Canadian right-wing extremism increased online during the pandemic, report says

Online activity by right-wing extremists in Canada rose last year during the pandemic, despite efforts by governments and social media companies to curb extremism and hate speech, according to a new report.

Report warns extreme right-wing activity could rise as lockdown restrictions are lowered

Members of the Proud Boys shout at a group of counter-protesters at Nathan Philips Square in Toronto on Saturday, October 21, 2017. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press)

Online activity by right-wing extremists in Canada rose last year during the pandemic, despite efforts by governments and social media companies to curb extremism and hate speech, according to a new report.

The report also found that right-wing extremists in Canada are being influenced by their increasingly violent counterparts in the U.S.

"This raises the concern that an emboldened and increasingly violent extreme right in the U.S. could help to inspire similar activity in Canada, as Canadian right-wing extremists look to their U.S. counterparts for inspiration," wrote the authors of the new report from the U.K.-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, set to be made public later this week.

That extremism could rise as lockdown restrictions are eased, the report warns.

"Given the possibility that the pandemic has introduced new audiences to extreme right-wing ideology," says the report, "it is possible that when lockdowns are lifted, this may correlate to rates of extreme right activity that are higher than the pre-lockdown level."

A 'febrile environment'

The report charted an increase in extreme right-wing activity in 2020 compared to what the Institute for Strategic Dialogue found when it first looked at the problem in 2019. The report states that while the number of accounts on some platforms dropped, the number of individual posts on major social media platforms increased significantly.

"The pandemic has ... created a febrile environment for radicalization, by ensuring that millions of people have spent more time online," the authors wrote. "In an environment of heightened anxiety, the situation has been an easy one for extremists to capitalize on.

"As a result of the pandemic, extremist conspiracy theories have flourished, and minority communities — in particular Asians — have been subject to increased hate crimes and harassment."

The report, which only looked at online right-wing extremism, is set to be made public later this week but was released in advance to CBC News.

Mackenzie Hart, one of the authors of the report, said governments and social media companies should take the report's findings seriously.

"We should be concerned with what's spreading online," said Hart. "It's easy to just have a disconnect between online and offline spaces but we've seen that worldwide ... instances of violence motivated by right-wing extremism have risen 250 per cent."

Supporters of Donald Trump and members of the far-right group Proud Boys attend a rally to protest the results of the election in Washington D.C on December 12, 2020. (Jim Urquhart/The Canadian Press)

The report says that government efforts to attack the problem have seen limited success to date.

In February, a month after the attack on the U.S. Capitol, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair announced that a number of "ideologically motivated violent extremist groups" — including the Proud Boys — were being added to Canada's list of terrorist organizations. The researchers found, however, that the group was still operating openly online.

"We identified two Telegram channels hosting 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," says the report.

Overall, the researchers identified 2,467 right-wing extremist accounts which produced 3.2 million pieces of content over 2020. While those extremist accounts made up a small share of all Canadian social media accounts, they were able to generate 44 million reactions.

Cross-border connections

Researchers also found ties between Canadian right-wing extremists and those in other countries.

Some of the Canadian accounts viewed by the researchers last year posted hateful racial slurs. Others expressed anger at particular people or groups. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the government's COVID restrictions were frequent targets.

Some accounts actively promoted pandemic misinformation and conspiracy theories.

The researchers said some of the accounts they reviewed in 2019 had been shut down by companies like Facebook — but many of those accounts just popped up again under different names. The result, says the report, was just as many extremist accounts as there were the year before.

Other social media sites, like Telegram and 4chan, make little or no effort to moderate what is said on their platforms, says the report. The report describes 4chan as "a hub for extremist activity" and says hate speech has spiked on the platform in recent years.

"This is likely linked to the normalization of hateful discourse on the platform, which has resulted in the growth of a community where hostile speech targeting minority communities is considered standard, everyday activity," says the report.

'Neo-Nazi imagery'

On Telegram, researchers identified 17 groups focused on Canadian affairs — including seven channels hosting white supremacist communities, seven hosting ethno-nationalist communities and one hosting an anti-Muslim community.

Researchers also found Canadian channels on Telegram with "large volumes of content containing neo-Nazi imagery" and one associated with "accelerationism" — which the report describes as the belief "that societal collapse should be hastened through violence to allow a white ethnostate to be built."

"This included memes promoting the need to prepare for societal collapse, but also instructional content on survivalism, guerilla tactics including surveillance and ambushes, guides on resisting interrogation and designs for 3D printed firearms," says the report.

Gab was also a popular platform for white supremacists and ethnonationalists, the researchers found.

While YouTube has removed some accounts for violating its terms of service, researchers found two of five that were removed by YouTube migrated to BitChute, an alternative video hosting platform. The Proud Boys frequently posted to their BitChute channel throughout 2020.

Speaking to reporters in Hamilton Tuesday, Prime Minister Trudeau said dealing with extremist activity online is a challenge.

"It is important for our democracies ... that we have a free exchange of ideas, free opportunities for people to express themselves," he said. "But we need to make sure that we are continuing to stand strong against violence, against incitation to violence, about encouragements to hate, against hate speech itself, which are all against the law in this country."

Trudeau said Canada has to protect fundamental rights such as free speech while ensuring that Canadians are safe from persecution and violence.

"Anyone who tells you that there is an easy answer to that is trying to sell you something," he said.

Meg Sinclair, spokesperson for Facebook, said the company works with Canadian experts like Barbara Perry of Ontario Tech University to understand trends and prepare accordingly.

"We do not allow hate speech on Facebook and regularly work with experts, non-profits and stakeholders to help make sure Facebook is a safe place for everyone," she said. "We've made significant investments in AI technology to take down hate speech and we proactively detect 97 per cent of what we remove before it ever gets reported to us."

Twitter declined to comment on the report but provided links to its policies regarding online content.

Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca


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.