Since January, a set of Canadian Facebook pages have been promoting conservative politicians, attacking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and sharing content culled primarily from conservative website the Post Millennial.
The pages — one for Ontario, one for Alberta, and one national — use the name Liberty Now and have more than 10,000 followers. They are part of a larger network of Facebook pages that cross-promote content from the Post Millennial, potentially reaching millions of Canadians in a matter of hours and at times rivaling the reach of the country’s biggest newspapers and broadcasters.
Yet despite its role in a network that is becoming increasingly prominent in the Canadian online media ecosystem, Liberty Now has never disclosed who runs the pages.
Multiple Facebook messages sent to the pages requesting information about their ownership went unanswered, but an investigation by BuzzFeed News and the Toronto Star confirmed Liberty Now is the work of Yaakov Pollak, a former candidate for the provincial Conservative Party in Montreal who now works for the Post Millennial.
The opaque network and its associations with the Post Millennial and Conservative Party politics show how anonymous players on social media can blur the lines between advocacy, journalism, and marketing, according to Fenwick McKelvey, an associate professor at Concordia University who specializes in political communication.
“Either you’re a journalistic outlet where you have standards ... or you’re an advocacy group, in which case then at least you need to be transparent,” he said.
McKelvey said the anonymous operation of the Liberty Now pages “undermines the spirit of free and fair elections, because you’re not disclosing and having transparency” about links to political parties and partisan publishers.
Pollak, who previously ran a riding Facebook page for the federal Conservatives, acknowledged in an email that he created and operates Liberty Now. He said the pages are his and not run by the Post Millennial.
“I wanted to create a political hub for discussion, but I moved on from this project,” Pollak said of Liberty Now, adding that he considers it “failed” and “basically dormant.”
But the pages are updated consistently, sometimes more than once a day. That’s similar to another page managed by Pollak, Elect Conservatives, which has more than 79,000 followers and has become a key source of promotion for Post Millennial content. A recent analysis by BuzzFeed News and the Star found the Post Millennial’s content achieves impressive reach on Facebook, thanks in part to consistent promotion from a network of pages with no explicit affiliation.
Pollak said he “sometimes” helps manage the Post Millennial’s main Facebook page.
Liberty Now categorizes itself as a “political organization” on Facebook, and its pages use the slogan “Preserving the values of Liberty and Freedom for future generations.” The page transparency information offered by Facebook shows that the national and Alberta Liberty Now pages are each managed by three accounts based in Canada. Pollak declined to name others who have administrators’ privileges, saying they’re no longer involved.
The national Liberty Now page was created in July 2018 and immediately began pumping out memes and videos featuring its branding. Days after launching, it streamed a live video asking people to use Facebook likes and emojis to vote on the question, “Does Canada need more gun laws?” It received more than 50,000 views — an impressive amount of engagement for a new page. The affiliated Ontario and Alberta pages were launched in October.
The pages frequently posted custom memes and videos, but that activity dropped off earlier this year, and the number of links to Post Millennial articles surged.
Content from Post Millennial is consistently shared by a number of conservative advocacy pages, including Pollak’s Elect Conservatives page and the influential Ontario Proud network of Facebook pages. Ontario Proud founder Jeff Ballingall serves as the chief marketing officer of the Post Millennial.
From Jan. 1 to July 23, 142 of the 179 links shared by the main Liberty Now page were articles from the Post Millennial. Liberty Now has also reshared five videos from the Post Millennial’s page since April. (The main Liberty Now page has not been updated since Pollak spoke to BuzzFeed News and the Star.)
BuzzFeed News and the Toronto Star are investigating the ways in which political parties, third-party pressure groups, foreign powers, and individuals are influencing Canada’s political debate in the run-up to this fall’s federal election. This report was published as part of that collaboration.
Yaakov Pollak's last name was misspelled in one reference in an earlier version of this post.