Amarnath Amarasingam is an Assistant Professor in the School of Religion at Queen’s University and a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. Jacob Davey is Head of Research & Policy of Far-right and Hate Movements at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.
The horrific killing of a family in London, Ont., has once again brought into urgent focus the landscape of anti-Muslim hate that is increasingly prevalent in Canada, both online and offline. A day after the attack, London Police Chief Steve Williams stated that police believe the family was targeted because they were Muslim. Some people might think of Canada as somewhat immune from the kind of hate and violence seen in other countries. Sadly, our research suggests otherwise.
In 2019, Barbara Perry, a professor at Ontario Tech University, partnered with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, the U.K.-based think tank for which we work, to map the online ecosystem of right-wing extremism and hate movements in Canada. With funding from Public Safety Canada, this continuing study is one of the largest of its kind. Over the course of 2020, we examined nearly 2,500 different accounts, channels and groups on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, 4Chan, Telegram and Gab created by Canadian right-wing extremists. These social media accounts produced nearly four million pieces of individual content last year, reaching millions of people in Canada and globally with their hateful and divisive messages.
Our analysis demonstrates that there is a well-established extremist community in Canada that is resilient to takedown and deplatforming efforts by social media sites. These groups and individuals consistently seek to drive hatred against minority communities and polarize Canadian society.
There are three main findings that are important to keep in mind as the investigation into the suspect, 20-year-old Nathaniel Veltman, moves forward.
First, all the trends that were true of extremist movements before the pandemic only accelerated after the March 2020 lockdown. After this period, extremist conspiracy theories flourished and minority communities – Asian Canadians in particular – have been subject to increased hate crimes and harassment. Our analysis points to an increase in extremist activity online in 2020, which might be partly linked to people spending more time online, as well as individuals experiencing the social and psychological consequences of life in quarantine.
The pandemic was the most widely discussed topic across the online communities we analyzed, with output often focusing on conspiracy theories and manifesting in anger against the Canadian government. Some initial reporting on Mr. Veltman suggests that even a short while ago, those close to him did not see him as intolerant. Determining whether the pandemic had any impact on his ideological development will be important.
Second, an important finding from broader research on extremist groups is that, irrespective of their ideological particularities, many of them converge on anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant animus. We’ve also found that as anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiments have become more mainstream, white supremacists and other hate movements have been able to seize on those bigotries to bring people into more hard core, generalized circles of hate. Our analysis, released last year, showed that in 2019 Muslims were the most common targets of online hate speech in Canada. It will be useful to fully investigate what kinds of virtual communities, if any, Mr. Veltman was in.
Finally, while it is not clear yet whether Mr. Veltman was linked to any formal far-right groups (a taxi driver reported that he appeared to be wearing swastikas at the time of the attack) our research suggests that the ecosystem of hate in Canada, especially in the online space, is not always associated with established groups. Indeed, much of the content individuals are consuming and engaging with isn’t necessarily Canadian either – it could be anti-government movements from the U.S., hateful speech and politics from Europe, or anti-Muslim sentiment espoused by a wide variety of groups from around the world. This raises the real concern that an emboldened and increasingly violent extreme right globally could help to inspire similar acts of violence in Canada.
What the 2017 Quebec mosque shooting, the 2020 stabbing death of a Toronto mosque caretaker and numerous other instances of hate crimes make clear is that Canada is far from immune to hateful speech and extremist violence. The attack on the Muslim family in London, Ont., may prove to be yet another instance of this worrying development. Our research demonstrates how social media platforms are an important incubator of hateful communities. Finding ways to bring these platforms to account and limit hateful and extremist content online is essential to keeping marginalized and minority communities safe.
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