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Closed Facebook groups where extremists thrive ‘would curl your innards,’ expert says

WATCH: Hate speech goes uncensored on some closed Facebook groups

Update: Facebook announced Tuesday afternoon that the Justin Trudeau Must Be Stopped Facebook group has been removed. 

Online extremists are increasingly disappearing into closed Facebook groups that are hard to monitor, experts say. They’re frustrated by what they see as a failure by the platform to confront the problem, and say they are wary of the danger of violent words spilling over into violent acts.

One example Global News found: the 19,577-member Justin Trudeau Must Be Stopped closed Facebook group, where anti-Muslim bigotry and fantasies about assassinating Justin Trudeau were easy to find.

On Tuesday, after Global News asked Facebook about the group and sent a large number of screenshots, a spokesperson for the platform said it had been removed.

If you wanted to join the group, the moderators had a few questions for you to answer first.

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One of them: “Do you see the massive number of Muslims flooding into Canada as a threat to our way of life in the future?

If you’d made it past that, and joined the group’s members, it quickly would become clear that they not only wanted Justin Trudeau stopped, but in many cases were not at all fussy about how the stopping happened.

“IM LOOKING FORWARD TO THE DAY OF NEWS THAT THIS TRAITOR IS EITHER TAKEN OUT PERMANENTLY BY HIS ILLEGAL PARASITES OR IS ASSASSINATED BY A PATRIOTIC CANADIAN,” a Winnipeg man posted in 2017, getting 144 positive responses.

Global News found 15 instances of posters or commenters advocating or fantasizing about Trudeau’s assassination, without trying an exhaustive search.

One member, responding in 2018 to a call for an election to remove the federal Liberals, responded that “Assassination would be easier, quicker, and more efficient. …probably more preferred by Canadians too. …it’d certainly be my choice.”

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The group’s other main target, as one would expect from the application process, was Muslims.

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A post attacking the building of a mosque in Fort McMurray attracted a range of responses, including one from a man who wrote that “Slobodan Milosevic had a cure for this.

Milosevic, who was Serbia’s president during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, was tried at the Hague on war crimes charges related to his role in the mass ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims and the mass killing of over 7,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in 1995. 

Twenty-three Canadian soldiers died serving as UN peacekeepers in the war in the former Yugoslavia, which Milosevic had a role in starting. He died before his trial was complete. 

A recent post approved of obscene graffiti spray-painted on Liberal MP Catherine McKenna’s office in Ottawa, saying that “Truth hurts sometimes,” which got 118 favourable responses.

In the aftermath of the March 2019 New Zealand mosque shooting, a moderator of the group promoted a conspiracy theory claiming that a video of the attack had been faked, writing that “I knew something was off about that attack and this confirmed it!!”

Facebook group with violent anti-Trudeau rhetoric removed, then restored
Facebook group with violent anti-Trudeau rhetoric removed, then restored

Posts and comments on the site appeared to violate Facebook’s policies on hate speech and advocating violence.

“We want people to feel safe creating community and making connections across our family of apps,” a Facebook spokesperson wrote in an e-mailed statement about the decision to remove the page. “We remove content that violates our Community Standards, regardless of ideology or political affiliation.”

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Bernie Farber of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network is frustrated by what he sees as Facebook’s failure to crack down on extremism in private groups.

“Some of the things we see, especially in Facebook on private groups, would curl your innards. It’s violent, it’s racist, it’s hateful, and nobody seems right now to be willing to do anything about it.”

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Questions raised about Trudeau’s accessibility following threat

Extreme online subcultures are moving to closed spaces on Facebook, says Barbara Perry of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.

“Many of these folks are now sort of moving into those hidden spaces, those private chat rooms, that sort of thing, where they can’t be monitored as easily,” she says.

“But it’s really sort of a two-edged sword, because at least as long as they were public, we knew what they were saying. I think that’s where the language starts to become amplified and becomes even more blatant and more extreme.”

The closed nature of the groups pushes members to become more and more extreme, Perry says.

“They start to feed off one another even more, more so than if they were in the public sphere where there might be some challenges, there might be some counter-narratives, or they might be forced to sanitize their language a little bit in order to not be de-platformed, in order to not cross those boundaries of hate speech and incitement to hatred, incitement to genocide, those sorts of things.”

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She worries that violent rhetoric makes violent action more thinkable.

“I mean, two things are possibilities, right? One is that that becomes a catharsis and they express themselves verbally and they’re happy with that.

“But there may be those people who will actually take that a step further. They become emboldened and so perhaps increasingly angry because of the conversations they’re having, because of those dialogues, that they act out on them in the real world on the streets.”

Mustafa Farooq of the National Council of Canadian Muslims is also concerned about crossover into physical violence.

“We think that online hate and racism, discrimination, Islamophobia is being spread through social media platforms is a real challenge,” he says. “We know that Alexandre Bissonnette, for example, the individual who perpetrated the Quebec City mosque massacre, was, very shortly before carrying out the attacks going on to Facebook, going on to Twitter.

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Global News reached out to all 10 of the page’s moderators for comment.

“Not interested,” one responded. “You journos are amoral scavengers with a narrative to push. Learn to code.”

In January, Global News reported on numerous threats against Trudeau on the Yellow Vest Facebook group, which has about 100,000 members. And in June, the National Observer discovered the National Conservative News Network Canada, which it said was “peddling virulent anti-Muslim hate speech and disinformation.” At the time Facebook shut it down, it had over 200,000 members.

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Farber predicts that rhetoric about assassination will lead to more intense and cumbersome security around Canadian political leaders, similar to what is seen in the United States.

“Our leaders, for the most part, especially if you live in Ottawa, you sometimes see them walking right down the street,” he says. “You can go up to them and talk to them. All of that will end. I think it will end sooner rather than later, anyway, because (the RCMP has) no way of really controlling what they’re seeing. The violence can become so endemic that leaders are going to have to hide behind brick walls.”