The article was updated on Monday, February 8.
This article is part of an ongoing series about the spread of the alt-right in Canada in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. For previous entries, visit dancollen.medium.com.
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