Canary Mission blacklists students, faculty for pro-Palestine views

Friday, March 1, 2019 - 1:33am

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Michelle Fan/Daily

Student activists joke it’s the new Tinder. With the heavily detailed profiles, including pictures taken from Facebook, information on their family and details about their education, Canary Mission provides paragraphs-long biographies about fellow activists — data that simply cannot be found on Tinder. But instead of a dating app, it’s a site some students and professors feel could derail careers and aspirations.

Canary Mission is an anonymous blacklist created in April 2015 that publishes political dossiers on student activists, professors and organizations. The website reads, “IF YOU’RE RACIST, THE WORLD SHOULD KNOW,” claiming to document “people and groups that promote hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews on North American college campuses.” There are more than 2,000 people listed on Canary Mission’s website.

When asked for comment on how the website chooses who to place on the blacklist, Canary Mission referred The Michigan Daily to its ethics policy without additional comment.

However, the site has been criticized for using “McCarthyesque” tactics to silence freedom of speech, with opponents saying it’s designed to deter its subjects from advocating for Palestine.

Associate Professor Samer Ali, director of the Center for Middle East and North African Studies and the Islamophobia Working Group, researches scapegoating and stigma. He called Canary Mission an example of both of these.

“It’s a complete surveillance operation,” Ali said. “You’re going to feel like you’re being watched, targeted. The explicit purpose of Canary Mission is to make it difficult for people to graduate and find jobs, internships or apply for funding because any employer who googles them, some of what they’ll find are these blacklists.”

While Canary Mission states its focus lies in calling out student activists, it also profiles notorious anti-Semites, such as Richard Spencer. Activists express frustration that Canary Mission groups them with neo-Nazis like Spencer. Public Policy junior Arwa Gayar is profiled on Canary Mission and said the website’s decision to group her with staunch anti-Semites underscores its problems.

“What Canary does is it puts normal people with staunch anti-Semites,” Gayar said. “Are you really going to compare me — just asking for Palestinian human rights to be recognized — to a Nazi who hates me also? Like, what is happening here? That kind of just speaks to the fallacy of it.”

LSA junior Nesma Daoud conducts research for Ali. Her work, which has yet to be published, focuses on scapegoating and includes a case study investigating those within the University system targeted by Canary Mission.

“When you google one of these people’s names, one of the first links that comes up is Canary Mission, which basically frames you almost as a terrorist,” Daoud said. “To be completely fair and completely transparent, through my research I’ve found they have a lot of alt-right people, they have a lot of people that are racist. But they are clumping together student-activists who are strictly anti-Zionist with people who are very obviously anti-Semitic.”

Daoud said Canary Mission takes social media content and distorts it to negatively portray activists.

“They’ll take quotes out of context,” Daoud said. “A lot of these quotes [from student activists, professors and organizations], even I would admit, they could have phrased them better, especially with posting on social media, but they were taken out of context in a way to paint them in a new, more anti-Semitic light.”

In the fall of 2016, Lena, a recent alum who asked to go by a pseudonym to protect her safety and privacy, was blacklisted on Canary Mission. Lena, who is Palestinian American, visited her family in the West Bank during the summer of 2015 and said she was struck by the violence she witnessed there.

“To have four soldiers in front of me with guns fully loaded, questioning my family, interrogating us, that was scary, but to my family that was normal,” Lena said. “While Palestinian people and while my family are happy with their lives, it just seems like they’re constantly battling the occupation and the effects of the occupation within their lives. That makes me think, well, I live in the United States and I have a lot of freedom that they don’t have.”

After witnessing the challenges her family faced, Lena decided to become more active in advocating for Palestinian rights on campus. Lena said she was targeted despite being cautious and ensuring her name was not publicly associated with Palestinian activism.

“It’s like they went out of their way to find this stuff and to post this stuff and to really target me as a student,” Lena said. “I was kind of in shock. I couldn’t really believe that I was put on it. I was like, ‘Oh, so this is what it feels like to be targeted.’”

Canary Mission’s ethics policy states the blacklist profiles anyone who falls under the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism; disrupts Jewish or pro-Israel speakers or events; or uses language or speech that demonizes Jews, Israel or supporters of Israel.

Ali said the effects of being placed on Canary Mission remain relatively unknown as few studies exist on the blacklist, and faculty and several students have said the blacklist is not widely known or highly regarded.

