A new study claims to have found over 6,600 right-wing extremist channels, pages and accounts on social media linked to Canadians which have reached more than 11 million users globally, according to researchers in the U.K.
The study from the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which received funding from Public Safety Canada, examined thousands of accounts across seven different social media platforms from Facebook to Gab to examine how what they define as right-wing extremists in Canada, mobilize, harass opponents and recruit new members online.
“Canada has a well-established online ecosystem of right wing extremists who are advancing hatred towards minority groups, who are targeting people who are ultimately trying to make Canada a more divided place,” said Jacob Davey, a senior ISD researcher and lead author on the study.
Davey said the recent protests in the U.S. over the killing of George Floyd have become a “lightning rod” for these groups to help spread their ideologies.
“We found evidence of explicit violence endorsing groups and communities, engaging in content which might be illegal hate speech,” he said.
Hate speech laws differ across countries, and the study does not conclude that some or all of these channels, pages and accounts have committed any specific hate-based or other crimes under Canadian law.
Researchers identified five subgroups of right wing extremists including what they characterize as white supremacists, ethnonationalists, anti-Muslim groups, militia groups, and the ‘manosphere’, which include so-called “incels.”
The study examined a network of over 6,300 Twitter accounts, 130 public Facebook pages and groups, 32 YouTube channels, which generated hundreds of videos, and 42 Gab accounts.
Ethnonationalists — who often espouse hatred towards immigrants — represented the largest extremist community operating on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, accounting for 60 per cent, 53 per cent and 46 per cent of all such extremist communities on these platforms respectively, according to the study.
Researchers were able to examine thousands of Facebook posts and YouTube videos which found common trends of conspiracy theories, anti-immigration, and anti-Muslim sentiments.
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Overt white supremacy or racial slurs were less common on mainstream social media, while right-wing groups used coded anti-minority language, according to the study.
White supremacist groups, meanwhile, tended to be more prevalent on fringe platforms like 4chan and Gab, which has gained notoriety for users promoting racism and antisemitism.
The study also found over 120 accounts linked to Canadians on the now defunct websites Iron March and Fascist Forge, which are favoured by neo-Nazi group.
From January 2019 to January 2020, ISD researchers found a slight decrease in right-wing extremist activity on Facebook and YouTube but a significant increase in activity on Twitter, and a generally consistent level of activity on 4chan.
Two events that triggered a massive spike in right-wing extremism was the October federal election and the Christchurch mass shootings, when a gunman killed 51 worshippers at two mosques in New Zealand in March 2019.
“What we saw was individuals applauding the terrorists, endorsing the violence,” said Davey.
He said hatred towards Muslims was part of a “really concerning” trend throughout parts of the study.
“It really suggests that there is a concerted effort by Canadians to target Canadian Muslims to say that they’re not welcome in this country and even to justify attacks against them.”
Mustafa Farooq, CEO of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said the study’s findings are consistent with what Muslims across Canada have been facing in recent years.
“Online hate is major challenge that fuels Islamophobia and violence towards Canadian Muslims,” he said. “This has long term ramifications on the way we feel and the way racialized minorities in general feel.
Farooq said the Quebec mosque shooting in 2017 that killed six people forced the country to grapple with the perils of Islamophobia. During the trial it was revealed the gunman Alexandre Bissonnette was obsessed with the far right.
“The government needs to take action immediately to counter online hate,” he said. “It’s impossible to deny how right-wing extremist groups use social to create an enabling environment for hate and in some cases training to target members of the Muslim community.”
Last spring, following the Christchurch attacks Facebook announced it would ban white nationalist content from its platforms
The study, however, found several members of these groups retained their Facebook accounts, some which contain white supremacist imagery on their personal profiles, which researchers say indicates they are still using the platform to mobilise.
“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 Facebook spokesperson said in statement. “In the first quarter of 2020, nearly 10 million posts were removed under our hate speech policies, and 88 per cent of that content was removed before it was reported to us.
Google declined to comment as the study did not provide a full list of videos.
Violence linked to right-wing causes increased over 300%
Violence associated with right-wing extremism has increased by over 320 per cent over the past five years, according to the study, and Canada has not been immune.
Last month, Toronto police laid the first-ever terrorism charges against a 17-year-old over a February stabbing attack that killed one woman, after investigators determined it was allegedly inspired by the misogynistic “incel” ideology.
