It’s early February, and hundreds of Canadians have gathered to protest President Donald Trump’s refugee ban in front of the U.S. consulate in downtown Toronto. A young woman stands with a camera operator on the edge of the crowd, waiting for her security guard to arrive.
The hood of her down-filled coat pulled over her head, she’s hiding her instantly recognizable Barbie-blonde hair, and watching quietly, occasionally looking down at her phone, as protesters chanted a few hundred metres away: “No Muslim ban on stolen land.”
As one of the most popular hosts for Canada’s alt-right media torchbearer, the Rebel, Lauren Southern has frequently put herself in crowds of people whose views are fundamentally at odds with her own. She’s made a habit of parachuting into spaces where visible minorities are speaking out about their rights and demanding they explain their political positions and teach her why she’s wrong.
Southern — who announced on Thursday that she is parting ways with the Rebel and “going independent” — sees herself as a commentator, tasked with countering “the mass amount of left wing media we have that pretends to be impartial in Canada.” In a series of interviews with VICE News over the last month, she opened up about her views, her critics, and how she’s built her profile.
Once her bouncer arrives at the Toronto rally, she quickly springs into action, removing her hood and making a bee-line towards protesters holding what she sees as the most outlandish signs.
Almost immediately, she is recognized by a protester who politely confronts her about the Rebel’s coverage of a mass shooting in a Quebec mosque earlier this year, in which Alexandre Bissonnette, a white man who reportedly expressed anti-refugee views, allegedly killed six Muslims as they prayed. Early reports had mistakenly identified a Muslim man as a suspect but unlike other news outlets, the Rebel didn’t correct the record until the following day.
“She corrected that information, if you paid attention to the next news report, which you apparently didn’t,” Southern tells the woman, defending her then-colleague Faith Goldy, who in her reports continued to raise questions about what authorities may be hiding.
“And then she corrected that information, if you paid attention to the next news report, which you apparently didn’t.”
This tactic of seeding doubt and raising questions that counter the dominant narrative in mainstream media has proven fruitful for the Rebel, which is just over two years old. Founded by anti-establishment and right-wing muckraker Ezra Levant, the organization has a roster of 28 hosts and contributors, rakes in millions of views every month on YouTube, and is influential enough that a rally held in Toronto in opposition of a motion to condemn Islamophobia also drew four contenders for leadership of the federal Conservatives.
It’s not clear what led Southern and the Rebel to part ways. The young pundit declined to get into details in her announcement and Levant wished her well on Twitter. But there’s no question she had become one of its most powerful weapons.
I’m curious to see what’s next for Lauren Southern. I wish her the best. @Lauren_Southern
Southern boasts 229,000 Twitter followers, more than double that of her former boss Levant; has a bestselling book, called Barbarians: How The Baby Boomers, Immigration and Islam Screwed My Generation, endorsement of American right-wing diva Ann Coulter; and has scored a slew of high profile TV appearances and speaking gigs.
Her antics have been as unorthodox as they have been controversial. Southern has shown up at a Slutwalk protest holding a sign that read “there is no rape culture in the West.” She has faked transitioning genders as a pretext to interview transgender activists. She has called Black Lives Matter a “divisive, violent movement that has fascistic tendencies,” falsely claiming they’ve caused more deaths in the last 30 years than the Ku Klux Klan. The Libertarian Party suspended Southern as a candidate in 2015 after her Slutwalk stunt, but reinstated her following backlash from her supporters.
“The first few times I did this, I lost friends, I won’t lie. I lost friends that never wanted to talk to me again, and that was devastating,” Southern told VICE News. “There was a petition made to have me kicked out of my political party and I saw people that I was good acquaintances with sign that petition and say I was an evil, hateful person, and that struck deep, that really hurt.”
“I saw people that I was good acquaintances with sign that petition and say I was an evil, hateful person, and that struck deep, that really hurt.”