However, Ali said that does not matter. According to Ali, Canary Mission’s job is simply to create doubt.

“The only thing that needs to happen for Canary Mission to work is for an employer to doubt,” Ali said. “They’ll go with the candidate with less questions to answer. That’s all that needs to happen for Canary Mission to work. It’s a matter of spooking the employer.”

There have been instances of government agencies using information procured from the blacklist. According to Haaretz, a left-wing Israeli newspaper, the Israeli government has used data from Canary Mission to ban activists from entering Israel. The Intercept reported there have been at least two instances of FBI officials questioning students about pro-Palestinian views, referencing information from Canary Mission.

Daoud said the University appears to be targeted more than other universities, due to the presence of active Social Justice for Palestine organizations, according to the research she has completed thus far. She estimates just below 70 people associated with the University are listed on Canary Mission.

“What I’ve noticed in my research is that there are a couple of universities that you could call hotspots, where there’s more student activism,” Daoud said. “So the University of Houston, Tufts (University), George Washington University, the University of Michigan, even Stanford. Those universities have more active SJPs.”

Ali also attributed this over-representation in part to the University’s most recent divestment campaign, when CSG voted in November 2017 to create a committee to investigate divesting from University assets that activists say harm Palestinians, such as Boeing and Hewlett-Packard. While the proposal passed CSG, the University Board of Regents rejected the measure in December 2017.

“Here on campus, in particular, University of Michigan students and faculty have been singled out because the University is one of a very few number of universities where student government has passed resolutions asking the University to divest,” Ali said.

Before CSG representatives voted on the resolution at hand, they had to decide if the upcoming vote would be secret — representatives’ votes on CSG resolutions are typically public information. Those in favor of the secret ballot noted the risk of being put on blacklists like Canary Mission.

However, following the vote, some representatives who voted for the secret ballot discovered they had been placed on the blacklist, according to student sources.

LSA junior Reem Al-Khatib was placed on Canary Mission three months into her freshman year at the University after appearing in a pro-Palestine video where she stated her Palestinian identity and her support for #UMDivest, a proposal to divest University assets from certain companies that “are involved in human rights violations against the Palestinian people according to international law.”

“I’m a Palestinian freshman,” Al-Khatib said in the video. “I support #UMDivest, because as a Palestinian living in the diaspora, it is my duty to stand up for those who cannot speak for themselves.”

According to Al-Khatib and another person featured in the video, despite the fact that a dozen people appeared in the video, some speaking for longer than Al-Khatib, she was the only one who was blacklisted initially (many of those who spoke in the video were blacklisted later for other pro-Palestine work).

Several students said the blacklist targets Palestinians first, although it claims to target anyone who promotes hate of Israel or Jews, including Jewish activists.

“I was pretty irrelevant,” Al-Khatib said. “I wasn’t doing anything crazy on campus. The most crazy thing I did was doing that video, and because I said I was Palestinian, I was the only one that got targeted from that video.”

Nadine Jawad, a recent alum and former vice president of Central Student Government, said that Palestinian voices are often disfranchised, which adds importance to the role of an ally.

“I think it’s a really important point to note that, oftentimes, Palestinians are so silenced in this narrative that it’s up to allies to support this struggle for justice and freedom of speech,” Jawad said. “But that isn’t to say they don’t have agency. Palestinian people definitely speak for themselves, they’ve been advocating for themselves, for self-sufficiency for decades. I’m not saying they don’t have the agency or clout to do so, what I’m saying though is that in U.S. institutions specifically, Palestinian voices are often wiped out and not given equal weight in conversation, or they’re oftentimes just ignored purposefully, intentionally, for political reasons.”

Al-Khatib said the function of the blacklist is especially detrimental since many of those targeted have parents who immigrated to the U.S. in order for their children to receive a better education and increased opportunity.

“Education is really important to us because, in my case, the reason my parents came is so that I could get a better education and I could thrive with the resources in America, following the American Dream,” Al-Khatib said. “Canary Mission threatens that for us. I think that’s a very real fear that first-generation Americans have. It’s the most important thing for us to achieve our education. So a lot of people are immediately turned off. They’re like, ‘It’s better to stay quiet, not make a sound, make it through my education,’ because we don’t have the privilege of being able to express our political opinions without having any consequences that affect not only us, but our families.”

