Canada is seeing an “unprecedented” evolution in extremist narratives amid the COVID-19 crisis, the country’s domestic intelligence agency says.
Public health officials and politicians continue to be targeted by the anti-vaccine movement, and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) told Global News that increasingly violent online rhetoric around the “arrest and execution of specific individuals” is a growing cause for concern.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, CSIS has assessed that threat narratives in the ideologically-motivated violent extremist space have multiplied at an unprecedented rate, John Townsend, the agency’s head of media relations wrote in a statement to Global News.
“While aspects of conspiracy theory rhetoric are a legitimate exercise in free expression, online rhetoric that is increasingly violent and calls for the arrest and execution of specific individuals is of increasing concern,” Townsend said.
Global News reported this week that doctors and public health professionals are calling on governments to increase protection for health care workers amid growing online hate and harassment emanating from the anti-vaccine movement.
Doctors across the country said they’ve received death threats, antisemitic comments and racial slurs for simply promoting established science around the safety and efficacy of vaccines.
CSIS said that the pandemic has “exacerbated xenophobic and anti-authority narratives” – such as the public demonstrations against public health measures like lockdowns – and many of those narratives can “directly or indirectly” influence national security.
It has been widely reported that extremist groups have seized on COVID-19 misinformation and anxiety as a recruitment tool. Canadians hesitant to get vaccinated aren’t necessarily influenced by extremists, but plenty of extremist groups view them as potential recruits.
“Violent extremists continue to exploit the pandemic by amplifying false information about government measures and the virus itself on the internet. Some violent extremists view COVID-19 as real, but welcome a crisis that could hasten the collapse of Western society,” Townsend said.
“Other violent extremist entities have adopted conspiracy theories about the pandemic in an attempt to rationalize and justify violence.”
The phenomenon presents an interesting problem for CSIS. The agency is mandated to investigate and counter national security threats in Canada. But the lines between dangerous and deranged – albeit legitimate – free expression, criminal hate speech, and a legitimate extremist threat can be difficult to discern.
In a recent panel discussion hosted by the Canadian Association for Security an Intelligence Studies, CSIS Deputy Director Tricia Geddes said the agency is focused only on “the national security considerations at the very end of the spectrum.”
“There’s all kinds of things that occur online that are unbelievably unpleasant, as all of us know, but it is absolutely not illegal to be a misogynist, to be a racist, to be bigoted or believe in a conspiracy theory,” Geddes said.
Geddes added law enforcement agencies, such as the RCMP, are responsible for investigating hate crimes while CSIS, as an intelligence agency, has to narrowly focus on threats that rise to a national security concern.
“That’s effectively those threat actors who are espousing ideologies that advocate and inspire violence, simply put … So it’s violence. It could be violence with a view to creating social revolution and the collapse of societies with a view to establishing a new world order, whatever is fitting into that threat actors’ worldview.”
Another challenge faced by intelligence agencies is separating what is simply online rhetoric from actual real-world intent to commit violence, according to former CSIS analyst Jessica Davis.
“When you’re looking at investigations, it’s really difficult to parse what people are saying versus what they’re planning on doing,” Davis, who now runs intelligence consulting agency Insight Threat Intelligence, said in an interview Friday.
“A number of times, in my experience, there’s been people who have said all kinds of really terrible things, talked about doing really terrible things, and never took any concrete action … Others sometimes say very little, and then it seems like all-of-a-sudden they decide to go out and do an attack. The online speech thing is really difficult, because it’s not a good indicator of what people are planning to do, but you also can’t just ignore really horrible things that people are saying online.”
According to CSIS, Canadians motivated “in whole or in part” by extremist ideological views have killed 25 people and wounded 41 others on Canadian soil since 2014. That’s more than religiously-motivated violent extremism — the type of national security threat Western governments have typically emphasized over the last two decades — or politically-motivated violent extremism.