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Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Amid Gaza War protests, this website profiled students and accused them of 'hatred'

Will Carless

In March, as campus protests against the war in Gaza were surging nationwide, Will Mleczko joined a hunger strike. 

The 20-year-old sophomore at the University of South Florida said he participated in the strike to get the university to stop investing in companies connected to the war in Gaza. Ultimately,  the university took no action. 

The hunger strike lasted 17 days. Shortly after it ended, Mleczko’s name and photo appeared on a new web page about him. It described his hunger strike and said he “spread hatred of Israel… in the wake of Hamas terror atrocities.” 

That page is one of thousands like it published on a site called Canary Mission. Its stated goal is to document “individuals and organizations that promote hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews on North American college campuses and beyond.” 

Its slogan: “Because the world should know.”

But many pro-Palestinian activists say they see Canary Mission as the leading player in online efforts to undermine anyone who objects to Israel’s policies. They say the site unfairly portrays peaceful protests as hate speech and characterizes mere criticism of the Israeli government – or support for Palestinians – as hatred of Jews. It shares names, photographs and locations of protesters, setting the stage for others to target them with harassment and even violence, they say.  

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators confront police during demonstrations at the City College Of New York (CUNY), April 30, 2024 in New York City.

And while the site has been online for a decade, this spring’s protests put it back in the spotlight for the way it showcases students. It has added about 200 student listings in the most recent school year – almost all after protesters began objecting to Israel’s war in Gaza, launched in response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks. 

USA TODAY found that Canary Mission now profiles more than 1,500 students and nearly 900 faculty members. For many college students and new graduates, their profile web page on Canary Mission is now the top result in an online search of their names – making it the first thing a potential employer or school might see when considering an application. 

“Canary Mission is kind of like a cautionary tale that's told to a lot of activists,” Mleczko told USA TODAY. He and others worry that if prospective employers “find you on there, they will probably not hire you. You'll be blacklisted.” 

And students who are listed may find they have no recourse. It’s unclear who runs or funds Canary Mission. No donors or leaders are listed on the website, which provides a “Contact us” form but did not respond to a request for an interview from USA TODAY. 

That’s in stark contrast to organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, which has long published watchlists of people and groups they say engage in hateful, antisemitic activity. ADL and similar groups are transparent about their methodology, funding and leadership.

“Transparency is critical to understanding antisemitism and other forms of hate − always,” said Oren Segal, vice president of the ADL's Center on Extremism. “Transparency is so important − especially on issues that are as controversial as this.” 

Canary Mission, despite its powerful search rankings, operates in apparent anonymity. 

In 2018, the Jewish American newspaper The Forward identified the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco as one Canary Mission funder. In response to the article, the federation announced it would stop giving money to the group. The same article established that the Israel-based charity that nominally runs the site is based out of an abandoned commercial strip in a city west of Jerusalem. 

There is no record of the group ever being sued in federal court, though it has been mentioned in numerous court cases. Some plaintiffs have cited Canary Mission in their claims that universities or other entities failed to protect them from harassment. Others who are suing pro-Palestinian groups cite Canary Mission as evidence of their opponents' activities – such as in one family’s lawsuit against activist groups that it claims have ties to Hamas.  

Pro-Palestinian protesters walk from Columbia University in New York City on May 6, 2024.

The website describes only one way to have a listing removed – by sending a written apology – but it does not specify how many previously listed people have been cleared. 

Canary Mission doesn’t focus exclusively on students. Other sections of the site list “professors,” “professionals” and “organizations.” Those, too, appear to take a broad brush: the organizations Canary Mission calls antisemitic include groups as varied as the group Students for Justice in Palestine, the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer and the news network Al Jazeera.

It doesn’t “doxx” students in the sense of publicizing their phone numbers or addresses to encourage targeted harassment or worse. 

But many students told USA TODAY that’s what happened to them after they were listed. 

Students listed on Canary Mission: ‘I get hundreds of death threats’

Layla Saliba, a graduate student and campus organizer at New York’s Columbia University, said she started protesting for Palestinian rights in October, when 14 members of her family were killed in the bombing of a Greek Orthodox church in Gaza City by Israel.

A page in Saliba’s name appeared on Canary Mission in late March. It accuses her of providing “support for terrorists” and “hatred of Israel and America.”

Layla Saliba, a graduate student and campus organizer at Columbia University, said she started protesting after 14 members of her family were killed in Gaza.

It points to posts she made on X such as one noting that the state of Israel’s account was posting about her campus’ protests and another in which she quoted a poem that reads “They will bomb your homeland / Burn your olive trees to the ground / And claim to be the greatest nation in the world.”

Saliba said her posts were meant to be critical but not hateful. The characterization of her activism as racist or stereotypical has been particularly upsetting because of the deaths in her family, Saliba said.  

“It's honestly really hurtful to see that I'm being called antisemitic,” she told USA TODAY. “Especially since I’ve been dealing with this grief and it’s been my Jewish friends that have provided me with so much love and support.”

