The Landscape of Cross-Border Ideologically Motivated Extremist Movements in Canada and the United States

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Written Testimony
Before the House of Commons’ Standing Committee
on Public Safety and National Security

April 26, 2022

The Landscape of Cross-Border Ideologically Motivated Extremist Movements in Canada
and the United States: How to Counter this Burgeoning Threat to Inclusive Democracy
Watch the Hearing

By Heidi Beirich, Ph.D. and Wendy Via
Co-Founders
Global Project Against Hate and Extremism

www.globalextremism.org

 

Introduction

Canada and the United States have long had similar and intertwined white supremacist, antigovernment, and other movements motivated by forms of hatred. In the last century, the Ku Klux Klan worked both sides of the border. Other more recent movements, such as the neo-Nazi National Alliance, White Aryan Resistance, and Aryan Nations, and racist skinhead groups, such as Volksfront, had chapters in both countries. The sovereign citizen movement, which advocates that federal law does not apply to them, made its way to Canada in recent decades. U.S.-born antigovernment groups that reject federal authority and are awash with conspiracies have found a home in Canada. That includes the Three Percenters and Oath Keepers, both of which have members charged with conspiracy for their involvement in the January 6 Capitol insurrection.

Both countries have rising numbers of ideologically motivated extremist groups and hate crimes. There are around 300 Canadian and between 800 and 1,000 U.S. hate groups. Hate crimes are on the rise, with Canada seeing a jump in such crimes fueled by Islamophobia and attacks on Asians targeted during the pandemic. The U.S. hit its highest number of reported hate crimes in the FBI’s most recent report, with anti-Asian crimes also surging. However, there are some differences between the countries, with European movements such as the anti-Muslim PEGIDA and anti-immigrant Yellow Vests more likely to find a home in Canada. At times, Canadians have been the exporters, as in the case of Gavin McInnes, a Canadian who founded the Proud Boys. But in general, ideologically motivated extremism is exported north rather than vice versa.

There are reasons both countries are experiencing a rise in such groups. Both are diversifying demographically, and in a few decades will see their white populations fall below 50 percent, a key driver of far-right extremism. Though America’s history of slavery and Jim Crow is deeply entrenched, and Canadians are more racially tolerant and inclusive, both countries have a history of white supremacy marked by government oppression of people of color. This history fuels nostalgic white supremacist arguments that a more “successful” white past is being erased. Conspiracy movements such as QAnon, anti-vaxers, and others, are rising in both countries.

Besides the changing demographics, both countries suffer from the unmitigated failure of American-based tech companies to moderate hate speech and violence-inspiring movements that have long harnessed social media and the web to recruit and radicalize. In the U.S., political figures and influencers with great reach, in particular former President Donald Trump, have legitimized hate and other extremist ideas, thereby injecting them into the political mainstream. Trump has a following in Canada, and research has found that his campaign and politics have galvanized Canadian-based white supremacist ideologies and movements. A 2019 poll found that 40 percent of white Canadians viewed immigration as a “threat,” a 25-year high. Canada has also seen new hate-infused populist political movements, though the numbers and their profile are much smaller than in the U.S.

Finally, both the U.S. and Canada have prioritized the threat of Islamic-inspired terrorism to the detriment of countering ideologically motivated extremism (IMVE), which is much more rooted in both societies and has a historical purchase and sympathy that groups like ISIS could never find. After 9/11, the U.S. largely abandoned countering white supremacist and militia terrorism. A similar pattern held in Canada, with the security services only recently awakening to the threat of IMVE. These movements directly threaten our democracies.

American Groups Active in Canada

Canadian and American white supremacists are deeply connected. They share ideology, propaganda, tactics, and memberships. Canadians often travel south to spend time with like-minded extremists, even participating in paramilitary training. Both countries have experienced a surge in IMVE activism as a result of the pandemic and conspiracy movements that have exploded online, at times inspiring violence on both sides of the border including calls for political assassinations.

Arguably the most deadly cross-border neo-Nazi groups, The Base and the semi-defunct Atomwaffen, are accelerationists who advocate violence and race wars to overthrow democracies (Canada designated both as terrorist groups in 2021). In January 2020, the FBI arrested three members of The Base for plotting an attack during a gun rights rally in Richmond, Virginia. Among those arrested was former Canadian Forces reservist Patrik Mathews, who illegally entered the United States in August 2019 after Canadian authorities raided his Manitoba home. Until 2019, a Washington Atomwaffen leader repeatedly drove to Canada until he was detained and deported due to his involvement in “an organization that may engage in terrorism.” In April, a Canadian Proud Boy was deported to the U.S. for an assault in Washington, D.C. There are many more such examples of cross-border travel.

