Over 11 million online users globally have been reached by more than 6,600 right-wing extremist social media pages, groups, and accounts in Canada, according to a new report by a U.K.-based think tank that studies hate and extremism.
And researchers suspect that these users have been more active during the COVID-19 lockdown and anti-Black racism protests.
“We were really struck by the high level of engagement by Canadians,” said Jacob Davey, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) senior research manager and co-author of the report. “It’s clear that Canada has a well established system of right-wing extremists very much comparable to that of the U.S. and U.K., and it’s part of a global pattern.”
Davey said the current anti-Black racism movements have likely led to more activity by these voices as they try to discredit the idea that racism is a problem in Canada.
The ISD was contracted by a team of researchers led by Barbara Perry, a professor at Ontario Tech University (OTU), to do the report. “An Online Environmental Scan of Right-wing Extremism in Canada” gives a detailed overview of Canada’s online far-right universe based on data from 2017 to 2019.
Perry noted that beside the more general concern of right-wing extremism becoming more online-based, the current economic downturn may result in more radicalization.
“Under the lockdown, more people, especially youth, are spending more time online,” said Perry, who runs OTU’s Centre on Hate, Bias, and Extremism. “We know that mass killings in recent years were done by lone actors mobilized by online engagement, and it’s a concern that more exposure to these narratives during COVID-19, when so many have lost work, might engender similar violence.”
Perry said that part of the appeal of these platforms is that they often have ready-made explanations to address people’s social and economic anxieties.
Perry’s team defines right-wing extremism as “a loose movement, characterized by a racially, ethnically, and sexually defined nationalism. This nationalism is often framed in terms of white power, and is grounded in xenophobic and exclusionary understandings of the perceived threats posed by such groups as non-Whites, Jews, immigrants, homosexuals, and feminists.”
The ISD analyzed 6,352 Twitter accounts, 130 public Facebook pages and groups, 32 YouTube channels, 42 Gab accounts, 88 accounts on the neo-Nazi Iron March forum, and 31 accounts on the white supremacist forum Fascist Forge (the latter two forums are now defunct).
It found that Canadians are particularly active “representing the third largest nationality using 4chan’s politically incorrect board,” and were the third largest community on Iron March behind the U.S. and U.K.
The researchers also found that anti-Muslim and anti-Trudeau chatter is more prevalent among the far-right actors. For instance, on Twitter, extremist voices were more likely to be engaged in anti-Muslim conversation and boards tended to light up when anti-Muslim topics were being discussed.
According to the report, on Facebook, “Muslims were the most widely discussed minority community, and the most common target of posts containing explicit hate speech (23 percent), with anti-Semitism being the second largest grouping of hate speech (16 percent).” Trudeau was a particularly popular target on YouTube, the report said.
A sharp rise in the number of Facebook posts, YouTube videos, tweets, and 4chan threads can clearly be seen after larger events both inside and outside of Canada. Canada’s federal election in October 2019 and the Islamophobic mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand March 2019 both triggered spikes in activity across the right-wing extremism network.. Otherwise, in 2019, activity has gradually dipped across Facebook and YouTube, gone up on Twitter, and stayed even on 4chan.
According to the report, acts of far-right terrorism has increased by 320 percent over the past five years.
OTU researchers, led by Perry, are also putting together a report that maps out what right-wing extremism looks like offline in Canada.
“Those findings will provide more insight into the strategic capacity of these groups and ways in which people are drawn in,” Perry said. “We’re still early in the process, but so far our observations offline are very much in line with what we are seeing online.”
Follow Steven Zhou on Twitter.