Anatomy of a man­u­fac­tured scan­dal

How an in­ter­net ru­mour ended up in a Con­ser­va­tive Party press re­lease

The Peterborough Examiner - - CANADA & WORLD - MARCO CHOWN OVED

So­cial media was ablaze all week­end with talk of a bomb­shell story about a sex scan­dal in­volv­ing Lib­eral Leader Justin Trudeau. The only prob­lem: there wasn’t one.

For the bet­ter part of four days, wild and base­less al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual im­pro­pri­ety by Trudeau dur­ing his time as a teacher at a Van­cou­ver pri­vate school ric­o­cheted from smart phone screens to com­puter mon­i­tors across the coun­try.

There were those who fed the ru­mour mill, tweet­ing “I’m hear­ing…” and adding com­pletely fab­ri­cated de­tails, while oth­ers fanned the flames with in­no­cent posts ask­ing “could this be true?”

Then on Mon­day, with fake news sites pump­ing out the story and a na­tion­ally-tele­vised lead­ers de­bate only hours away, the Con­ser­va­tive Party of Canada took an un­founded ru­mour and put their name on it, is­su­ing a press re­lease that asked the ques­tion: Why did Trudeau leave West Point Grey?

“What’s the real rea­son? Why has his story changed so many times?” it asked.

While the re­lease didn’t men­tion sex, it pointed the way for any­one to go on­line and find the un­sub­stan­ti­ated ru­mour them­selves.

Asked why the Con­ser­va­tives put out the re­lease, spokesper­son Si­mon Jef­feries re­ferred to com­ments leader An­drew Scheer made on Tues­day, when he said: “Like on the SNC-Lavalin scan­dal, (Trudeau’s) story has changed mul­ti­ple times and we be­lieve he might have used that op­por­tu­nity to come clean with Cana­di­ans.”

“We’re not mak­ing in­sin­u­a­tions, we’re just ask­ing why he can’t keep his story (straight).”

It is dif­fi­cult to pin­point the ori­gin of the ru­mour, though the Toronto Star was ap­proached sev­eral weeks ago by a right-wing ac­tivist with the story and in­vited to dig fur­ther. The Star thor­oughly in­ves­ti­gated Trudeau’s ten­ure at West Point Grey — de­vot­ing mul­ti­ple re­porters over mul­ti­ple days — and found noth­ing to cor­rob­o­rate the tip. Other media have also been in­ves­ti­gat­ing.

That work of jour­nal­is­tic ver­i­fi­ca­tion came out into the open on Fri­day, when Marieke Walsh, a re­porter with the Globe and Mail, asked Trudeau about the ru­mour at a break­fast cam­paign stop in Que­bec City.

“You and your cam­paign team are aware of un­founded ru­mours about why you left West Point Grey pri­vate school mid­way through your teach­ing term in 2001. Can you tell us why you left?” she asked.

Trudeau re­sponded: “I moved on and I have great mem­o­ries of an ex­cel­lent time teach­ing in Van­cou­ver in pub­lic and pri­vate schools.”

Later asked if he had signed a nondis­clo­sure agree­ment when he left, Trudeau said sim­ply: “No.”

That seem­ingly in­nocu­ous ex­change was cap­tured on cam­era and posted on­line as ev­i­dence that the Globe knew some­thing and a big ex­posé was im­mi­nent.

“What does the Globe know?” tweeted War­ren Kin­sella, a Sun News colum­nist and for­mer Lib­eral party in­sider, to his more than 41,000 fol­low­ers.

While the for­mer head­mas­ter of the school put out a state­ment only hours af­ter the ex­change stat­ing “I can tell you with com­plete cer­tainty that there is no truth to any spec­u­la­tion that (Trudeau) was dis­missed,” the ru­mour would only grow stronger.

Blog­ger James DiFiore trick­led out un­ver­i­fied al­le­ga­tions, tweet­ing, “I am miss­ing key de­tails, but the digging is real.”

Kin­sella’s tweets — “My Spidey sense is tin­gling” — set off wild spec­u­la­tion that the scan­dal would be in the Satur­day edi­tion of the Globe. But it was not to be.

“I was up all night wait­ing for the pa­per to hit the front door,” Kin­sella tweeted the next morn­ing.

Like many con­spir­acy the­o­ries, ev­i­dence that ap­pears to dis­prove them is in­stead held up as proof of a coverup.

“IF there was a story, the Globe … would’ve given Trudeau ad­vance no­tice of it. IF there was a story, Trudeau would’ve taken le­gal ac­tion to shut it down,” one anony­mous tweeter sum­ma­rized.

While an in­junc­tion could the­o­ret­i­cally have stopped the pub­li­ca­tion of a spe­cific ar­ti­cle, its ex­is­tence would not be se­cret. No ap­pli­ca­tion for an in­junc­tion against the Globe and Mail has been filed by the Lib­eral Party of Canada or Justin Trudeau, ac­cord­ing to a search of the Toronto court records. The Lib­eral party did not re­turn a re­quest for com­ment.

By Satur­day even­ing, the ru­mour was picked up by rightwing provo­ca­teur and head of Rebel Media, Ezra Le­vant.

“Huge sex scan­dal brew­ing for Justin Trudeau. If proven, even his own party will call for his re­moval,” Le­vant tweeted to his al­most 200,000 fol­low­ers.

On Sun­day morn­ing, Kin­sella poured cold wa­ter on the ru­mour, tweet­ing: “Notwith­stand­ing their con­fronta­tion with Trudeau on Fri­day af­ter­noon, there’s no Globe story. Dunno if some­one got to them or there never was one. But there you go.”

But the ru­mour had taken on a life of its own and con­tin­ued to cir­cu­late on Twit­ter and Face­book through­out the day. On Mon­day morn­ing, the Con­ser­va­tive party sent a state­ment out to the na­tional media ask­ing why Trudeau had left West Point Grey and point­ing to dif­fer­ent ex­pla­na­tions that have been prof­fered over the years. The re­lease al­lowed peo­ple to con­nect the dots be­tween the on­line spec­u­la­tion and an of­fi­cial party doc­u­ment, lend­ing the ru­mours new weight.

Shortly af­ter­ward, the Buf­falo Chron­i­cle, a web­site that re­cently started pub­lish­ing ap­par­ently un­cor­rob­o­rated sto­ries on Cana­dian politics, posted an ar­ti­cle cit­ing new al­le­ga­tions from anony­mous sources. It would be retweeted thou­sands of times.

That post was par­roted by a num­ber of fake news web­sites and fringe blogs, many of which linked to the Con­ser­va­tive state­ment.

Asked to com­ment on his tweets, Kin­sella told the Star that they were prompted by Walsh’s ques­tion. “That sug­gested that the Globe was pur­su­ing the mat­ter, which led to me and oth­ers query­ing what the story could be about. The mo­ment I learned no Globe story would be forth­com­ing, I said so, also on Twit­ter,” he told the Star.

DiFiore de­clined to com­ment. On Wed­nes­day, he posted a mea culpa in a se­ries of tweets, say­ing he re­gret­ted spread­ing the in­for­ma­tion.

ADRIAN WYLD THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Justin Trudeau and his wife So­phie Gre­goire Trudeau. Trudeau was the fo­cus of ru­mours about his time at a Van­cou­ver school.

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