She’s gotten over it, she said. Now, more than ever, she’s recognized on the street, and once in awhile, she said, someone will ask for a selfie. She might not have the same name recognition as white supremacist Richard Spencer, disgraced former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, or her fellow right-wing vlogger Tomi Lahren. But she runs in those circles — a Canadian addition to the re-emergent band of provocateurs espousing age old extreme views, in a shiny, youthful package.
Outside of a protest atmosphere, Southern is disarmingly charming and quick-witted, with an expert grasp of her own talking points. And as I — a South Asian woman, sitting directly across from her — challenged her on her positions, she made no effort to tone down how she feels, speaking at a volume high enough for anyone near us at a Queen Street West bar to hear, smiling and occasionally cracking jokes.
“This is perfect assimilation, you and your family would be a great example of assimilation,” she told me, when I revealed I was born into a Muslim family, although I’m not religious.
“I think observing the Muslim community in Canada is very different than observing the Muslim communities that really have these problems with extremism, which is in Europe,” she said, adding that the migrant population in Europe is made up of people who haven’t been vetted, who are “going straight into ethnic and cultural enclaves.”
“What happens when one part of the mosaic gets bigger than the others? You can say goodbye to your French and English and Native culture, that were the three leaves of the Canadian red ensign … People move here for our culture, people love our culture, and I’d like to keep that culture.”
The fear that immigrants will spoil the culture of “freedom and Western values” in Canada — Judeo-Christian ethics, classical liberalism, free speech, and egalitarianism, according to Southern — is a common thread that runs through her work, as is a superficial understanding of the issues that she passionately rants about to her sizeable audience.
“People move here for our culture, people love our culture, and I’d like to keep that culture.”
This approach has incensed minority groups, like Muslims, who have already seen a spike in hate crimes against them in recent months, and some of whom have gone as far as to start bridge-building campaigns to teach non-Muslims about their religion.
“There should always be space for critical voices in the media landscape. The problem is when misinformation, one-sided coverage, and/or outright fake news is used to advance or reinforce a particular view of the world,” said Amira Elghawaby of the National Council of Canadian Muslims.
“Southern’s commentaries and coverage have attempted to evoke fear in Canadian audiences about the presence of Muslims in Western nations,” said Elghawaby. “Lopsided and false narratives provide a one-sided view of immigration and refugee issues and will leave those who aren’t critically thinking about the issues to assume that Muslims can only have a negative impact on our communities.”
Southern, the daughter of a web designer and a secretary at a medical clinic, speaks with the confidence of someone who’s been groomed for her current position, even though she’s only been a commentator for a few years. The Surrey native attended a Christian private school until she was about 13, and as a teen, she had ambitions of becoming a video game designer. But Southern was always a politics junkie, and was introduced early on by her father to American Conservative commentators like Dennis Prager, a public moralist who has spent his career trying to uphold Judeo-Christian values in American society.
“Lopsided and false narratives provide a one-sided view of immigration and refugee issues.”
And while Southern’s conservative Christian parents never told her to be either of those things, debating her father on political issues was a consistent part of her home life, she told VICE News during another interview at a west end Toronto coffee shop. Unlike many who are pushed to the fringes of the right by one particular life event or a news story that enrages them, Southern insists that for her, the process was gradual and that her views are still evolving.
“It was always him asking questions that led me to different opinions,” she said, recalling how she’d come home from school and tell her dad what she’d learned — about the oppression of Indigenous peoples by Europeans, for example — and how her dad would ask questions, like: “Do you think there were no diseases here before Europeans arrived?”
Southern dropped out of the University of the Fraser Valley’s political science program in Abbotsford, B.C. after two years, calling it a waste of money to pay for knowledge she could get on her own. But even in those two short years, she made a name for herself as a fearless spokesperson for views her peers saw as “absurd.”
