The Resilience of Online Right-Wing Extremism in Canada
20th July 2021
A new report from ISD documents the latest findings of a study that tracks the online ecosystems used by right-wing extremists in Canada. This analysis forms part of a larger study into Canadian right-wing extremism, led by a team of researchers at Ontario Tech University (OTU) in partnership with Michigan State University and the University of New Brunswick.
Drawing on the full analysis provided in the report – which looks at over 3 million messages sent by over 2,400 groups, channels and accounts associated with Canadian right-wing extremism across Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, 4chan, and Telegram – this Dispatch presents the key trends in the online activity of Canadian right-wing extremists in 2020.
On 3 February 2021, the Government of Canada announced that the extreme right-wing organisations the Proud Boys, Atomwaffen Division, the Base and the Russian Imperial Movement would be designated as terrorist organisations, bringing the total number of designated extreme right-wing organisations in the country up to six. Public Safety Minister Bill Blair explained that the decision was informed by “the growing threat of ideologically motivated extremism”. It was a decision that took place following a turbulent year.
Throughout the course of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic significantly disrupted lives around the world, killing over two million people, drastically impacting employment, and resulting in the implementation of emergency responses that infringed on personal freedoms. In the US, extreme right-wing activity surged around the presidential election, creating an online ecosystem rife with misinformation. The situation climaxed on 6 January, when thousands of individuals stormed the US Capitol building. This activity had a noted impact on extremist communities globally. In his announcement, Mr. Blair acknowledged that the decision to designate the Proud Boys as a terrorist organisation in Canada was influenced by the storming of the Capitol.
Against a global backdrop of surging violence and terrorism perpetrated by the extreme right, and at a time where more people than ever are spending time online, understanding the digital strategies of right-wing extremistsis essential. ISD’s work contributes to this evidence-base and adds to the analysis provided in an earlier ISD report, which contains an overview of extremist trends from 2019.
What is right-wing extremism?
The study explores right-wing extremism through the lens employed in OTU’s 2015 environmental scan, where right-wing extremism is understood to be:
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 people of colour, Jews, immigrants, the LGBTQ community and feminists.
This definition is broad, capturing a range of extremist subcultures and harmful activity, which is fitting for a study of a phenomenon as multifaceted as right-wing extremism.
ISD’s research uncovered a number of interesting drivers of right-wing extremist activity online, and trends in the activities of these groups. Here are the 7 things you need to know:
COVID-19 had a significant impact on right-wing extremist activity in 2020. ISD researchers hypothesise that the increase in activity across the platforms analysed was in part driven by the impact of COVID-19 restrictions and the resulting increase in the time that many people spent online. In addition to having potentially created more active right-wing extremist communities online, more specific effects of the virus on right-wing extremist discussion were identified. The pandemic was the most widely discussed topic across the communities analysed – accounting for 38.8% of all messages that could be categorised by topic – with output often focusing on conspiracy theories and manifesting in anger against the government.
Canadian right-wing extremists appear to be heavily influenced by US activity. Across the platforms analysed, Canadian right-wing extremists mentioned the US more than Canada. Moreover, Canadian right-wing extremists discussed Canadian politics only 3.1% more than US politics, with a particular focus on Donald Trump. This raises the concern that an emboldened and increasingly violent extreme right in the US could help to inspire similar activity in Canada, as Canadian right-wing extremists look to their US counterparts for inspiration.
Right-wing extremist discussion of Canadian politics focused on Justin Trudeau and the New Democratic Party (NDP). Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was the most mentioned Canadian politician by Canadian right-wing extremists in 2020, with discussion of him being overwhelmingly negative. This speaks to the same trend identified in 2019, which found anti-Trudeau discussion, including conspiracy theories, to be one of the most prevalent topics of conversation. Interestingly, the Liberal Party of Canada was the sixth most mentioned Canadian political party, suggesting that right-wing extremist actors are more focused on Trudeau as an individual than on his party.
Right-wing extremists in Canada are drivers of disinformation. Across the platforms of analysis, Canadian right-wing extremists were identified as key drivers of disinformation. This activity includes trolls on 4chan creating and disseminating a viral piece of disinformation around the US election which suggested that Canada was preparing to launch an invasion of the US should Donald Trump win the 2020 presidential election. On YouTube and Gab, key topics of content included the promotion of conspiracy theories around the COVID-19 pandemic, a trend which has been designated a ‘public health crisis’ in Canada. This demonstrates the hybridised nature of online harms and suggests that policy solutions to extremism should be synchronised with those responding to disinformation and media manipulation.
Across the channels analysed, a small number of posts involving hateful and violent mobilisation were identified. ISD built a natural language processing architecture to identify hostile language, defined as ‘abusive, aggressive, dehumanising, or violent language targeting an individual or group of individuals’. This highlighted a small but concerning set of 30,847 posts targeting minority communities and political opponents. Through a qualitative analysis of the content, highly concerning support for violence in fringe right-wing extremist communities was identified. This included a number of white supremacist channels on Telegram promoting the accelerationist ideology that helped inspire the 2019 Christchurch attack, and sharing guides on how to prepare for violence. This type of violent content was also produced by members of incel forums discussing the murder and harming of women.
Mobilisation by a designated terrorist organisation was identified over the course of analysis. Two Telegram channels hosted supporters and members of the Canadian Proud Boys, which at the time of writing were still active despite the group’s designation as a terrorist entity in February 2021. Although terrorist designation in Canada does not criminalise group membership, such activity is nevertheless concerning and demonstrates the role that fringe platforms can have in incubating and amplifying terrorist organisations.
The enforcement of social media policy impacts right-wing extremist activity online, but does not appear to have a lasting effect. A significant proportion of the channels analysed in 2019 were no longer active in 2020*. While this would suggest that policy enforcement by social media platforms is capable of having a significant impact on right-wing extremist ecosystems online, a number of new channels and pages were identified as having sprung up in the place of those which were removed. As a result, there was no discernible difference in the number of Facebook and YouTube channels analysed between 2019 and 2020. The only exception was found on Twitter, where there was a 63.5% decrease in the number of active right-wing extremist accounts between 2019 and 2020.
Over the past two years, ISD’s analysis has demonstrated the resilience of online right-wing extremism in Canada, suggesting that it represents a small but perennial presence in online life. Right-wing extremists in Canada draw on a multifaceted and complex online ecosystem to broadcast their ideology to the public, reach adherents and plan activity. In this diverse spectrum of digital platforms, each fills a different role. On major hubs of communication, such as Facebook and YouTube, right-wing extremist groups are able to reach and engage large audiences globally. Anonymous imageboards such as 4chan provide a venue for trolls to create viral content. In the shadows of this online ecosystem, such as on Telegram and Incel forums, smaller communities of dedicated adherents engage in more egregious behaviour.
This online activity spans a spectrum of severity. This includes the innocuous, such as the sharing of non-extremist memes which reinforce in-group identity; the harmful but legal, such as the seeding and amplification of disinformation campaigns; the potentially illegal, such as the overt harassment of minority groups; and the highly dangerous, such as the promotion and planning of violent activity. Forming an effective response to the issue of right-wing extremism will require careful consideration of each of these dynamics. As the report makes clear, addressing such online harms in a comprehensive and cohesive fashion is essential, and analysis must take a holistic approach in order to avoid siloed responses.
* Channels analysed in 2019 that were no longer active in 2020 included:
• 17% of public Facebook groups;
• 52% of private Facebook groups;
• 50% of public Facebook pages;
• 63.5% of Twitter accounts;
• 47% of YouTube channels.