Identifying radical content online: Ryan Scrivens

I only wish we could use some of these analytical tools to better understand overall integration and the role that social networks play in either increasing integration or allowing individuals and groups to remain within their own community or group?

Violent extremists and those who subscribe to radical beliefs have left their digital footprints online since the inception of the World Wide Web. Notable examples include Anders Breivik, the Norwegian far-right terrorist convicted of killing 77 people in 2011, who was a registered member of a white supremacy web forum and had ties to a far-right wing social media site; Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old who murdered nine Black parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, and who allegedly posted messages on a white power website; and Aaron Driver, the Canadian suspected of planning a terrorist attack in 2016, who showed outright support for the so-called Islamic State on several social media platforms.

It should come as little surprise that, in an increasingly digital world, identifying signs of extremism online sits at the top of the priority list for counter-extremist agencies. Within this context, researchers have argued that successfully identifying radical content online, on a large scale, is the first step in reacting to it. Yet in the last 10 years alone, it is estimated that the number of individuals with access to the Internet has increased threefold, from over 1 billion users in 2005 to more than 3.8 billion as of 2018. With all of these new users, more information has been generated, leading to a flood of data.

It is becoming increasingly difficult, nearly impossible really, to manually search for violent extremists, potentially violent extremists or even users who post radical content online because the Internet contains an overwhelming amount of information. These new conditions have necessitated the creation of guided data filtering methods, which may replace the laborious manual methods that traditionally have been used to identify relevant information.

Governments in Canada and around the globe have engaged researchers to develop advanced information technologies, machine-learning algorithms and risk-assessment tools to identify and counter extremism through the collection and analysis of big data available online. Whether this work involves finding radical users of interest, measuring digital pathways of radicalization or detecting virtual indicators that may prevent future terrorist attacks, the urgent need to pinpoint radical content online is one of the most significant policy challenges faced by law enforcement agencies and security officials worldwide.

We have been part of this growing field of research at the International CyberCrime Research Centre, hosted at Simon Fraser University’s School of Criminology. Our work has ranged from identifying radical authors in online discussion forums to understanding terrorist organizations’ online recruitment efforts on various online platforms. These experiences have provided us with insights we can offer regarding the policy implications of conducting large-scale data analyses of extremist content online.

First, there is much that practitioners and policy-makers can learn about extremist movements by studying their online activities. Online discussion forums of the radical right or social media accounts of radical Islamists, for example, are rich with information about how members of a particular movement communicate, how they construct their radical identities, and who they are targeting — discussions, behaviours and actions that can spill over into the offline realm. Exploring the dark corners of the Internet can be helpful in understanding or perhaps even predicting trends in activity or behaviour before they happen in the offline world. If, for example, analysts can track an author’s online activity or identify an online trend that is becoming more radical over time, analysts may be in a better position to assist law enforcement officials and the intelligence community. At the same time, it is important to note that online behaviour often does not translate into offline behaviour; authorities must proceed with caution to ascertain the specific nature of an instance of online activity and the potential threat it poses.

Second, practitioners and policy-makers can gain valuable information about extremist movements by utilizing computational tools to study radical online activities. Our research suggests that it is possible to identify radical topics, authors or even behaviours in online spaces that contain an overwhelming amount of information. Signs of extremism can be found by drawing upon keyword-retrieval software that identifies and counts a specific set of words, or sentiment analysis programs that classify and categorize opinions in a piece of text. Large-scale, semi-automated analyses can provide practitioners and policy-makers with a macro-level understanding of extremist movements online, ranging from their radical ideology to their actual activities. This understanding, in turn, can assist in the development of counter-narratives or deradicalization and disengagement programs to counter violent extremism.

We must caution practitioners and policy-makers that our work suggests there is no simple typology or behaviour that best describes radical online activity or what constitutes radical content online. Instead, extremism comes in many shapes and sizes and varies with the online platform: some radical platforms, for example, promote blatant forms of extremism while other platforms encourage their subscribers to tone down the rhetoric and present their extremist views in a subtler manner. Nonetheless, a useful starting point in identifying signs of extremism online is to go directly to the source: identifying topics of discussion that are indeed radical at the core — with language that describes the “enemies” of the extreme right, for example, such as derogatory terms about Jews, Blacks, Muslims or LGBTQ communities.

Lastly, in order to gain a broader understanding of online extremism or to improve the means by which researchers and practitioners “search for a needle in a haystack,” social scientists and computer scientists should collaborate with one another. Historically, large-scale data analyses have been conducted by computer scientists and technical experts, which can be problematic in the field of terrorism and extremism research. These experts tend to take a high-level methodological perspective, measuring levels of — or propensity toward — radicalization or ways of identifying violent extremists or predicting the next terrorist attack. But searching for radical material online without a fundamental understanding of the radicalization process or how extremists and terrorists use the Internet can be counterproductive. Social scientists, on the other hand, may be well-versed in terrorism and extremism research, but most tend to be ill-equipped to manage big data — from collecting to formatting to archiving large volumes of information. Bridging the computer science and social science approaches to build on the strengths of each discipline offers perhaps the best chance to construct a useful framework for assisting authorities in addressing the threat of violent extremism as it evolves in the online milieu.

via Identifying radical content online

Trump may have emboldened hate in Canada, but it was already here: Ryan Scrivens

Good overview by Scrivens:

A key turning point, in fact, was during the latter months of 2015. Two important events created a perfect storm for the movement.

