A Shadowy Website Targets Student Protesters With 'Classic McCarthyism'
Illustration by Daniel Greenfeld for The Village Voice
This past July, Thomas DeAngelis discovered that a bizarre website had placed his name and photo next to claims that he was "whitewashing terrorist violence and calling for more." The site lists where he goes to school and what he’s studied, includes a lengthy description of his political activity, and even links to his Facebook page and Twitter handle.
DeAngelis, 23, is a first year doctoral student in the Earth and Environmental Sciences program at the CUNY Graduate Center and a longtime activist with Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). The profile on his political activities was posted to CanaryMission.org, a website that publishes the names, photographs, and biographical information of students engaged in Palestine activism across the United States.
"I figured it was going to happen at some point," DeAngelis told the Voice of being added to the site. DeAngelis, who earned his undergraduate degree at Brooklyn College, was immediately concerned about how his employer – CUNY’s Graduate Center — would react.
"I hope they don’t find it because I don’t know how they’re going to take it," he remembers thinking.
His fears are understandable. DeAngelis’s extensive profile on Canary Mission details the various events he has been involved in organizing, posted under subtitles like "Brooklyn SJP – Spreading lies and hate." Several photos of DeAngelis are posted on the site along with screenshots of internet pages where his name is posted.
In addition to creating an online database, Canary Mission also employs an aggressive social media campaign, tweeting out information about students and faculty along with their handles, a tactic that inevitably results in a barrage of hate for those at the other end. DeAngelis has received a lot of harassment on Twitter as a result of Canary Mission, although he said that the women he knows who are listed on the site have it much worse.
Shezza Dallal is also listed on the site. She is a recent graduate of Barnard College, where she was a lead organizer with Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine. "There’s no doubt that women have been a primary target of Canary Mission and the consequent online harassment we’ve been witnessing," Dallal told the Voice.
The website, which was launched in May 2015, now contains profiles of over 600 individuals, most of them people of color. The site targets students and professors at universities across the U.S., in addition to a small number of people employed by Jewish Voice for Peace and other Palestine advocacy groups.
"Canary Mission’s simple interface allows you to easily explore profiles of radical individuals and organizations," boasts a narrator in a video posted on the site. "It is your duty to ensure that today’s radicals are not tomorrow’s employees." For many of the students profiled, the site is the first or second site that comes up when their names are googled.
According to advocates, the "blacklisting" of activists on Canary Mission is part of a broader crackdown on pro-Palestine speech, a phenomenon that they say has become particularly acute in New York.
In June, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the nation’s first executive order mandating a withdrawal of public funds from any group or individual that promotes the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. The BDS movement, which is said to be inspired by the South African anti-apartheid struggle, calls for the economic, political, and cultural isolation of Israel in order to achieve three aims: ending the occupation of Palestine, ensuring the full equality of Arab-Palestinian citizens in Israel, and promoting respect for the Palestinian right of return.
But these tactics have come under scrutiny from Israel supporters, like Cuomo, who has called BDS a "hateful, intolerant campaign." His executive order also requires New York to create a list of companies or entities that support BDS and publish it online, a move that was widely condemned by civil rights attorneys and the NYCLU.
Charges of anti-Semitism in Palestine activism on CUNY campuses also helped snowball a threat to cut $485 million from the city university system last spring, although a recently released, six-month report concluded that these concerns were unfounded. In September, in a separate initiative, the City Council voted 40-4 on a non-binding resolution to condemn BDS.
"The major way that McCarthyism worked was not because the government went in and punished people for the speech that they engaged in," explains Corey Robin, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center whose name and photo are also featured on the site. "The bulk of it was precisely through these contacts amongst private employers and universities and non-state institutions that would sanction individuals for their speech."
For Canary Mission to come up with a list, publicize it, and reach out to potential employers and graduate students "is classic McCarthyism," he added. "Because what you’re really saying is, we’re going to exile you from all aspects of society."
A screenshot of a typical tweet from Canary Mission's Twitter account.
Canary Mission does not list any staff members, funders, or affiliated organizations. In September 2015, AlterNet linked the site to the Orthodox Israeli group Aish HaTorah, which is known for promoting both pro-settlement and Islamophobic political views in the United States. Aish did not immediately respond to a comment request from the Voice about their connection to Canary Mission.
The Jewish Daily Forward also connected the site to the Israeli advocacy group VideoActivism, although they strenuously denied the claim; CEO Jonathan Bash told the Forward that VideoActivism has "no connection to the Canary Mission." There is no media contact information listed on Canary Mission, although the Voice did attempt to reach the team via Twitter.
"I was really worried about younger people who got put on [Canary Mission]," said DeAngelis, referring to freshman or sophomores who ended up on the site shortly after getting involved with SJP.
Radhika Sainath is staff attorney for Palestine Legal, which engages in training, advocacy, and litigation support to Palestine activists across the country.
"Students call us asking: Should I take down my Twitter account? Should I stop writing articles? How is this going to affect my career?" Sainath said. "They’re terrified they won’t be able to travel on planes, that their families will be affected, that they won’t be allowed to visit grandparents in Israel or Palestine — all for taking a principled stance on a human rights issue."
The Village Voice reached out to CUNY to comment on whether there are any protections in place for students or faculty posted on Canary Mission. The school did not immediately respond.
Asked a series of questions about how the university system views Canary Mission’s activity, a spokesperson for CUNY emailed the following statement:
"Protected speech and expressive conduct are valued at CUNY. Diversity of opinions is especially essential in academia, where speech is often provocative and challenging. The First Amendment protects students, including prospective students seeking admission to graduate programs."
Dallal, the recent Barnard graduate, vowed to continue organizing despite Canary Mission’s efforts.
"At the end of the day, this is work that I will continue to do proudly," Dallal says. "Not despite but because we are still in a place where a movement of and for human rights can be met by McCarthyite tactics of intimidation that disrespect and violate the standards of freedom, civility, and equality we champion in this country."
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