Canadian online searches for far-right material increased during pandemic, MPs told

The number of Canadian online searches for material related to far-right extremist groups spiked sharply during the pandemic, an expert in online violent extremism told members of Parliament Tuesday.

Searches for far-right conspiracy theories also spiked during pandemic, expert says

Police stand between far-right anti-immigration protesters and counter-protesters during a demonstration in Montreal on July 1, 2018. Online searches for extremist material exploded in Canada during the pandemic, a Commons committee was told today. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

The number of Canadian online searches for material related to far-right extremist groups spiked sharply during the pandemic, an expert in online violent extremism told members of Parliament Tuesday.

Vidhya Ramalingam is co-founder of Moonshot, which monitors and researches violent extremism. She said the number of such searches in the Ottawa area climbed even more after Ontario Premier Doug Ford's government declared a state of emergency in February in response to the truck convoy protest.

Ramalingam said her organization began tracking Canadian online engagement with violent far-right extremist groups in February 2019.

"In little over a year, we tracked over 170,000 individual searches for IMVE [ideologically motivated violent extremism] content across Canada," she told members of the public safety and national security committee.

"As Canadians spent more time online as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic and lockdown, the engagement increased. Searches for far-right content increased 19 per cent weekly during lockdown measures. In Ottawa, we tracked a 35 per cent increase after Ontario's state of emergency was declared."

Canadians also have been seeking out far-right conspiracy theories online, Ramalingam said.

"We have seen greater engagement with conspiracy theories," she said. "Over a year, we tracked over 25,000 searches across Canada for white supremacist conspiracy theories such as the Kalergi Plan, the Great Replacement and white genocide."

Ramalingam said far-right attacks have been on the rise worldwide. She said domestic extremist groups often take advantage of times of crisis, insecurity and anxiety to increase their support.

"That's what we saw with the convoys in Canada," she said. "We saw extremist groups taking advantage of social polarization and using that moment to manipulate and to grow in Canada."

Ramalingam said her organization worked with Public Safety Canada to produce a study on Canada's online community of violent, misogynistic incels — a group which gained attention in 2018 after a Canadian man killed 10 people by driving a van along a Toronto sidewalk.

On April 23, 2018, Alek Minassian rented a van and drove it down a busy Toronto sidewalk on a sunny afternoon, striking dozens along the two-kilometre route. He told police just hours after the attack that he sought retribution against society for years of sexual rejection by women. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Canadian Press)

"The Canadian incel ecosystem is spread across both niche and mainstream platforms, including Twitter, YouTube, Telegram and Reddit," she told the committee. "Canadian users on incel sites were 65 per cent more likely than global users to post news stories about incels and were especially celebratory of incel violence that occurred in Canada."

Ramalingam called on the government to increase its efforts to prevent Canadians from engaging with violent extremist activity online and to provide more supports for mental health.

While Moonshot researches violent extremism across the political spectrum, Ramalingam acknowledged in response to questions from Conservative MP Dane Lloyd that its contract with the Canadian government only covers far-right, incel and ISIS and al-Qaeda extremism.

Conservative MP Dane Lloyd questioned why the Canadian government is funding research into far-right and Islamic extremist groups but not anarchist or far-left groups. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

While the committee's hearings to date have focused more on far-right violent extremism in Canada, Lloyd pointed to an incident last weekend which saw someone set fire to a Jaguar and a Land Rover parked outside the Montreal-area home of Michael Fortier, vice-chairman of RBC Capital Markets and a former Conservative cabinet minister.

According to news reports, an anonymous letter sent to an anarchist website said Fortier's luxury vehicles were torched in solidarity with "Wet'suwet'an land defenders" and "all those who fight the extractive industry."

Terrorists moving to smaller platforms, MPs hear

Adam Hadley is executive director of the group Tech Against Terrorism, which works with tech companies and governments — including Canada's. He said that while a lot of attention has been focused on large platforms, terrorists have been gravitating to smaller platforms.

"Over the past two or three years, we have seen a significant increase in migration from the use of very large platforms to smaller ones and this presents a strategic vulnerability in response to terrorist use of the internet," Hadley told MPs.

Hadley said smaller platforms often have limited capacity to deal with terrorists' use of their services. He cited the example of one Canadian messaging app, which he did not name, which was inundated by ISIS supporters and unable to operate.

Hadley said his group, which focuses on Islamist extremists and far-right groups, uses open-source intelligence (OSINT) to understand how terrorists use a platform and has developed the Terrorist Content Analytics platform, funded by the Canadian government, which helps alert small platforms to the existence of terrorist content.

"This has resulted in 30,000 URLs and individual items of terrorist content being referred to platforms," Hadley told MPs. "We have more than 90 per cent of this content on smaller platforms removed."

Hadley said Canada has been a pioneer in designating terrorist organizations, which helps in getting content removed.

Regulations to deal with the problem shouldn't only focus on big tech, Hadley added.

"The current threat picture is such that there is a significant amount of terrorist activity from across the spectrum on smaller platforms and often regulation fails to take this into account," he said.

The committee wraps up its hearings on Thursday with testimony from government officials.


Elizabeth Thompson

Senior reporter

Award-winning reporter Elizabeth Thompson covers Parliament Hill. A veteran of the Montreal Gazette, Sun Media and iPolitics, she currently works with the CBC's Ottawa bureau, specializing in investigative reporting and data journalism. She can be reached at: elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca.