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Flip Todd, a leader of the Portland Proud Boys, rides through a Proud Boy gathering in Gladstone, Oreg., on July 16.Nathan Howard/Getty Images

Right-wing extremism is becoming increasingly mainstream, with the COVID-19 pandemic serving as an accelerant to that process, Canadian and international experts warned Tuesday.

Experts also emphasized that with right-wing extremists organizing across borders through the internet, efforts to combat such extremism must also be international in nature.

“One of the greatest battles that we are fighting, in terms of our work, is the mainstreaming of extremism, the proliferation of conspiracy theories, and the tremendous surge in misinformation and disinformation,” Marilyn Mayo, a senior research fellow at the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said in Ottawa on Tuesday at an international conference on right-wing extremism.

For the 20th year, experts gathered from around Europe and North America to discuss far-right extremism – and how to disrupt it. This year’s conference, held for the first time in Canada, was hosted by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a non-profit headquartered in Germany; the German embassy in Ottawa; and Canadian Anti-Hate Network.

A recent House of Commons committee report identified that ideologically motivated violent extremism is on the rise in Canada, particularly amid an increase in anti-authority and anti-government rhetoric during the pandemic. Within that umbrella, far-right extremism is the primary source of concern, several experts told the House standing committee on public safety and national security.

In recent years, far-right extremism has fuelled several deadly attacks in Canada; played a role in the harassment and hate directed toward Canadian politicians and journalists, particularly women of colour; and been expressed by some individuals who participated in the protests against federal vaccine mandates that took over downtown Ottawa for several weeks in early 2022.

Far-right extremism in Canada is an ecosystem of overlapping “clusters,” including legacy hate-groups, anti-government movements, anti-immigration groups, gender-based violent extremism, and transnational neo-fascist, neo-Nazi and white supremacist movements, detailed Navaid Aziz and Stephanie Carvin in a 2022 backgrounder on the topic.

Prof. Carvin, an associate professor at Carleton University focused on national security, said at the conference that it seems gender-based violence and anti-transgender activity are increasingly what’s motivating people to join the far-right – or attracting them to it.

“The drivers for this seem to be rage, the polarization that comes with online social engagement, and the fact that people are having fun doing it,” she said.

And as long as “permissive environments” for such ideologies continue to exist, the problem will almost certainly continue, Prof. Carvin added.

Another conference speaker, Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the U.S.-based non-profit Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, said in an interview that the pandemic has served as a “radicalizing factor” in the U.S. – sending some people down conspiracy-fuelled rabbit holes.

“Young kids, especially young men, were taken out of the real world and put in front of their computers,” she said. “Teenage boys have been probably the most vulnerable to getting sucked up into the most violent extremist movements.”

Bulcsu Hunyadi, a senior analyst with the Hungarian research institute Political Capital, said that extreme right-wing ideas have found a place in Hungary’s mainstream discourse for about 10 years.

That mainstreaming has taken place through politics, Mr. Hunyadi explained, with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban implementing an anti-LGBTQ law and opposing Europe becoming a “mixed-race” society, among other anti-immigration stands.

“They take the far right’s narrative, slightly soften and blur it so that it becomes a bit ambiguous and it can reach more people,” Mr. Hunyadi said in his remarks.

He called the anti-LGBTQ campaign “a key tool for Viktor Orban and his government to gain international reputation among like-minded populist radical right and far-right actors.”

In an interview, Mr. Hunyadi said that the mainstreaming of extremist ideas is also aided by sheer scale – as they appear more commonly in the public discourse with the help of social media.

Ms. Mayo, the Anti-Defamation League researcher, emphasized that curbing this normalization cannot be done in a vacuum.

“This is a trend we’re seeing all over the world,” she said. “We need lots of people who are working together, especially right now, to preserve our democratic institutions and democracy in general.”