The Canadian Far Right Online –  Lessons in Responding to a Resurgent Threat

Photo by Victoria Heath on Unsplash

Author: Mackenzie B. Hart, Associate
Research & Policy, ISD.

In late January 2020, Jim Bronskill of The Canadian Press reported on Canadian Government documents that had recently been made available to the public. The unclassified but redacted documents concern the state of right-wing extremism in Canada and revealed that members of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) were unsure that the government was “able to respond effectively” to extreme right wing groups and individuals. Representatives from CSIS and the RCMP had a lot of questions, many of which were on a foundational level such as, “do we need a broader conversation on how we understand and describe all types of ideologically motivated violence?”.

Like many other countries around the world, Canada has acknowledged the growing threat of right wing extremism. In May 2019, PM Justin Trudeau announced that Canada was joining the Christchurch Call to Action to help prevent the spread of terrorist and violent extremist content online. The following month, the government of Canada added neo-Nazi groups Blood and Honour and Combat 18 to its list of recognised terrorist entities.

Despite this recent movement towards recognising the violent threat posed by the extreme right in Canada, there is a limited volume of rigorous and accessible research more broadly on right wing extremism in the country, with most research focusing instead on movements in other countries. This can downplay two salient facts: firstly, that right wing extremism in Canada is a growing threat; and secondly, that while an appreciation of global extreme right wing collaboration is important, an understanding of the local online and offline trends and grievances is critical for policymakers and law enforcement to address the threat.

There are exceptions to this general dearth of research. Notably, in 2015, Barbara Perry and Ryan Scrivens published their Environmental Scan of Right Wing Extremism in Canada, funded by Public Safety Canada. The report was the first of its kind, mapping the activity of right wing extremists across the country. While this work laid the foundation for our understanding of right wing extremism in Canada, it focused mainly on the offline activities and mobilisation of the movement’s followers. Fast-forward to 2020 and in the five years since the Environmental Scan was released there is still limited research on how Canadian right wing extremists operate online.

“Research identified… a network of 6,352 Canadian Twitter users engaging in extremist conversation; and more than 37,000 threads started by Canadians on 4chan’s ‘politically incorrect’ discussion board.’

This month ISD released its interim report, An Online Environmental Scan of Right Wing Extremism in Canada, as part of a two-year study being led out of Ontario Tech University, in partnership with researchers from Michigan State University and the University of New Brunswick. Researchers at ISD undertook one of the most comprehensive studies to date, mapping the online activity of Canadian right wing extremists in 2019. This research identified more than 6,600 right wing extremist channels across social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, as well as alternative platforms such as 4chan and Gab. This study included analysis of 130 Facebook pages and groups with a combined followership of over one million people; a network of 6,352 Canadian Twitter users engaging in extremist conversation; and more than 37,000 threads started by Canadians on 4chan’s ‘politically incorrect’ discussion board.

Alongside a definition of right wing extremism, the report presents a useful typology of the different ideological branches of the movement. ISD researchers attributed each of the right wing extremist accounts and channels in our data to a specific ideological stream, focussing on white supremacists, anti-Muslim actors, ethnonationalists, sovereigntists and the ‘Manosphere’. This allows us to build an understanding of how these distinct communities operate online. We found that the severity of the extremist content depends on the social media platform. Facebook and YouTube posts, for example, tended to be more implicit in their content, which could mean that extremists are learning to adapt to what is permissible according to the Terms of Service of different social media platforms. Prominent moments, such as the Christchurch mosque attacks and the Canadian Federal Elections, caused spikes in right wing extremist activity online. Relatedly, we found that Anti-Muslim rhetoric was one of the most common topics of conversation amongst Canadian right wing extremists last year.

So, what does this mean? The platforms analysed in this report play an integral role in growing right wing extremism in Canada. They function as an arena for spreading ideology, a medium through which minority groups are targeted by hate, and a fertile recruitment ground for extremist groups. The report calls for a more comprehensive approach to the regulation of social media platforms, with a greater focus on the fringe platforms where extremist communities flourish. Where possible this should include greater support for smaller platforms who are willing to address extremism online. In addition, further investment should be made into online intervention programmes which can reach individuals engaging with right wing extremism online. A similar effort should be made to offer support to victims of online hate perpetrated by right wing extremist.

This interim briefing provides the foundation for our future research. Alongside the offline work done by our partners, the final report will provide a novel and comprehensive picture of right wing extremism in Canada. A better understanding of how right wing extremists operate online will help law enforcement and other relevant stakeholders to both recognise the perpetrators and protect the victims of ideologically motivated violence within and outside of Canada. We can only effectively respond to this threat if we understand it.

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