The blacklist does not exempt Jewish activists from its ranks. Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that “seeks an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem,” appears on Canary Mission. Mondoweiss, a foreign policy blog founded by a former New York Observer columnist who is Jewish, also appears on the blacklist, along with a number of individual Jewish activists.

LSA senior Ali Rosenblatt was a representative on CSG during the divestment campaign. Although Rosenblatt, who is Jewish, did not support the resolution nor the secret ballot, she condemns Canary Mission and said it stifles dialogue.  

Rosenblatt said her peers who were opposed to divestment were also against the blacklist. She stressed the two opinions should not be conflated with each other.

“It’s a cyber-bullying website,” Rosenblatt said. “It chills dialogue on campus. Because of the website, I’ve had more trouble having conversations with people on the other side of this issue. People are scared to talk to me because I’m Jewish, and what I’ve heard is because I’m Jewish, some wrongfully presume I must support it and I must be contributing to the website, which is so not the case. It’s unfortunate that this happens. I don’t blame people for being afraid, but that’s why I oppose it. It instills fear, and I don’t agree with that.”

While the list of representatives who voted for the secret ballot is shown in a video online, many activists said Canary Mission draws on material not readily available online, or material that may be private. Jawad said it was unknown how Canary Mission finds this information.

“Nobody knows — that’s up for speculation,” Jawad said. “If you look on Canary Mission’s website, it takes submissions, so the submissions must come from students or people that are watching the live streams. I wouldn’t venture to say that it is other U of M students — I don’t think that it is. I think it could be anybody. You never know who’s on the internet looking at you, and everything is public and live-streamed so it could literally be anybody.”

Rosenblatt agreed and said she would be surprised if students contributed tips to the blacklist.

“I think what’s a misunderstanding on this campus is that some people think that it’s a Michigan issue, so they think it must be Michigan students contributing to it,” Rosenblatt said. “This is a national issue, it’s a national website. I wouldn’t be surprised if nobody on campus contributes to it. As far as the (secret ballot) votes go, because The Daily live streams it, pretty much anybody on campus or off campus could find out who voted, and the CSG records are public.”

Al-Khatib does believe certain individuals at the University may contribute to Canary Mission. However, she noted the University’s Hillel, an opponent of #UMDivest movement, has spoken out against the blacklist.

“There’s definitely an inside source,” Al-Khatib said. “They know things that are super, super specific to our campus that no one stalking you on Facebook could know. They definitely get tipped off. Like for example, when divestment came out, in 2017 last year, we turned it in for readings just for CSG to approve, and a lot of that information got leaked and was put on Canary before it became public about co-authors and stuff like that. And that was private information. Only CSG and us could look at it, so it makes you wonder how is this information getting leaked and who’s letting it. And I know the opposition for divestment was Hillel, Hillel was leading the campaign, but they’ve spoken out about it and reached out to us about it, so I’m not saying it’s them. I think it’s individuals on this campus that are trying to degrade our cause. And they know how to target us.”

Current Hillel chair Leor Rosen, LSA junior, wrote in an email she disapproved of Canary Mission and its methods.

“Many students at Hillel, including myself, strongly oppose the intimidation tactics of Canary Mission and have spoken out against it in the past,” Rosen wrote. “The website prevents constructive dialogue and is counterproductive to efforts to oppose BDS. I want our campus to be a space where students can engage in productive discourse without fear of being targeted.”

Zoha Khalili is a staff attorney for Palestine Legal, an advocacy group that provides legal service and advice for pro-Palestine activists. The group has also been targeted by Canary Mission. Khalili said Palestine Legal has not filed any lawsuits against Canary Mission and she knows of no other law firms who have taken legal action against the blacklist’s website either. Khalili said defamation lawsuits are difficult to win because of the courts’ strong defense of freedom of speech.

“Generally we are reviewing their profiles for inaccuracies,” Khalili said. “Canary Mission often will put out vague statements that make it harder for people to take action against them when you’re defaming them. Defamation is when you’re putting out false information about someone and that causes them harm, which is something that Canary Mission engages in routinely. But because our system of government is focused more on creating the broadest area possible for free speech, it is a bit hard to litigate defamation cases.”

However, Khalili said Palestine Legal did offer students advice on when it is appropriate to report Canary Mission’s social media account. In October, Canary Mission’s Twitter account was, in fact, deactivated for two weeks for violating the website’s terms of use. It was later reinstated following appeals from supporters of the blacklist.