The Proud Boys, a misogynistic and racist organization, had an active Canadian chapter until the group was proscribed (some evidence suggests they are still functioning). The American Three Percenter militia long had Canadian chapters and the accelerationist Boogaloo Bois movement, whose members have been linked to considerable violence including murder of police officers, are in Canada. Sovereign citizen conspiracy ideas have also migrated north, and come with some violence, including attacks targeting police officials. Recently “Groyper” groups inspired by American white supremacist Nick Fuentes have emerged in Canada.

Measures to control the pandemic spurred anti-lockdown protests filled with a combustible mix of IMVE, QAnon, and covid conspiracy adherents in both the U.S. and Canada. In Canada, anti-mask rallies had identifiable extremist involvement including Soldiers of Odin, Three Percenters, and the Proud Boys. As in America, Canadian movements against pandemic measures have led to threats and violence. Anti-vax protestors have shown up at elected official’s homes, and in a protest in front of The Globe building, one protester warned, “If we can’t succeed legally…then we are going to be in a civil-war situation.” The recent Canadian truckers’ convoy against pandemic measures also attracted extremist involvement from several movements, with everything from antisemitic symbols and confederate flags displayed. The American far right came out vocally in favor of the protestors, sending money and messages of support. The protests became a rallying cry for Trump, his allies, influencers like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, and white supremacist groups. The convoy idea was ultimately exported to America, though the protests were smaller and less disruptive than the Ottawa occupation.

The political context created by Trump and his allies has had a profound effect on these extremist movements both in the U.S. and abroad. Trump’s actions vitalized IMVE movements, giving them more ability to recruit and propagandize. His pushing of conspiracy theories on relatively unregulated social media platforms amplified movements, including anti-lockdown protests and QAnon. Canada has seen the emergence of far-right populist movements, such as the People’s Party of Canada (PPC), energized by these same issues and attracting white nationalists and others opposed to democracy and human rights. PPC saw its vote share double in 2021 compared to 2019. As the GOP moves further to the right, embracing conspiracy theories, advancing aspects of the culture war, and promoting anti-democracy movements, the fallout will ripple northward.  But this is not happening in a void; Canada’s own history of white supremacy and extremist movements is at play, and at times, the extremism travels south.

Ideologically Motivated Terrorism

In recent years, both countries have experienced mass casualty events where the attacker was motivated by hateful beliefs. In the U.S., most federal agencies have concluded that white supremacy is the number one domestic terrorism threat, with antigovernment and conspiracy movements also inspiring considerable violence. Since 2017, Canadian intelligence has increasingly warned of the dangers of IMVE organizations and ideologies, though the country has thankfully been subject to less violence from these movements. In the U.S., a series of terrorist attacks were motivated by white supremacy, in particular the racist “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, which asserts that white populations are being displaced in their historic homelands by immigrants and refugees. Some versions of the theory claim global elites and Jews are orchestrating this “replacement.” This idea has spread like wildfire over the internet and become a unifying concept for white supremacists worldwide. The 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, the 2019 El Paso Walmart attack, and several others were motivated by the “Great Replacement.” The 2017 Quebec City mosque shooter was exposed to similar ideas and had monitored websites linked to violent American racists.

Another shared violence-inspiring ideology, which originated in the U.S. but spread quickly online to other countries, is the misogynistic incel movement, a mostly online subculture of “involuntary celibates” who justify violence against women. Estimates of the size of the subculture vary greatly, ranging from thousands to hundreds of thousands. These ideas have inspired several violent attacks in the U.S., including the Isla Vista, California shooter in 2014 and the 2018 attack on a Tallahassee, Florida, yoga studio. In Canada, the driver in the 2018 Toronto van attack and the 2020 Toronto machete attacker were inspired by incel ideas.

