Facebook partners with Ontario university on 'global network' to counter rise in online hate
Experts predict the upcoming U.S. election and the COVID-19 pandemic will increase online extremism
Faced with a rising tide of online hate and advertiser boycotts, Facebook Canada will announce today that it is teaming up with Ontario Tech University's Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism to create what it calls the Global Network Against Hate.
The network, which is to receive $500,000 from Facebook over five years, is being tasked with spotting emerging trends in online extremism and developing strategies, policies and tools to counter them.
The move comes as experts like Barbara Perry, director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism, warn that the COVID-19 pandemic and the upcoming U.S. election campaign are likely to drive a wave of online hate postings in Canada and elsewhere over the coming months — hate that could spill over to the offline world.
"I think we're going to see an escalation rather than a decrease in this sort of activity, online and offline," Perry said.
"I think that [U.S. President Donald] Trump has already signalled a willingness to amp things up on his end, with military interventions, for example, in Democratic-controlled cities. So I think that is going to influence and further harden the resolve of people on the far right and the COVID lockdowns are going to exacerbate the patterns that we have already seen."
Perry said the spread of extremism and conspiracy theories online has clear connections to real-world events in Canada. She said Corey Hurren — the Canadian Armed Forces member accused of uttering threats against the prime minister and crashing the gate at Rideau Hall with loaded firearms earlier this month — had an online history that suggests he had been been influenced by QAnon conspiracy theories about the source of the pandemic.
Alek Minassian — who goes on trial in November on ten counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder in connection with an April 2018 van attack in Toronto that claimed ten lives — has told police he is part of the "incel" movement, a group of men who describe themselves as "involuntarily celibate" and whose online discussions often involve angry and hate-filled statements about women.
Perry acted as a consultant for Facebook in 2019, helping the social media giant identify a series of accounts in Canada that promoted white supremacist views. Subsequently, Facebook barred multiple individuals from its platform — including far-right political activist Faith Goldy and "white nationalist" Kevin Goudreau — and a host of groups, including the Soldiers of Odin, the Canadian Nationalist Front, the Aryan Strikeforce and the Wolves of Odin.
Facebook is under fire from those who accuse it of allowing hatred to spread on its platform. A consumer boycott campaign has led top brands like Unilever, Adidas and Microsoft to pull their ads from Facebook.
Kevin Chan, head of public policy for Facebook Canada, said the partnership with Ontario Tech has been in the works for a while.
Chan said Facebook originally planned to announce the partnership in March but it was delayed by the pandemic.
The agreement with the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism is above and beyond Facebook's current attempts to keep online hate off its platform; Chan said he hopes it will help the social media giant spot emerging tactics and trends.
"Our challenge ... is to better understand how these trends are evolving and to stay one step ahead of them," he said.
A global hub for studying online hate
The money will allow the centre to hire an additional person and, according to a media release from Facebook and Ontario Tech, is meant to help it become a "go to" knowledge hub on hate and violent extremism, "providing high-level expertise to national, international and global partners through evidence based education, training and programming."
While critics may say that $500,000 over five years is too little, too late, Perry said it will make a big difference to her organization's ability to monitor hate and violent extremism online.
Separately, Perry's centre also has received funding from the federal Department of Public Safety and the Department of National Defence.
Perry said there has been an increase in far right activity online in Canada. A recent interim study by her centre and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue between January 2019 and January 2020 identified 6,600 Canadian groups, channels, accounts and pages identified with right-wing extremism across seven social media platforms — sites which collectively reached over 11 million users.
She said far-right supporters also have been showing up at anti-lockdown protests in Canada, and have crashed Black Lives Matter demonstrations to disrupt them.
"We're seeing increased rates of uncivil and hateful behaviour online coming from people who don't affiliate with these groups, so they are nonetheless absorbing some of those narratives and some of that sentiment," she said. "At the extreme, there are people who are acting on these sentiments."
Perry said the most dangerous threats emerging online are the incel movement and so-called "accelerationist" groups like the pro-gun, anti-government Boogaloo Boys, who believe that America is headed for a second civil war and want to speed its arrival.
Watch: Far-right Boogaloo movement gathers steam in Canada
Chan also sees the incel movement as an growing threat.
"Certainly, our Canadian intelligence agencies have listed this as violent extremism," he said, adding that the charges laid in May against a Toronto teenager in relation to the stabbing death of a woman in February marks the first time to his knowledge that an attack allegedly related to the incel movement has been labelled as terrorism.
Chan said Tuesday's announcement is only one part of Facebook's plans for the coming months to fight discrimination. By the end of the year, he said, it plans to overhaul its advertising system to prevent people from placing discriminatory ads for things like jobs, credit or housing.
Facebook also is planning a series of roundtables in the fall on social justice and anti-discrimination measures, including one on Indigenous questions.
Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org