“Around [the university] I got really into the basic bitch Ayn Rand kind of libertarianism,” said Southern. While in school, she co-hosted Liberty Now, a show on the campus radio station across from a student who leaned more socialist. The two would get into heated debates on air on everything from the value of art to the alienation of the modern worker, like a university-level Hannity & Colmes.
Southern’s perspective was clear from the start, according to station manager Aaron Levy, but her relationship with others at the station, who fell mostly on the opposite side of the political spectrum, was always friendly.
“You could go your whole life being like, Lauren’s nice, if you don’t mention politics.”
“You could go your whole life being like, Lauren’s nice, if you don’t mention politics,” said Alex Rake, who knew Southern from around campus before he learned about her political views. “When she worked at the restaurant, she’d give us free lollipops and stuff, and then the anti-feminism video came out.” said Rake.
Rake, then the editor of the opinion section of the campus newspaper, said Southern once submitted a piece on why trigger warnings were unnecessary, which after three weeks of editing — Southern pushed back hard on edits on the piece, which was “offensive on purpose” and had numerous research errors, according to Rake — never ended up being published.
How Southern went from irksome student to alt-right phenom is closer to fate. She was in the process of applying to become a military intelligence officer when she attended a conference in Toronto, organized by Levant, who noticed her challenging his slate of speakers with tough questions on pipelines and ethical oil. A few months later, as the Rebel rose from the ashes of Sun News Network, Levant remembered Southern and reached out, she said. Levant did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
The first video she made, which now has 1.1 million views, was her diatribe against feminism.
It was only after the feminism rant received hundreds of thousands of hits seemingly overnight that “people had the ‘we created a monster’ feeling,” Levy told VICE News.
“We saw the direction things were going in and what she could possibly mean for the movement — given the kind of personality she has and that she’s photogenic and what not — that she was a danger to progressives in that she’s charismatic and seems to have done her homework,” he added.
Southern, who said she would’ve preferred a life of anonymity, abandoned her military aspirations for a career as a thundering critic of the left, taking the platform the Rebel would give her to promote her political ideals.
“Nothing of the modern left impresses me.”
While the Rebel’s audience skews older and male, Southern seems particularly concerned with another demographic — younger, politically disengaged women, who are “tired of being called basic and having their political opinions ignored.” She views the left today as a movement “being torn apart by insane identity politics, and people who want to berate white males all day,” she said. “Nothing of the modern left impresses me.”
And while she’s willing to debate her ideas, Southern says most people fail to present her with clear and concise arguments. Others, like many Muslims she’s tried to bring on her show, flat out refuse to engage in the discussion.
It’s a question many on the left are struggling with collectively: Is there a point in engaging with the alt-right, and trying to change their minds when, at their extreme, they question the rights of some minorities to even exist in the West? Is simply acknowledging that their perspectives exist a way of giving their views more oxygen?
“A lot of people I talk to are people in the political sphere, in the alt media sphere,” Southern admitted, adding that she’s an introvert who doesn’t go out much. But she insisted she’s not insulated from other opinions. Her best friend is a staunch liberal, and the two have heated political arguments on a regular basis, she says. And while her go-to news sources do include the Drudge Report and Breitbart, she reads a bit of everything.
Most of her friends are white — “I grew up in an area that was more than 85 percent European” — but she doesn’t believe she has a bias against people of colour.
“Yes, I have friends who are people of colour,” she said. One friend is Muslim, but has right-wing views, and often agrees with her, according to Southern. A close friend in university was Nigerian, “an absolutely badass chick.” And then there’s the internet.
“I’ve got a lot of Asian friends that I talk to in my chat groups, especially,” she said. “A lot of meme groups. A lot of right-wing meme groups. I’ve got a lot of Asian friends.”
“I’ve got a lot of Asian friends that I talk to in my chat groups, especially.”