First was Justin Trudeau’s pledge, as part of the Liberal party’s election platform, to welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of 2015. The second was the terrorist attack on concert-goers in Paris, inspired by the so-called “Islamic State,” on Nov. 13, 2015.

Each of these events were distinct in nature, yet Canada’s radical right wing treated them as interconnected, arguing that Canada’s newly elected prime minister was not only allowing Muslims into the country who would impose Sharia law on Canadian citizens, but that they too could be “radical Islamic terrorists.”

It all sparked a flurry of anti-Muslim discourse in Canada.

The day after the Paris attack, a mosque in Peterborough, Ont., was deliberately set ablaze, causing significant damage to the interior of the building.

The next day, a Muslim woman picking up her children from a Toronto school was robbed and her hijab torn off. The perpetrators called her a “terrorist” and told her to “go back to your country.”

Days later, an anti-Muslim video was posted on YouTube in which a man from Montreal, wearing a Joker mask and wielding a firearm, threatened to kill one Muslim or Arab each week.

Similar events continued to unfold in 2016 — all, of course, well before Trump’s election victory. A school in Calgary, for example, was spray-painted with hate messages against Syrians and Trudeau: “Syrians go home and die” and “Kill the traitor Trudeau.”

Edmonton residents were also faced with a series of anti-Islamic flyer campaigns, hateful messages were spray-painted on a Muslim elementary school in Ottawa and man in Abbotsford, B.C. went on a racist tirade and was caught on video.

Canadian chapters of Soldiers of Odin first made their presence known in the early part of 2016 by patrolling communities and “protecting” Canadians from the threat of Islam, and the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA), an anti-Islam group who first appeared in Canada in 2015, continued to rally in Montreal and Toronto in 2016.

And so it would be impulsive and short-sighted for us to attribute our spike in hatred solely to Trump and his divisive politics.

Instead, the instances listed above serve as an important reminder that prior to Trump’s election victory Canada was experiencing a rise in hatred.

In responding to hatred in Canada, we must first acknowledge that it exists in Canada, and it becomes ever more present during times of social and economic uncertainty. We must also acknowledge that the foundations of hatred are complex and multi-faceted, grounded in both individual and social conditions.

So too, then, must counter-extremist initiatives be multi-dimensional, building on the strengths and expertise of diverse sectors, including but not limited to community organizations, police officers, policy-makers and the media. Multi-agency efforts are needed to coordinate the acknowledgement and response to right-wing extremism in Canada.

I see signs of us moving in the right direction in building resilience against hatred in Canada. But in the months and years ahead, there’s still much to do.

via Trump may have emboldened hate in Canada, but it was already here

Acknowledging that Canada’s hate groups exist

Good assessment and commentary on Canada’s right-wing hate groups by Amarnath Amarasingam and Ryan Scrivens:

The results of a three-year national study published last year — involving interviews with Canadian law enforcement officials, community activists and current and former right-wing adherents, triangulated with analyses of open source intelligence — suggested that the foundations of hatred are complex and multifaceted, grounded in both individual and social conditions that strengthen and weaken the movement. Understanding these conditions, from a policy perspective, will provide us with a starting point to counter right-wing extremism in Canada.

Some of the factors that strengthen the hate movement include: Canada’s history of racism; a political climate of intolerance that arises from time to time (for example, during Quebec’s Charter of Values debate); media (mis)representations of particular minority groups (for example, Muslims depicted as terrorists after 9/11); and a weak law enforcement response to hate groups. In many respects, it is Canada’s national political and social climate that enables bigotry and hatred to exist in the country, a climate that provides right-wing extremists with a backdrop against which they can recruit new members and spread their radical beliefs.

On the other hand, factors that weaken or destabilize this already unstable movement include a general lack of ideological commitment in hate groups and infighting and transiency within them, as well as strong and visible law enforcement response in certain localities, resilient communities and the presence of an antiracist movement. In other words, hate groups in Canada are generally unorganized and lack the ability to strategize and sustain themselves, and law enforcement officials who put pressure on these groups are generally successful at dismantling them. This is particularly the case when antiracist movements and communities work closely with law enforcement and share intelligence on hate groups or their adherents.

