A report released Friday on Canadian involvement in right-wing extremism online should serve as a “wake-up call” about the widespread nature of the movement and highlights a growing shift toward the use of less regulated platforms, says an expert on the phenomenon.
The research, led by the U.K.-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) think-tank, identified more than 6,600 online channels — pages, accounts or groups — where Canadians were involved in spreading white supremacist, mysogynistic or other radical views.
On some forums, Canadians were found to be “highly active,” even more, on average, than users in the U.S. and Britain.
On one particular message board called “politically incorrect” on the fringe site 4Chan, researchers found Canadian users created 1,636,558 posts, representing 5.71 per cent of posts from all countries.
The study suggests when the numbers were averaged out using each country’s “estimated internet-using population,” Canada was shown to be producing more content than anywhere else.
Barbara Perry, director of Ontario Tech University’s Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism, called the Canadian tally “really disconcerting.”
“For us to be up there with the heavy hitters … it’s a wake-up call,” she said.
The authors of the 47-page study, which was partly funded by Public Safety Canada, say it’s one of the most comprehensive analyses of its kind. And while the paper offers only a snapshot captured before 2020, observers of far-right extremism suspect this year will only prove worse.
“Globally, in recent years, we have seen a surge in activity by right-wing extremists, in terms of violent mobilization, protests, but also the use of disinformation and co-ordinated hate online,” said Jacob Davey, ISD senior research manager and a study co-author. “Unfortunately, Canada hasn’t escaped that trend.”
The researchers describe right-wing extremism as being “characterized by a racially, ethnically and sexually defined nationalism … often framed in terms of white power,” centred on perceived threats by minority groups.
Not all the online chatter is illegal — much of it is covered by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms — but the authors still consider it “problematic.”
The broad right-wing extremist movement has been tied to such deadly rampages as the 2017 Quebec City mosque shooting and the Toronto van attack in 2018. The driver later told a detective he was part of the so-called “incels,” a fringe subculture catering to men who consider themselves involuntarily celibate.
In May, Toronto police classified a woman’s killing at a local massage parlour as an act of incel terrorism — thought to be the first time the formal categorization is applied anywhere in Canada.
The study highlights the online roots of such groups, classifying incels as being part of the wider “manosphere” movement marked by “overt and extreme misogyny.”
Social media is “hugely important in the way these groups and individuals communicate, spread propaganda and target minority communities,” Davey said.
The manosphere movement accounted for a small portion of the extremist content identified by researchers, with ethnonationalists — described in the study as “often marked by implicit rather than explicit racism” — appearing more frequently across mainstreams platforms.
Most posts found on Twitter
Researchers identified extremist channels across major social media sites, including Facebook and YouTube, but also examined forums with less regulation, such 4Chan and Gab. Both sites give users freer rein over their posts, drawing accusations of acting as safe havens for crude content.
The bulk of the channels — 6,352 out of about 6,600 — however, was found on Twitter.
A company policy bans “violent extremist” groups and says Twitter will permanently suspend accounts found to be in violation. A spokesperson for the firm declined to comment on the study.
CBC News has verified some of the accounts highlighted in the study remain online.
The paper identifies the “Three Percenters” as an Islamophobic armed militia group and “the epitome of this more militant arm of the movement.” The Alberta chapter’s Twitter and Facebook pages remained publicly available on Thursday, with fewer than 150 followers on Twitter and more than 4,500 on Facebook.
A Facebook search on Thursday for another group, the Canadian Defence League — identified as part of the anti-Muslim movement — returned a page with more than 1,800 “likes.” The group describes itself as “fighting back against high Muslim immigration levels.”
Mainstream social media firms have taken steps to delete pages belonging to extremist groups, removing their ability to spread their views in a practice known as “deplatforming.” Researchers observed a decrease in right-wing extremist activity on Facebook and YouTube across 2019.
A Facebook spokesperson said in a statement the company continues “to make progress in combating hate on our services. Individuals and organizations who spread hate, attack or call for the exclusion of others on the basis of who they are have no place on our services.”
A YouTube representative declined to comment.
Perry, the Ontario Tech University researcher, said “to some extent, deplatforming seems to be working … it’s taken the worst of the worst off of those readily accessible, readily available platforms.”
However, she said, it’s pushed some users to access fringe sites, such as 4Chan, Gab and the now-defunct Fascist Forge and Iron March. Both were classified by anti-discrimination campaigners as white supremacists sites.
Researchers found users in Canada to be especially active on certain 4Chan message boards. On a per capita basis, Canadians were more likely to post on the fringe forums than users from any other country, the study says, “demonstrating the extent of Canadian engagement with right-wing extremist causes online.”
Davey said it’s likely a sign Canadians are being swept up in a global surge of right-wing extremism, inspired by users from the U.S. or Europe. He said Canadian users appeared especially responsive to anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim themes.
“It suggests they are responding to the world around them in a way that allows the proliferation of hatred.”
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Another surge expected
Researchers noted surges in Canadian right-wing extremist activity in March and October 2019, corresponding with the New Zealand mosque attack and the federal election.
The Christchurch massacre in particular acted as a “lightning rod,” Davey said, seen by Canadian radicals as “an opportunity to justify attacks against Muslims, to engage in really explicit, really egregious hate speech against minority communities.”
The COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with the ongoing wave of anti-racist activism, is already proving to be another flashpoint.
Elisa Hategan, a Toronto-area-based former neo-Nazi who became an anti-extremism speaker and writer, said the dual crises have made some people lash out and hold others responsible, with a proliferation of vitriol and conspiracy theories online.
“The pandemic already rocked their comfort zones and pushed their boundaries, and now the social transformation taking place in the streets to protest racism and injustice is changing the privileges they took for granted,” she said in an email.
“So whatever the number of online hate channels last year, 2020 will be unprecedented.”
Friday’s study is meant as an interim report and part of a broader look into extremist action online and offline that is expected to be published next year.