“Canary Mission not only uses its website, but it also uses platforms like Twitter and Facebook to contact employers and schools,” Khalili said. “I have seen them also tag the FBI in their tweets, and a lot of times those tweets will actually be more defamatory and more invading people’s privacy than the information that’s on its website in general. So we work with students in terms of reporting those messages for terms of use violations.”

Although options for legal recourse against for Canary Mission remain ambiguous, student-activists told The Daily they feel the University could do more to support its students.

Gayar said the administration should release a statement condemning the blacklist.

“If there’s a random small start-up company that’s searching up my name and they see Canary Mission, they’re going to be incredibly confused,” Gayar said. “If they don’t understand anything about what’s happening in Palestine, they’re not going to be able to understand that this is a very propaganda website. But the thing is, without my university, for example, putting out a statement saying that they don’t support this, or this is false, then I don’t have an actual legitimate body that’s backing me up on this and it’s just my word against a website.”

Jawad called on the University to do more to support students targeted by the blacklist, but noted the school may not even know the blacklists exists.

“I think that the University and all universities, like Ohio State and any other Big Ten school where their students are literally placed on blacklists, need to do more than just privately say they feel bad or sympathize with the cause, they need to outwardly condemn the blacklists,” Jawad said. “But I will give the administration the benefit of the doubt. Many administrators don’t know about the blacklist — I think there’s a communication gap between what’s happening and what the administration knows, both at Michigan and at other Big Ten schools. But to delegitimize this website, which is what needs to happen, there needs to be a large statement published by the University in large press releases, to basically say we condemn this and we accept that students have the right to speak in the way that they want. In the same way that we say freedom of speech for all other things, there should be freedom of speech for Palestine as well.”

Ali said even if the University knows of the list’s existence, they may not be aware of its impact.

“There’s always institutional inertia, until there’s a problem that’s big enough and it becomes visible on people’s radar,” Ali said. “They just don’t know that it’s impacting people’s lives, they don’t know the cost that students are getting low grades or are dropping out or are going to CAPS more often. They just don’t see all of those impacts.”

In contrast, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said student activists have asked the administration to refrain from speaking publicly about the blacklist due to fear that they may be retargeted. Fitzgerald declined to identify specific students or organizations due to privacy concerns.

“Over the years, student leaders on our campus have typically asked that the University not respond publicly regarding this group, but instead our approach has been to work with individual students to address their concerns individually,” Fitzgerald said. “Because they don’t want to be retargeted by this group, there’s concern that if the University were to speak out more publicly, that it would just bring more targeted or online harassment to our students.”

Khalili noted competing interests might stop universities from condemning the blacklist. The Forward found a Jewish charity called the Helen Diller Family Foundation earmarked $100,000 for Canary Mission in “late 2016 or early 2017.” The president of the foundation’s board, Jaclyn Safier, sits on the Board of Visitors of the University of California, Berkeley.

“A person connected with the (Diller Foundation) was actually on a board at the University of California at Berkeley,” Khalili said. “So it might be a question of the people that are involved in supporting Canary Mission, but also be involved in campus administration. So there is that internal tension that prevents campuses from speaking out.”

Gayar said individual faculty members have offered to write letters countering the information on students’ Canary Mission profiles.

“We have asked deans for any help, and a lot of them have offered to write us letters in retaliation to this,” Gayar said. “But … that’s kind of inaccessible for a lot of students who don’t have those relationships with deans, who wouldn’t know how to approach them, who don’t even know it’s an option. I know it’s an option, because I’ve been in the movement for all three years.”

Khalili said there are a number of steps universities can take to protect students from Canary Mission, one being a condemnation of the blacklist and an assurance they will not review Canary Mission when considering applications. Another option is employing universities’ legal branches, which she said has proven effective in the past.

Khalili also recommended universities provide guidance on how to keep students’ social media private, allow pro-Palestine organizations to keep their leadership private and offer culturally competent counseling services to students placed on blacklists.

Gayar said the University has taken action on things less consequential, but said she wishes administrators would “stop ignoring an entire community.”

“It’s kind of ridiculous that so many students on campus are affected by this, and they’re being demonized, and the University hasn’t done anything about this when the University has done a lot more about really small stuff, like emails, letters of recommendation, posters,” Gayar said. “The thing is, for a lot of those things, they should be talking about it. They’re in the right for releasing stuff like that but they also need to stop ignoring an entire community.”