Her book devotes a lot of ink to Islam. In a chapter called “How Islam is ruining everything” Southern splits Muslims up into three different categories: the cultural Muslim, who was born into a Muslim family but doesn’t know much about their faith; the scholar, who is open to criticisms of Islam and the idea of reform; and the zealous Muslim who “would never question Allah, or his faith, and generally regard any insult against their religion as cause for violence.”
But most of what she’s learned about Islam has been speaking with ex-Muslims and Muslims — many conversations with Uber drivers, according to Southern — and polls.
Southern makes sweeping generalizations using statistics that are taken out of context, claiming for example that at least 20 percent of Muslims in Europe sympathize with terrorists.
Two polls from the past four years do suggest that somewhere between five to 15 percent of residents in Muslim-majority countries had a “favourable” or “positive” view of the Islamic State — yet other polls show similar levels of support within the general population of the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.
The reality is a bit more complicated, and those with expertise in the field of opinion polling have urged the public to take those polls with a grain of salt. Polls have shown wildly divergent results from country to country and carry relatively high margins of error, at 4 percent or more. Commentators like Southern also fail to grasp the nuance of the region — that Sunni Muslims from northern Syria may consider IS more ‘favourable’ than the Assad regime.
“So if you’re a police officer and you see a black man with a gun towards you, yeah, I’m going to shoot,”
Southern took similarly incomplete information to disparage Black Lives Matter. “The majority of these shootings are police officers getting shot by armed black men, so if you’re a police officer and you see a black man with a gun towards you, yeah, I’m going to shoot,” said Southern, also arguing that white Americans are more likely to be shot by police than black Americans. Southern dismisses the anger of BLM supporters as a result of “indoctrination” by activists and mainstream media.
Her statistics are disingenuous at best. While more white Americans were killed by police last year in total, the likelihood of a black Americans being shot and killed by a police officer is 2.5 times higher, according to a Washington Post database of police shootings.
“Black people are convinced by the media that they’re living in a system where everything white people do is trying to oppress them,” Southern said, adding that it’s white people and Asians, who she said discriminated against through affirmative action initiatives.
But when Southern rails against Black Lives Matter, it’s rarely about what they’re fighting for. Instead, she focuses on their tactics or their personal lives, using it to paint the entire movement as “an ethnic terrorist organization.”
“We can’t allow them to define the story, and that is what they are strategically attempting to do, and what they have successfully done in some cases,” said Black Lives Matter Toronto cofounder Sandy Hudson. “People need to refuse that easy, anti-intellectual bullshit.”
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Southern’s determination to cling to her position when presented with facts that crack her arguments was on display outside the Deploraball in DC on inauguration day, as she unwittingly interviewed two employees from Slate.
“Do you know what percentage of Muslims are terrorists?” Aymann Ismail, Slate’s video editor, asks her.
“No,” Southern responds. “But I know there’s a large percentage that are quite radical.”
And so begins an extended exchange in which Ismail and his colleague school Southern on Sharia law, its dramatically different interpretations, and how it’s Muslims who are bearing the brunt of, and fighting, the war against ISIS.
Ismail dominates the conversation, and Southern asks him for a card so that they can talk later online. He pleads with her to listen when someone from a different faith or culture explains their views.
“Yes, but you guys have different views amongst you,” she says, as he shakes his head in frustration.
Back at her alma mater, her former coworkers wonder if they missed their chance to sway Southern away from the hard right.
“We talk about, fuck, how can we convert her? What would it take to change her mind?”
“We talk about, fuck, how can we convert her? What would it take to change her mind?” said Levy. “How valuable would she be as the hard right person who decided that she’s been following the wrong agenda all this time?”
Levy praised the debating savvy possessed by Southern and young commentators of her ilk.
“They’re young attractive people who are making, what seems to a lot of people, reasonable arguments,” he said.
He points to her Facebook page for examples of “many young people who idolize her political perspective and fetishize who she is as a person and as a woman and jump on everything she says … Clearly, there’s a tide shifting right now.”