Saliba said the Canary Mission profile was just the beginning. People soon found and posted her personal information online, she said, including her cellphone number and her address. 

What followed was a campaign of legitimate hate, Saliba said.

“I get hundreds of death threats and rape threats,” she said. 

At Yale University, 22-year-old Thomas Kinservik was seen on video early in the spring protest campaign, laughing and cheering as an American flag was lowered from a flagpole. In the background of the video, students chant “Viva, viva Palestina.” 

The video was posted on X. Within 12 hours, Kinservik said, a profile page in his name appeared on Canary Mission, accusing him of “Spreading Hatred of America and Israel at Yale.” The post points out that Kinservik was wearing a keffiyeh, a traditional Middle Eastern headdress. 

Kinservik said he didn’t know who brought down the flag. He said that he found himself caught up in the moment and cheering along with the crowd, without really thinking about what he was doing, and that he regrets his actions captured in the video. But he said extrapolating from a few seconds of footage that he hates the country he was born in is unfair and absurd. He said he got days of online harassment after the video publicized by Canary Mission went viral. 

“I’m critical of some of the things the Biden administration has done, but I don’t hate America,” he said. 

Both students noted that their Canary Mission profiles are now easily found by a search engine, and they worry about their job prospects. 

“If I'm applying for a job, or I'm applying for a fellowship or scholarship, hopefully, people can see all the work that I've done and not take that at face value,” Saliba said. “But there are definitely people who see that stuff, and they're turned off by it.”

Is Canary Mission a blacklist? 

Students and demonstrators protest the war in Gaza after walking out of commencement at the DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium on May 11, 2024 in Austin, Texas.

Experts told USA TODAY that students listed on the website have reason to worry about their prospects. 

L. Ali Khan, a law professor at the Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas, who published a commentary about Canary Mission in Jurist news last November, noted tenured professors are insulated from harm to their reputations, but not students.  

“If you’re a student, you are much more vulnerable,” he said. “If somehow you get on this Canary Mission list, now there is a presumption that you are mongering hatred … and that’s scary.”

Students also have to deal with the psychological fallout of being labeled hateful or antisemitic, Khan said. 

“I think the sponsors of this website, they know all this,” Khan said. “It hits your emotional integrity − your intellectual integrity. You begin to feel less than you were before you were labeled as a hater.” 

Canary Mission’s individual profiles aren’t solely about students. It also lists far-right influencers and other people who are undoubtedly antisemitic, including Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis.  

But it has drawn the most scrutiny for the way it lumps student protesters into its list. 

Amid this year’s campus demonstrations, an overlapping mix of websites, social media accounts and influencers all contributed to efforts to identify student protesters and publish their names and contact information. 

Sometimes that online doxxing happened before a Canary Mission profile went up, sometimes after. Either way, activists say, Canary Mission helps fuel the efforts to blast protesters, and its work ramped up during the past school year. 

“It’s gone nuclear since 10-7,” said Sean Malloy, a professor of history and critical race and ethnic studies at the University of California, Merced, who has been listed on Canary Mission since 2019 for “demonizing Israel” after co-writing a book about the Palestinian struggle. 

“Whenever I talk with students who are involved in any kind of organizing, I tell them about Canary Mission,” Malloy said. “I say, 'I don't want to stop you from doing your organizing, but … you might end up on a list.'”

A Google spokesperson said people can contact the company asking for help in removing Google search links to pages that display highly personal information. 

“We allow people to request the removal of pages about themselves on sites with exploitative removals policies, as well as pages that include contact information alongside personal threats, a form of ‘doxxing,’” the spokesperson wrote. 

That effort might make the pages less easily found through online searches. But as far as Canary Mission says, there is only one way to actually remove a profile page from its site: Apologize.  

Is it possible to undo Canary Mission? 

A page on the site titled “Ex-Canary” lists dozens of people who the site claims have recanted their views and, in doing so, have had their profiles expunged.

The people listed on the Ex-Canary page “have shown moral courage to recognize their earlier mistakes – despite social pressure from their peers.” 

“We commend these individuals for their strength of character in embracing tolerance and coexistence,” the site reads.

The site doesn’t specify how many pages have been removed, and it generally doesn’t identify those who apologized. “Due to a fear of harassment,” it says, “Ex-Canaries (sic) identities may be removed.”

Of the more than two dozen students who spoke to USA TODAY for this story, none said they were willing to apologize. All the activists said they stand behind the things they said, chanted, posted on social media or wrote in articles or blogs. 

Tessa Wiley, who graduated from San Diego State University in 2018, was listed on Canary Mission when she was in college because she was involved with the local chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. More than half a decade later, the negative profile is still a top search result.

But Wiley said she has shrugged off the criticism, moving on to advanced academic studies and a successful career. 

“I think the tides are turning,” Wiley said. “I feel pretty confident that if there was an employer who felt like that profile was a reason to not hire me, I would be dodging a bullet.”

Contributing: Daniella Jiménez, Yoonserk Pyun and Nick Penzenstadler

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