Canadian right-wing extremism has increased online during the pandemic

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Right-wing extremist online activity in Canada increased during the pandemic last year, despite efforts by governments and social media companies to curb 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 US

“This raises concern that an encouraged and increasingly violent far right in the US could help stimulate similar activity in Canada, as Canadian right-wing extremists seek inspiration from their US counterparts,” write the authors of the new UK-based report Institute for Strategic Dialogue to be released later this week.

The report warns that extremism could increase if lockdown restrictions are relaxed.

“Given the possibility that the pandemic has created a new audience for far-right ideology,” the report said, “it is possible that the unblocks are being lifted correlates with a rate of far-right activity higher than that prior to the blocking Level.”

A “feverish environment”

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

“The pandemic has … created a feverish environment for radicalization by causing millions of people to spend more time online,” the authors wrote. “In an environment of heightened fear, it was easy for extremists to capitalize.

“As a result of the pandemic, extremist conspiracy theories flourished and minority communities – especially Asians – were increasingly exposed to hate crimes and harassment.”

The report, which only looked at online right-wing extremism, is due to be released later this week, but was pre-released to 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 take care of what goes online,” said Hart. “It’s easy to just separate online and offline spaces, but we’ve seen that worldwide … cases of right-wing extremist violence have increased by 250 percent.”

Supporters of Donald Trump and members of the far right group Proud Boys take part in a rally to protest the election results in Washington DC on December 12, 2020. (Jim Urquhart / The Canadian Press)

According to the report, the government’s efforts to address the problem have had limited success so far.

In February, a month after the attack on the US Capitol, Public Security Secretary Bill Blair announced that a number of “ideologically motivated violent extremist groups” – including the Proud Boys – had been added to Canada’s list of terrorist organizations were. However, the researchers found that the group was still openly online.

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

In total, the researchers identified 2,467 far-right accounts that produced 3.2 million pieces of content in 2020. While these extremist accounts made up a small percentage of all Canadian social media accounts, they generated 44 million responses.

Cross-border connections

Researchers also found links between Canadian right-wing extremists and those in other countries.

Some of the Canadian reports the researchers looked at last year contained hateful racial slurs. Others expressed anger at certain people or groups. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the government’s COVID restrictions were frequent targets.

Some accounts actively promoted misinformation about pandemics and conspiracy theories.

The researchers said that some of the accounts they checked in 2019 were closed by companies like Facebook – but many of those accounts simply reappeared under different names. The result, according to the report, was as many extremist reports as in the previous year.

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

“This is likely to be related to the normalization of the hateful discourse on the platform, which has led to the growth of a community where antagonism against minorities is a standard everyday activity,” the report said.

“Neo-Nazi Pictures”

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

Researchers also found Canadian channels on Telegram with “large amounts of content with neo-Nazi imagery” and one linked to “accelerationism” – which the report describes as the belief “that violence should accelerate social collapse, built to make a white ethnic state possible. “

“These included memes evoking the need to prepare for the collapse of society, but also educational content on survival, guerrilla tactics such as surveillance and ambushes, instructions on how to resist interrogation and designs for 3D printed firearms,” ​​it says Report.

Gab was also a popular platform for white racists and ethno-nationalists, the researchers found.

While YouTube removed some accounts for violating its Terms of Service, researchers found that two out of five that were removed from YouTube were migrated to BitChute, an alternative video hosting platform. The Proud Boys posted a lot on their BitChute channel in 2020.

Speaking to reporters in Hamilton on Tuesday, Prime Minister Trudeau said dealing with extremist activity on the Internet 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 stand up strongly against violence, incitement to violence, encouragement to hate, and hate speech itself, all of which are against the law in this country.”

Trudeau said Canada needs to protect fundamental rights like freedom of expression while making sure Canadians are safe from persecution and violence.

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

Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at [email protected]


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