Engagement with violent, far-right extremist content online jumped in Canada during lockdowns imposed to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, according to a group of researchers.
Moonshot CVE, a U.K.-based organization specializing in counter-extremism work, analyzed search data for six major Canadian cities between the end of January and the end of April, according to a report published this week.
Researchers found a “statistically significant increase in searches for violent far-right extremist content” in four regions: Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa and the Montréal-Laval area. The analysis found that search traffic also increased in Toronto and Vancouver “but not to a statistically significant degree.”
These findings weren’t “terribly” surprising to one leading expert, who noted more people have been stuck in their homes during to the COVID-19 outbreak and experiencing higher levels of uncertainty in their lives.
“That anxiety can be channeled.”
Perry, who has conducted extensive research on hate crimes and right-wing extremism in Canada, said extremist groups “exploit” a climate of uncertainty to their advantage by “crafting narratives around new sources of concern.”
“It’s been my observation that far-right groups — I think extremists of any sort — love a crisis,” she said.
Moonshot CVE, which is based in London, England, has been monitoring engagement with violent far-right extremist content on search engines in Canada since February 2019, according to its new report.
While the organization has received federal funding from the Government of Canada for a few projects in recent years, this study on searches for far-right content during the pandemic was self-funded, according to Micah Clark, a Moonshot principal based in Ottawa.
For its analysis on search traffic during the pandemic in Canada, Moonshot collected data for the six cities from the six weeks that preceded each provinces’ state of emergency order and from the six weeks that came afterward.
On average, weekly searches for “violent, far-right keywords” spiked across all six cities by 18.5 per cent after their respective lockdowns began, the analysis found.
Moonshot researchers detected the largest search traffic increase in Ottawa, with average weekly searches increasing 34.7 per cent, according to the report.
Over in Toronto and Calgary, high-risk searches — which Moonshot defined as including keywords that indicate “a desire to harm” or “to engage with a violent movement or ideology” — increased 81 and 70 per cent, respectively. In Calgary, those keywords included phrases like “kill all jews” (sic) or “how to join Ku Klux Klan” or “how to make a molotov cocktail,” the report noted.
Because Moonshot analyzed web advertising data for the study, it can’t determine who ran the searches or how many people are behind them, said Clark, who was part of the research team.
“It’s entirely possible that in some cases, this is either a very small number of people doing a lot of really intense searching or otherwise it could be a large number of people doing a little bit of searching as well,” he said.
When it came to the specific mediums sought online, average weekly searches for violent, far-right radio and podcasts soared by 330 per cent. Average weekly searches for video games — which have long been “an important recruitment tool” used by extremist groups, according to Perry — ballooned 324 per cent.
Content on more mainstream forums are both “easy to push out” and “easy to access,” Perry noted.
“I think the fact that we’re seeing a lot of YouTube and a lot of podcasts also speaks to the fact that, more so than the written word, they have more appeal or they’re easier to manage, as opposed to having to read all the way through some treatise,” she said.
What happens after the lockdowns are lifted?
Asked whether they’re concerned that the sharp increases in search traffic for far-right content will represent a new baseline for that kind of engagement after COVID-19 lockdowns are over, Evan Balgord of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, as well as Clark from Moonshot, said “no.”
Outside of the coronavirus context, Balgord said, “big spikes” in hateful activity online generally happen after a “precipitating event” that triggers extremist groups. Clark cited the January 2020 arrest of a missing Canadian Forces reservist with alleged ties to a neo-Nazi group as an example.
“They’re very reactive to whatever is in the media cycle,” said Balgord, whose nonprofit organization monitors and counters hate groups.
What Moonshot’s latest report does, however, is it helps people to recognize that “individuals who are at risk of getting involved in extremism aren’t so different from the rest of us in how they engage with the Internet” — but what they’re searching for is very different, Clark said.
“That also helps us to recognize that there’s an opportunity there for proactive intervention or a productive sort of engagement with that community,” he said.
Tackling engagement in extremism requires multiple strategies, experts say
Multiple organizations have a role to play in stopping people from finding and engaging with extremists, experts agree.
“We can definitely provide an evidence base,” Clark said of Moonshot’s work. “Government often can provide a lot of clarity around the legal obligations and broader duties to the public, and the platforms themselves often are the ones who are in the driver’s seat in terms of actually taking action.”
Moonshot, for its part, has been involved in the use of one intervention tool called the “redirect method.” It uses targeted advertising campaigns to direct internet users searching for extremist content and propaganda to other content that challenges those dangerous ideologies.
Public Safety Canada, over two years, gave Moonshot funding to roll out their “redirect” project in Canada — and the pandemic-related study released this week built on that project, Clark said.
The organization’s partnership with Ottawa on “Canada Redirect” ended in March, but Clark said the federal government is now funding a separate research project by Moonshot on the involuntary celibate movement, a subculture seen as intersecting with far-right extremism.
While more online platforms are accepting responsibility on the issues of hateful content and radicalization than they have in past, the work being done is “uneven” across platforms,” Clark said.
“I would say that more transparency and more consistent reporting is definitely an area where they could do better … inviting in the wider community to understand how they deal with these problems,” he said.
Balgord argued that countries like Canada should be tougher on social media companies and websites that allow the promotion of hate speech and materials on their platforms that clearly violate criminal laws.
“They’re not going to care until they make it financially painful,” Balgord said.
“We have really great jurisprudence for all this stuff in the country, really great case law … but what we need to be doing is actually enforcing that on internet service providers and social media companies because there is stuff online that is illegal.”
The issue isn’t just for government and law enforcement to address, however, Perry said. There’s a broader responsibility to enhance both individual and widespread digital literacy, she argued.
“Especially now where our teachers are teaching online, what a good teaching moment in terms of: ‘I know you’re spending a lot of time online, let’s think about how to determine credible sources and credible narratives,'” Perry said.