More than 6,000 Canadian online channels involved in spreading right-wing extremism, study finds

TORONTO -- A new study has identified more than 6,600 online channels, pages, groups and accounts across several social media platforms where Canadians were involved in spreading white supremacist, misogynistic or other extremist views.

The research, led by the U.K.-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) and published Friday, found a variety of Canadian right-wing extremist communities across online platforms including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Iron March, Fascist Forge, 4chan and Gab.

The study reported that these channels, pages, groups and accounts collectively have reached more than 11 million users across their platforms.

On one particular message board called "politically incorrect" on the fringe site 4chan, researchers found that Canadian users created more than 1.6 million posts, representing nearly six per cent of posts from all countries, according to the study.

"We found that Canadians are highly active on forums associated with white supremacy, representing the third largest nationality using 4chan's 'politically incorrect' board after the U.S. and U.K., and were the third largest community on Iron March when the platform was active," according to the report.

Jacob Davey, ISD senior research manager and one of the authors of the study, told on Friday that after considering population size, Canada actually had a larger proportion of users compared to other countries.

"This would suggest that actually this is something to be taken seriously. There is a well-established network of users out there who are really working to push hatred and target minority communities in a deeply unpleasant way," Davey said in an interview.

The new report is "one of the most comprehensive efforts to date to assess the scale of right-wing extremist activity online in Canada," according to its authors.

While right-wing extremists adhere to slightly different ideological perspectives and mobilize in different ways and on different platforms, the study found that they are motivated by similar issues and events.

The Christchurch terror attack in New Zealand and the Canadian federal election led to the largest increases in activity across right-wing extremism online groups in 2019, according to the report. Anti-Muslim and anti-Trudeau rhetoric were also the most popular topics among right-wing extremists online in Canada.

"We found pretty consistently that anti-Muslim sentiment, anti-Muslim hatred formed a large part of the conversation across these platforms… Looking at conversational Twitter and 4chan for example, we found that there were Canadians who were supportive of the [Christchurch] terrorist attack, who were cheerleading it, who were justifying it, who were calling for violence against Muslims themselves," Davey said.

This finding was particularly disturbing to the study’s authors given the 2017 mosque shooting that left six dead and eight injured in Quebec City, said Davey.

"The crucial takeaway from this report is really finding that there is an established and fairly substantive online ecosystem supporting right-wing extremism in Canada," Davey said.

Davey said social media platforms still have work to do in addressing right-wing extremist activity online.

"In recent years, they have been taking some steps to recognize right-wing extremism and certain groups of movements from the platform. But I think what study shows, is there is still a sizable community working to push out anti-minority hatred in Canada," Davey said.

He added that social media companies should consider what extremist communities are being allowed to flourish on their platforms and evaluate what can be done to limit their online presence.

However, Davey said addressing online hatred goes beyond the platforms that harbour such sentiment.

"I think more broadly, we need to be considering ways we can actually reach people who are engaging in this extremist conversational mind and find ways to intervene with them," Davey said. "For example, trying to find ways to actually have conversations with radicalized individuals to try and change their mind, to try and help bring them back from this precipice of hatred."

He added that intervening in extremist conversations online is something Canadian law enforcement agencies should consider doing more often.

"Canada is not exempt from these trends which we have seen in the United States and in Europe. They demonstrate that there is a sizable population of right-wing extremists in Canada who are working to make the country a more divided place," Davey said.

The interim study, titled "An Online Environmental Scan of Right-wing Extremism in Canada," is part of a larger project designed to understand right-wing extremism in Canada led by Ontario Tech University in partnership with Michigan State University and the University of New Brunswick.

ISD said it will analyze right-wing extremism on these platforms in more detail over the next year and plans to incorporate additional digital forums in future reports.

Davey said ISD will also release a series of briefing papers looking at how certain events in 2020 have contributed to right-wing extremist activity online in Canada, including the COVID-19 pandemic and recent anti-Black racism protests.

"In general, we've seen a major surge in recent years in right-wing extremism manifesting in violence, but also in the general creation of a hateful environment, both online and offline, which makes minority groups feel unwelcome," Davey said.

He hopes that the study and its future reports will showcase the scale of extremism happening online and push Canada's leaders to combat those ideologies.

"Through our work, I hope that we shine a light on this phenomenon, and can act as a prompt for society to respond to these hatred and divisive actors and find ways to push back against their rhetoric," Davey said.


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