Social Media Facilitates Ideologically Motivated Hate and Violent Extremism

Nowhere does ideologically motivated hate and extremism thrive more than on online platforms, and no tool is more necessary to the global spread of bigoted ideologies and to the recruitment efforts of potentially violent hate and extremist groups. It is indisputable that social media companies are major drivers behind the growth of global hate and extremist movements, conspiracy theories, radicalization of individuals, and organization of potentially violent events. Twenty years ago, it was nearly impossible for ideologically motivated extremists to connect and recruit across borders when their only tools were faxes and phones, and they had no ability to monetize or advertise their content. Today, extremists deploy sophisticated strategies to draw in recruits and they use private groups and the organizing and fundraising tools provided by the tech companies to great effect. They’re often quite open about what they’re doing, lacking fear of breaking the companies’ community standards and other rules. Social media accounts are also used to drive traffic to darker corners of the internet, where messaging is even more explicit and hateful, and offers no pretense of acceptance of Muslims, immigrants, Jews, LGBTQ people, Black people, women, and many other communities.

Canadian and U.S. residents are among the most active members of internet forums and message boards connected with white supremacist activity. A 2020 report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue found more than 6,600 right-wing extremist accounts over seven online platforms in Canada, with Twitter having by far the most. Anti-Muslim and anti-Trudeau rhetoric dominated the extremist conversations. The prevalence of online anti-Muslim activity no doubt has informed two of Canada’s most recent heinous acts, the Quebec City mosque shooting and the murder of a Muslim family in London. While little about the London suspect’s motivation is public, we do know that he spent time on the dark web, where the worst of the worst online content lives and had hate-related content on his devices. The Quebec City shooter was inspired by and followed online many American white nationalists and conspiracy theorists, including Richard Spencer, an organizer of the Charlottesville riot, David Duke, former KKK Grand Wizard, conspiracist Alex Jones, operator of InfoWars, and many more. And he searched for Donald Trump 819 times in the month prior to the shooting.

What all these influencers have in common is their vile anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, much of it based on the rapidly metastasizing racist “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, which has inspired multiple mass murders in several countries. Pat King, an organizer of the Canadian trucker convoy, is an avid adherent. After the Christchurch, N.Z. shootings, which were linked to the transnational white nationalist network Generation Identity (GI), and live-streamed on Facebook, Facebook banned all GI and “Great Replacement” conspiracy content (although much still exists). In 2020, Twitter banned the same after a Global Project Against Hate and Extremism report about GI’s activities on that platform. Inexplicably, YouTube, which has an extraordinary amount of “Great Replacement” content and dozens of active GI accounts, has chosen to do little. This after the New Zealand Royal Commission found that YouTube was integral to the Christchurch shooter’s radicalization. The defunct GI chapter, IDCanada, remains live and monetized with ads from the American Air National Guard.

Most social media and tech companies are American and say that their policies are uniform and applied globally. The reality is that the policies are applied through a distinct English-speaking, U.S.-centric lens, haphazardly enforced even in other English-speaking countries, creating an uneven and dangerous environment, especially for non-U.S. users. Given that the major platforms did not really begin to enforce their anti-hate terms of service in the U.S. until after the Charlottesville, Virginia, riots in 2017, had few policies to address disinformation, and are still woefully unprepared to address these issues inside and outside the U.S. and in non-English languages, there is no way to know how many millions across the world may have been radicalized online. Exceptions to American origins are TikTok, a Chinese company, and Rumble, a video social media site founded by Canadian Chris Pavlovski, which now has more than 44 million monthly visitors. The company claims to be neutral, allowing content and users that have been banned by other major platforms. With investors like American Peter Thiel and boosters like Donald Trump, Rumble is being touted as the answer to a “new internet.”

To date, the tech companies have largely been happy to rely on government terrorism lists to determine dangerous organizations operating on their platforms, emphasizing the U.S. list, for making decisions about which groups to deplatform. But all Western government terrorist lists disproportionately name Islamist extremist groups, with inadequate attention to white supremacist and other ideologically motivated groups. And as shown by the leaked Facebook Papers, Facebook has been unable to even get the groups that they do list right, leaving countless groups across the globe to use the platform to recruit, organize, and fundraise.

The answer to slowing the spread and influence of hateful, extremist, and disinformation content is largely in containing the proliferation of these ideas online. Social media companies must set aside their profit motive and alter their algorithms to prevent the radicalization of users. They must adhere to the hate speech laws of every country in which they operate, in addition to, at a minimum, enforcing their own rules, and take down violative content and increase their safeguards against extremist content. “Whitelists” for political figures and influencers, as well as the lack of fact-checking for political advertising must end, as these practices fuel extremism and populism. Social media companies must also commit the necessary resources to moderate content in languages other than English. Changing the trajectory of extremist growth and protecting our democracies is deeply tied to the reform of tech companies’ practices.

