Online radicalization is growing in B.C., too — and there's no easy fix, experts say

·5 min read

B.C. is seeing a rise in radicalization and extremist views spurred by COVID-19 and an increasingly tense political atmosphere, experts say.

White nationalism and extreme-right and incel ideologies are of particular concern, says Garth Davies, an associate professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University.

He says B.C. is not immune to the kind of radicalization that has led to violence like the riot at the U.S. Capitol.

"I worry about exactly what they worry about down in the States," Davies said.

"For us to believe we don't have the same problems, we are incorrect. We have right-wing extremists up here, we have incel extremists up here. And we've seen upticks in that during the COVID pandemic."

Davies is an executive board member with Shift, a B.C. risk-reduction and violence prevention program that seeks to provide support to those at risk of radicalization.

He says the pandemic has created a perfect storm for radicalization: people are spending more time online while facing mental, physical and financial difficulties. They're searching for ways to cope and feel connected to others and finding a barrage of misinformation online, like QAnon, anti-mask and anti-vaccine conspiracy theories.

"People are afraid, they're scared, they're nervous," he said. "Originally, they were out there looking for information. Now they're looking for explanations."

New research from Canada's Department of National Defence suggests the longer the pandemic continues, the stronger right-wing extremism and other threats are likely to become.

The federal Liberal government has identified the rise of right-wing extremism and hate as a major threat to Canada.

There are at least 130 active far-right extremist groups in Canada, a 30 per cent increase since 2015, according to Barbara Perry, director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University.

Social media playing on people's vulnerabilities

Former white supremacist Tony McAleer says an alienated sense of self made him susceptible to radicalization.

The B.C. man and his racist former allies at one point fought for the West Coast to be a whites-only enclave. He is now an author and co-founder of Life After Hate, an organization focused on helping people abandon far-right extremist views.

He says a person's vulnerabilities can lead them to intertwine ideology with identity.

"When I came across the skinheads and later these neo-Nazi groups, I got acceptance when I felt unlovable, I got power when I felt powerless, and I got attention when I felt invisible. And with these things lacking in my life, it sure felt fantastic," he said.

McAleer left the white supremacist movement in the late 1990s, but says social media in the 21st century is being used in the same ways that drew him toward hatred: playing on people's fears and insecurities to weave a false narrative, and whipping up feelings of loss and aggrievement in the face of a changing, more inclusive society.

"Things like ... diversity and inclusion get spun into, 'you're being excluded, you're losing a place at university to someone who's more diverse than you ... somebody is taking your jobs," he said.

Increase in hate crimes during pandemic

Cpl. Anthony Statham, who works with the B.C. RCMP's hate crimes unit, says there has been a "significant" increase in such crimes since the pandemic began.

When it comes to online radicalization, he says police cannot act unless the material meets the threshold for a criminal investigation, otherwise they could be violating a person's right to free speech.

Asked whether this means police have to wait for violence to happen before acting on hate speech, he was not specific on what exactly would compel police to act.

He said it's a "legally complex" area, with radicalization being legally "impossible to define," but they can act if someone's words show a clear threat to public safety.

"We can't go scanning the Internet and looking for things that we think are offensive ... we're potentially inhibiting people's charter rights," he said.

"If something is very obviously violent, we can conduct an investigation into that simultaneous with [a social media] platform taking some kind of action."

Kasari Govendor, B.C.'s human rights commissioner, says there are no laws in B.C. or Canada that deal with hate speech in a human rights context, and there is no "easy fix" when it comes to extremism.

She says British Columbians can play a personal role in reducing violence by acknowledging Canada is not immune to racism and by looking inward.

"When we see the impacts of these stereotypes, we have an obligation to ask ourselves what biases do we hold and how can we become actively anti-racist," she said.

Censorship not the answer

Both Davies and McAleer say social media censorship is not necessarily the solution to getting a handle on extremism in Canada.

McAleer says pushing misinformation off Facebook or Twitter doesn't make radicalized ideas go away — instead, they'll find their way to smaller platforms with less moderation.

They also say telling people their views are wrong can make them lean further into extremist beliefs.

Davies believes the problem of extremism will get worse before it gets better, and it will take "years of conversation" to re-establish basic ideas of what constitutes truth, fact, and validity.

"As long as the really harsh political divides are going on … this conversation isn't going to get any better. Because right now, we're not talking to each other. We're talking past each other," he said.