It is difficult to know exactly what the policy response in Canada should be to right-wing extremism, but, in general terms, we need to acknowledge that hate groups do exist in Canada and that they do pose a threat to the safety and security of our communities. Coming to terms with this is a first step in developing policy initiatives to resist the radical right. Discussions about counterterrorism or counterextremism policy cannot focus solely on jihadism. The Trump administration has rightly come under criticism for its decision to cut federal funding for organizations that are fighting right-wing violence, such as Life After Hate.

Second, we must directly exploit the strengths and weaknesses that are inherent in hate groups and their environments in order to disrupt their growth and sustainability, through an approach that includes individuals from different sectors of society. In other words, policy initiatives must include the voices of key stakeholders who have unique insight into right-wing extremism, including law enforcement officials, community activists and former right-wing extremists.

Information about Canadian hate groups is fragmented. Law enforcement officials, for example, may have one important piece of information about a particular hate group while community activists or former extremists may have another. Policy initiatives must bring these stakeholders together to develop effective responses to the threat from the radical right in Canada. We mustn’t look at the violence in Europe and the United States and complacently conclude that we are somehow immune. We are not.

Source: Acknowledging that Canada’s hate groups exist

How we can build resilience against hatred in Canada

Good thoughtful advice (if Vancouver was the positive example of challenging hatred, Quebec city was the negative one given the violence of left-wing activists):

Some of Canada’s most urban centres were flooded with protesters Saturday and Sunday, from what President Trump would describe as “both sides” – those who were promoting racist, anti-immigration sentiment, and those who were opposing such hateful and intolerant rhetoric.

In Vancouver, for example, thousands of anti-racism supporters showed up Saturday to counter a rally that was planned by anti-immigrant demonstrators, essentially thwarting all efforts that were made by those who were promoting intolerance.

Protests were spawned from the disturbing events that unfolded in Charlottesville, Va. the previous weekend, where a so-called Unite the Right rally quickly turned violent when white-power demonstrators clashed with counter-demonstrators. Dozens of protesters were injured, and three people died, including 32-year-old Heather Heyer, when a vehicle was intentionally driven into a group of anti-racist counter-demonstrators.

Canadians watched in dismay as the hate-inspired violence unfolded south of the border, perhaps naïve to assume that such divisive ideologies do not – and cannot – exist in our multicultural nation. The truth of the matter is that Canada is not immune to violence inspired by bigotry and hatred.

In 2015, Professor Barbara Perry and I conducted a three-year study for Public Safety Canada on the state of the right-wing extremist movement in Canada, interviewing law-enforcement officials, community activists, and current and former right-wing extremists across the country, paired with open-source intelligence. Results from our research was shocking to many Canadians.

In short, we found that Canada’s right-wing extremist movement was alive and well: we identified over 100 active groups and well over 100 incidents of right-wing extremist violence over the last 30 years in the country. We also uncovered that the threat of the extreme right had been overlooked and even trivialized by a number of key stakeholders, thus hindering their ability to effectively respond to the radical right in Canada.

In turn, we proposed evidence-based strategies that we saw as effective in responding to right-wing extremism in Canada, suggesting that a multi-sectoral approach was needed to address hate and ensure that extremists have minimal impact on communities. This included the integration and utilization of an array of experts, such as police officers, policy makers, victim service providers, community organizations and the media.

In the two years since our Public Safety report was released, I’ve been watching very closely as hate-inspired events have unfolded across Canada and how key stakeholders have responded to such events. I’ve noticed that some of our key recommendations are being put to practice – the counter-demonstration in Vancouver is but one example. This is an encouraging sign.

We are seeing community groups ban together to spread messages of tolerance, and local, provincial and federal politicians are taking a public stance against hatred, making it clear that such sentiment does not represent Canadian beliefs and will not be tolerated. Reporters and journalists have also dedicated an increasing amount of time and energy to shed light on right-wing extremism in Canada, highlighting its complexities and prevalence. Stakeholders are now including their voices in the discussions about how we can build resiliency against hatred, which starts by raising awareness of the problem and mobilizing the public.

Some, though, are calling for the outright filtering of those who subscribe to extreme-right beliefs. Do not let them have an outlet for their negative views, the argument goes. This would mean not allowing them to hold a rally or have a website. This approach is counteractive, and perhaps irresponsible. This is a Band-aid solution – the views will still be there, and will only get stronger, solidifying radical right-wing ideologies. Right-wing extremists generally believe that the mainstream media and the broader public are systematically attempting to suppress their radical views, so prohibiting them from expressing their views will further reinforce their hateful beliefs.

We must not stay home when hatemongers are protesting in the streets. Adherents should never be able to promote hatred. At the same time, we cannot assume that silencing them is the solution.

Instead, Canadians must continue to attend their demonstrations, challenge ideas and not people specifically, and in a peaceful manner – like we saw in Vancouver this past weekend. Stand up against racism, xenophobia and bigotry by challenging adherents’ views, but do not engage with them. Most are easy to provoke, and most want to be provoked. Don’t give them the satisfaction.

Source: How we can build resilience against hatred in Canada – The Globe and Mail