Given the global reach of the major technology platforms, they must ensure the promise of global enforcement and acquire the cultural and language competency necessary to be successful. Too much information about their practices is opaque, such as numbers of human moderators, locations, and language competency. The situation is so serious that Twitter just lost a lawsuit in France in which the courts ruled that Twitter had to provide very specific data about how it manages material online, including the number, location, nationality, and language of the people in charge of processing French content flagged on the platform. We know that there is little moderation in the Global South and also in the North, and languages other than English are woefully moderated. Canada has about eight million French-speaking people, but tech moderation has undoubtedly failed to be comprehensive or account for region, vernacular, and cultural context, allowing the proliferation of hateful and extreme content.

Financing Extremist Ideologies

The majority of IMVE groups struggle to secure funding, but they do try to make the most of the options available to them, using roughly the same methods across the world. They collect membership dues, sell retail items, form full-fledged apparel companies, collect event and concert fees, and use mainstream credit card processors, online fundraising tools through Facebook or other platforms, crowdfunding, and cryptocurrency.

An important tool has been the Facebook fundraising and group program which allows individuals to set up a fundraiser and create private groups from which to organize events, protests, etc. Much of the January 6 insurrection was originally planned employing these tools as was the recent trucker convoy in Canada. Indeed, Facebook didn’t begin removing American convoy fundraisers until GoFundMe started refunding donations to the Canadian convoy. While Facebook has taken steps to address fundraisers that violate its terms of service, many slip through the very wide cracks of Facebook’s monitoring systems. It is impossible to know the countless number of violative accounts that are still active. Twitter is used to send people to Facebook, website donation pages, and crowdfunding sites.

On YouTube, active channels are allowed to display donation information, often Bitcoin or bank accounts, as many of the payment processors have taken greater steps to prevent the use of their platforms by extremists. YouTube allows the monetization of hate videos on its platform. There are supposed to be guidelines to determine the eligibility of monetization but thousands of videos promoting extremism, anti-LGBTQ hate, the “Great Replacement,” and many more violative themes are monetized, providing a stream of revenue to the content creators. YouTube is particularly problematic because of its lax application of its own rules, but also it can decide to demonetize just one video instead of an entire channel.  Additionally, it can demonetize videos for a period of time as punishment, but then ads resume after that period on the same videos that should be deplatformed altogether. YouTube has a fundraising tool only for government designated charities, but of course this too can be abused.

The retailing of items is usually done through a group’s website or sometimes on Amazon or eBay, both of which have implemented policies preventing the sale of items with hate symbols or for the purpose of funding extremism. Many items slip through the cracks there too.

Cryptocurrency presents a unique set of challenges for which governments, banking institutions, and watchdogs are not yet prepared to fully address. Even with government freeze orders, it’s often impossible to track the money. Cryptocurrencies can be transferred from wallet to wallet to hide the original source or transferred out of frozen wallets enough times to make it untraceable and impossible to salvage the currency. This was seen through the freezing of the accounts for the trucker convoy, where only about 400,000 of the 1.1 million dollars donated to the convoy has been secured.

The crowdfunding sites can raise a great deal of money for nefarious activity in a short period of time until, in the case of GoFundMe, the company is notified of the violative campaign or flags it itself. Of particular concern is the site, GiveSendGo, which is becoming the Telegram or Parler of online fundraising. Founded by self-identified Christian brother and sister who defiantly state that they will not be used as political pawns and equate the sin of being a murderer with the sin of being LGBTQ, the site has been used to host fundraisers for January 6 defendants, including Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes, charged with sedition, Derek Chauvin, convicted killer of George Floyd, and those seeking to invalidate the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The site was also responsible for raising millions to support the Canadian trucker convoy. The Freedom Convoy 2022 fundraiser raised almost $12.2 million from nearly 113,000 donations and Adopt a Trucker fundraiser raised $739,308.87 from 8,375 donations. Although Canadians gave more money than Americans, more than half of the donations made through GiveSendGo came from the U.S. These large amounts and American involvement can likely be attributed to the political polarization in the U.S. around the belief that the 2020 election was illegitimate and a general distrust of governments, which has formed the basis for a distinct movement to spread and support disinformation and conspiracy theories outside the U.S.

