Canadian right-wing extremism has risen online during pandemic


a group of people holding wine glasses: Members of the Proud Boys shout at a group of counter-protesters at Nathan Philips Square in Toronto on Saturday, October 21, 2017.

© Christopher Katsarov / The Canadian Press
Members of the Proud Boys shout at a group of counter-protesters at Nathan Philips Square in Toronto on Saturday, October 21, 2017.

Online activity by right-wing extremists in Canada increased last year during the pandemic, despite efforts by governments and social media companies to tackle extremism and hate speech, according to a new report.

The report also found that right-wing extremists in Canada are influenced by their increasingly violent counterparts in the United States.

“It raises fears that an emboldened and increasingly violent far right in the United States may help inspire similar activity in Canada, as Canadian right-wing extremists look to their American counterparts for inspiration,” wrote the authors of the new UK report. based at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which will be released later this week.

This extremism could increase as lockdown restrictions are relaxed, the report warns.

“Given the possibility that the pandemic has introduced new audiences to far-right ideology,” the report says, “it is possible that when the bottlenecks are lifted it could correlate with activity rates. far right higher than those before the blockade. level. “

A “feverish environment”

The report noted an increase in far-right activity in 2020 compared to what the Institute for Strategic Dialogue saw when it first examined the issue in 2019.

“The pandemic has (…) created a feverish environment for radicalization, ensuring that millions of people are spending more time online,” the authors wrote. “In an environment of heightened anxiety, the situation was easy for extremists to exploit.

“In the aftermath of the pandemic, extremist conspiracy theories flourished and minority communities – particularly Asians – were subjected to an increase in hate crimes and harassment. “

The report, which focused only on right-wing extremism online, is expected to be released later this week, but aired ahead of time on CBC News.

Mackenzie Hart, one of the report’s authors, said governments and social media companies should take the report’s findings seriously.

“We should be concerned about what’s going on online,” Hart said. “It’s easy to have a disconnect between online and offline spaces, but we’ve seen it around the world… cases of violence motivated by right-wing extremism have increased by 250%.”

The report says the government’s efforts to tackle the problem have had limited success to date.

In February, a month after the attack on the United States Capitol, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair announced that a number of “ideologically motivated violent extremist groups” – including the Proud Boys – were being added to the list of terrorist organizations in Canada. The researchers found, however, that the group was still operating openly online.

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“We have identified two Telegram channels hosting supporters and members of the Canadian Proud Boys who, at the time of writing, were still active despite the group’s designation as a terrorist entity in February 2021,” the report said. .

Overall, the researchers identified 2,467 right-wing extremist accounts that produced 3.2 million pieces of content in 2020. While these extremist accounts made up a small portion of all Canadian social media accounts, they were able to generate 44 million reactions.

Cross-border connections

Researchers have also discovered links between right-wing extremists in Canada and those in other countries.

Some of the Canadian reviews researchers looked at last year published hateful racist slurs. Others expressed their anger at particular people or groups. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the government’s COVID restrictions have been frequent targets.

Some accounts have actively promoted pandemic disinformation and conspiracy theories.

The researchers said some of the accounts they looked at in 2019 were closed by companies like Facebook – but many of those accounts reappeared under different names. The result, says the report, was as many extremist accounts as the previous year.

Other social media sites, like Telegram and 4chan, are making little to no effort to moderate what is said on their platforms, the report says. The report describes 4chan as “a hub for extremist activity” and indicates that hate speech has increased on the platform in recent years.

“This is likely related to the normalization of hate speech on the platform, which has resulted in the growth of a community where hostile speech targeting minority communities is considered standard daily activity,” the report said.

“Neo-Nazi imagery”

On Telegram, researchers identified 17 groups focused on Canadian affairs, including seven channels hosting white supremacist communities, seven hosting ethno-nationalist communities, and one hosting an anti-Muslim community.

Researchers also found Canadian channels on Telegram with “large volumes of content containing neo-Nazi imagery” and one associated with “accelerationism” – which the report describes as the belief “that the collapse of society should be accelerated by violence to allow a white ethno-state to be built. “

This included memes promoting the need to prepare for the collapse of society, but also educational content on survivalism, guerrilla tactics including surveillance and ambushes, guides on resisting interrogation and 3D printed gun designs, ”the report says.

Gab was also a popular platform for white supremacists and ethnonationalists, the researchers found.

While YouTube deleted some accounts for violating its terms of service, researchers found that two of the five that were deleted by YouTube had migrated to BitChute, an alternative video hosting platform. The Proud Boys have posted on their BitChute channel frequently throughout 2020.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday in Hamilton, Prime Minister Trudeau said dealing with extremist activity online was a challenge.

“It is important for our democracies (…) that we have a free exchange of ideas, free opportunities for people to express themselves,” he said. “But we have to make sure that we continue to oppose violence, incitement to violence, incitement to hatred, hate speech itself, which is all against the law in this country.”

Trudeau said Canada must protect basic rights such as freedom of expression while ensuring that Canadians are safe from persecution and violence.

“Anyone who tells you there is an easy answer to this is trying to sell you something,” he said.

Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at [email protected]

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