Opinion by Alexandra Wilson. This piece is part of Digital Hate, a series by Alexandra Wilson exploring the rise of right-wing extremism online.
Over the course of creating this series on digital hate, we have had the opportunity to discuss with a variety of experts in the field and have come to find that digital hate manifests in a multitude of ways. From the varying structure of social media platforms to cross-border right-wing extremist groups, there are various factors that lead to the manifestation of online hate. You will hear the perspectives and opinions of experts working to understand why and how this has led to the manifestation of hate online as well as how to stop it.
There are four experts featured in this article. Dr. Kara Brisson-Boivin, adjunct research professor in the sociology and anthropology Department at Carleton University and the Director of Research at MediaSmarts, Canada’s Centre for Digital and Media Literacy. Kara was the lead researcher for the Young Canadians Pushing Back Against Hate Online project which “survey[ed] 1,000 youth ages 12 to 16 years old to better understand their attitudes and experiences with casual prejudice online” . Brandon Rigato, a Carleton PhD candidate whose research focuses on digital media and the alt-right. Maya Roy, the CEO of the YWCA Canada whose work on the Block Hate Initiative, a four-year research and knowledge mobilization project funded by Public Safety Canada’s Community Resilience Fund, was discussed in an earlier article for this series . And Brett Kubicek, Manager, Research & Academic Relations for Public Safety Canada and Senior Director for the Center for Community Engagement of Prevention of Violence.
The physical structure of social media platforms themselves can have an impact on the manifestation of hate as well as the success of a hate group’s transition from the digital to the real world. According to Brandon Rigato, group functions, such as those on Facebook, allow for stronger identity formation than on Twitter where connections are created through the use of hashtags. This is especially true when these groups are at the early stages of fomenting a collective identity and allows for the more successful transition from the digital to the real-world. Groups such as PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamicisation of the Occident) and the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Jackets/Yellow Vests) are just two examples of successful Facebook groups who have made the transition .
However, it is not only the existence of the group function on Facebook that allows these movements, specifically the Gilets Jaunes, to metastasize . In 2018, Facebook changed what the platform promotes on its news feed to reduce the prevalence of fake news by replacing it with the promotion of semi-private Facebook groups and posts from Facebook friends . “Unwittingly, however, the company was promoting mass unrest, by pushing into users’ feeds, memes, and rants from the semi-political populist groups that would become the core organizational structure of the gilets jaunes” .
The Internationalization of Hate Groups
Many of these successful groups have also managed to internationalize through the formation of groups on different social media platforms, becoming cross-border movements. According to Brett Kubicek, many of these cross-border movements look similar despite being in varied geographical locations, however, it cannot be assumed that the different chapters all operate in the same manner. While the slogans, symbolism, and ideological motivations are closely replicated between different cross-border groups, it is often transposed on a local context, as Rigato highlights. For instance, there are Three Percenters groups in Canada, a fundamentally American movement rooted in American history and the myth that only 3% of the US population stood up to fight the British. This has little to do with Canada, and yet somehow, we have Three Percenter groups here as the movement resonated with certain sectors of the population, most likely for localized reasons. Rigato added that while the more general targets of hatred, such as Muslims, Jews, and People of Colour, largely remain the same—as seen by the internationalization of PEGIDA, an anti-Islamic group—the politicians attacks vary based on the hate group's location. Kubicek also mentioned that it “is important not just to be thinking about how Canada differs from the US, you also must think about how Calgary differs from Quebec City” because without understanding intra-country regional variations, any prevention effort will be less likely to work well for local conditions.
In our interview with Maya Roy, she spoke about the research the YWCA was conducting and stated that “a lot of the reviewing is actually done by human reviewers who, at the time, were predominantly Caucasian.” This was problematic because without a diverse staff certain racial slurs or epithets will often go un-noticed, as hate speech is community and geographically specific. Additionally, by hiring a predominantly Caucasian and English-speaking staff, slurs in other languages would also go undetected by human reviewers, a problem that is amplified in countries with multiple official languages such as Canada
Another challenging issue to address brought up by Rigato is that of coded language: “you're always going to have a backlash from conservatives saying this is language policing. So, there's always going to be a sort of political struggle on that front,” making it increasingly difficult to achieve bipartisan support on prevention and intervention efforts.
Online hate groups have additionally sought to exploit the large population of young people online in order to perpetuate their hateful rhetoric. In our interview with Dr. Brisson-Boivin, she mentioned that “youth indicate that those generalized messages of casual prejudice that we might consider to be mis- or dis-information are in fact gateways to more extreme or targeted forms of hatred.” Hate groups exploit the fact that young people ages 12 to 17 are at a point in their life where they're exploring their identity, curious, and engaged in identity play. The Internet is a trove of information allowing for platforms like YouTube to become testing grounds for youth to expose themselves to increasingly problematic rhetoric on websites such as 4chan and 8chan. According to Dr. Brisson-Boivin's research with MediaSmarts, while “on the whole, young people think online hate and specifically casual prejudice is wrong, only 10% of them indicated that they did something when they saw it.” This is a large barrier to progress. However, MediaSmarts research also demonstrated the more that younger people witness others intervening or pushing back against hate online, the more likely they were to push back themselves, which is why it’s so important to act against hate online and encourage others to intervene as well.
In conclusion, what can and should be taken away from this is that regionally oriented, multi-stakeholder approaches are necessary for successful prevention and intervention efforts. Our discussion with Brett Kubicek made this clear
“Groups like Moonshot, an innovator in using online tools to identify audiences at risk and figure out what kind of alternative content may resonate with them to steer them towards a nonviolent pathway, in their most recent report have noted that the project got a lot better the more they talked with Canadian subject matter experts, frontline prevention practitioners, and people who move about specific movements and understood the Canadian context; be it language, be it part of the country, or be it how movements that may have the same name in Western Europe or the US play out differently in Canada.”
So yes, to successfully tackle digital hate, you need to have people with technical expertise in the room, but importantly, you also need the people who understand the movements, the psychology behind them, and what effective prevention truly looks like.
MediaSmarts. “Young Canadians Pushing Back Against Hate Online.” n.d. https://mediasmarts.ca/research-policy/young-canadians-pushing-back-against-hate-online.
YWCA Canada. “Addressing Online Hate.” n.d. https://ywcacanada.ca/what-we-do/projects-initiatives/block-hate-building-resilience-against-online-hate-speech/.
Amiel, S. “'The embers remain': One year since its inception, what has the Gilets Jaunes movement achieved?” November, 18, 2019. https://www.euronews.com/2019/11/15/yellow-vests-a-year-on-is-the-future-bright-for-france-s-fluorescently-dressed-protesters.
Read, M. “Did Facebook Cause Riots in France?” December 8, 2018. https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/12/did-facebook-cause-the-yellow-vest-riots-in-france.html.