The research from ISD is being conducted alongside work from Barbara Perry, a professor at the Ontario Tech University, an expert on hate crimes and right-wing extremism in Canada.
“If you look at two of the most extreme platforms, for example, the Iron March and the Fascist Forge, Canada ranks up there in the top three with the U.S. and the U.K. in terms of active members,” she said.
“That will come as a real surprise, where most Canadians that this is a relatively small issue for us.”
Perry estimates there are around 300 active far right groups in Canada, up from about 100 hate groups in 2015. Last year, the federal government placed two neo-Nazi groups — Blood & Honour and Combat 18 — on its list of outlawed terrorist organizations.
She said as some mainstream social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter have moved towards de-platforming hate speech, it’s forced the conversations into darker fringe sites like Gab.
“The downside of that, of course, means that these are completely unregulated in the sense of they don’t really have a code of conduct which limits the speech,” she said.
“In fact, you know, they quite encourage these sorts of extreme discourses.”
Experts have identified a growing overlap between various right-wing extremists like incels and white supremacists which have created a more complex and growing security threat.
Alek Minassian, who killed pedestrians in the Yonge Street van attack in 2018, told a Toronto police officer soon after his arrest that he had hoped to spark an “incel uprising.”
“What we’re talking about when we’re talking about sort of the manosphere is really that very virulent part of the movement that is antifeminist, that would justify the use of violence against women,” Perry said.
“I think that’s one of the areas that’s really growing.”
The protests in the U.S. decrying police brutality have attracted the attention from members of an extremist online subculture: the so-called “boogaloo” movement or boogaloo boys.
Heavily-armed members of the movement — who are pro-gun, some of whom advocate for a violent civil war — have appeared in Minneapolis, Las Vegas, and other U.S. cities.
A US Air Force sergeant with links to the boogaloo movement has been charged with the murder of a federal security officer in California, according to the FBI.
Davey, a senior researcher on extremism, said although this specific movement wasn’t covered in the study, there is some evidence to suggest it has a presence and has supporters in Canada.
“This is going to be something now which we focus on and try and document and understand the scale of over the next year to study,” he said.
Canada struggles to fight online extremism
The federal government, which also uses social media to share their messaging, has struggled to fight online extremism following its pledge to do so last year following the Christchurch attacks.
Global News previously reported on how the RCMP has been asking communications companies to remove extremist internet content on a “case-by-case” basis.
Some of the difficulties police have had in removing content include increasingly tech-savvy and sophisticated opponents, legal and jurisdictional barriers and rapidly-changing online platforms.
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said in a statement that his office takes “very seriously threats posed by individuals who hold extremist beliefs” and is actively working to prevent social media and other online platforms from being used as tools to incite violence and hatred.
“When the RCMP discovers terrorism-related content online, a careful consideration is made on a case-by-case basis whether to seek the removal of the content — in order to prevent further radicalization to violence — or to continue monitoring the content to collect evidence against a suspect via criminal investigation,” Blair said.
“We promised in the last election to bring forward requirements that all social media platforms remove illegal content, including hate speech, within 24 hours or face significant financial penalties,” Blair said.
However, Blair did not indicate when any legislation would be passed.
ISD researchers suggest Canada adopt similar legislation proposed in the U.K. called the Online Harms White Paper, which seeks to remove content that is harmful to society.
The legislation would allow the government to issue fines for publishing content related to terrorism, promoting hate crimes or child pornography.
“The White Paper provides a potential opportunity here, as it ensures that platforms are held responsible for the safety of their users and their protection against risks,” the study said.
Amid increasing calls around the world to regulate tech giants like Facebook and Google, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has previously stated his reluctance to regulate social media platforms.
Trudeau told a gathering of civil society groups and government representatives last year that the solution lies in countries working with tech companies and citizens to fight bad actors who spread hate online.
“We can’t look at platforms as automatic antagonists,” Trudeau said last May. “We recognize the solution doesn’t lie in government’s heavy hand over our internet, over our public spaces.”
Meanwhile, Davey said it’s not just police or tech companies intervening, but that every Canadians has a role in tackling online extremism.
“There is also a role for civil society for each and every one of us to call out this activity and to work to reclaim conversation and debate from these hateful and divisive actors,” he said.
— With files from Abigail Bimman