Infiltration of Military and Police Forces

With rising IMVE movements, it is unsurprising both countries are experiencing the challenge of extremists in the armed forces and law enforcement. Extremist movements have long actively recruited and infiltrated military and police forces on both sides of the border. In the U.S., the number of police officers, active-duty military, and veterans among the ranks of the January 6 Capitol insurrectionists highlighted the seriousness of this threat to national security. Some 80 percent of those charged have links to the military, as well as a handful of police.  The FBI warned in 2006 about this problem among law enforcement and in 2008 regarding the military. In the U.S., this issue has been addressed in repeated Congressional hearings, because this makes terrorism more deadly, as these professionals have training, tactics, weapons, and explosives skills not found in the general public. And they are a significant insider threat. Veterans have been behind several American terrorist attacks and plots.

Countering this problem is key to reducing the threat posed by these movements, something acknowledged in the Biden administration’s National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism. It was only in 2021 that serious efforts were taken by the U.S. military to address this issue. The matter of extremism in policing remains largely unaddressed in the U.S. context where some 18,000 law enforcement agencies make their own policies, posing a significant challenge. The danger to marginalized populations and their relationships with police, effectiveness of criminal prosecutions, protection of intelligence and assets, and police morale make this an issue that must be tackled.

Considerable evidence indicates that this is a problem in Canada as well. In 2012, a Canadian intelligence report warned of growing white supremacist membership in the military. The case of Atomwaffen member Patrick Mathews has already been mentioned, but there are others, including a website selling neo-Nazi materials run by soldiers. An internal study found 52 military personnel associated with hate groups between 2013 and 2018. In December 2021, the Department of National Defence created an advisory panel on systemic racism and discrimination to investigate the size of this problem in the military. That same month, the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency reported concerns that the Canadian Armed Forces’ counter-intelligence unit has a limited ability to proactively identify white supremacists in the ranks. In June 2021, the public safety minister, recognized this threat among police officers, and directly addressed the RCMP. As in the U.S., this must be a key governmental focus for countering extremism and steps must be taken to address this problem. Given the strong desire to recruit these individuals by extremist groups, this is a challenge that will persist.

Recommendations

Prime Minister Trudeau’s commitment to producing a National Action Plan for Hate this year, and for which consultations have already begun, presents an opportunity to significantly impact rising hate and extremism. We respectfully submit the following for consideration.

Fund Independent Research: Much of the research into the impact of social media on our democracies and societies is generated by civil society, and most of that focuses on the U.S. That should change. The tech companies need to be held to account by all countries.

Domestic Legislation: Absent a domestic law with teeth, tech companies will not reform their practices and be held accountable. Fully implement the Christchurch Call commitments. A sovereign democracy cannot thrive when there are massive ungovernable spaces.

Publicly Condemn Hate and Extremism: Political figures must use their positions to denounce extremism. These movements are easily emboldened by endorsement of their ideas from those with large followings.

Improve Cross-Border Cooperation: In February 2021, Prime Minister Trudeau and President Biden pledged to work together to counter terrorism and extremism, particularly in terms of “exploitation of social media and the Internet” by extremists, through “strengthen[ing] information sharing” to improve strategies addressing domestic extremism, and to enhance reciprocal sharing on known and suspected threats. With this agreement, there are considerable opportunities to act against these threats cooperatively, and an assessment of how to improve cooperation is warranted.

Assess and Resource Efforts to Battle IMVE: It is critical to determine exactly what resources are being deployed to counter the threat of extremism. Since 2019, Canada has taken several steps, including adding IMVE groups to its designated terrorist list and highlighting violent misogyny as a form of ideological extremism. But just as in the U.S., there has been an imbalance between resources dedicated to IMVE versus Islamic-inspired extremists.

Military and Police Extremism: Policies must be enacted to ban extremists from active-duty military and police forces, and they must be enforced. Programs to help avoid recruitment for active-duty and veteran members are necessary, especially in the fraught period when veterans separate from service. Examining the recent U.S. and German actions could be valuable.

Hate Crimes: Like the U.S., hate crimes in Canada are underreported and not given a high enough priority by police for investigation and prosecution. Improved data collection on hate crimes is critical to forging policy solutions. When hate crimes are taken seriously by authorities, they can lead to greater trust by communities of police and safer communities.

 

The Global Project Against Hate and Extremism (GPAHE) was founded in 2020 by Heidi Beirich and Wendy Via, experts on far-right extremism who have long worked to counter movements that are inherently anti-democratic and in opposition to fulsome human rights. GPAHE’s mission is to strengthen and educate a diverse global community committed to exposing and countering racism, bigotry, and hate; and to promote the human rights values that support flourishing, inclusive societies and democracies. GPAHE employs education, advocacy, activism, and research to counter the rising tide of extremism across borders and the threats that far right and hate movements pose to democracies and human rights.

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