Q: How can we differentiate between radicalism and extremism?
A: I define radicalism as an individual or group that is against the status quo—its more vertical. It could consist of anti-government sentiment, or anti-structure, anti-status quo. You could be a radical anti-capitalist, a radical feminist, etc. I’m not assigning a value judgement to these dispositions—only articulating that typically a radical is anti-status quo.
I take a more horizontal approach to extremism. There’s a theory called the Overton Window, which we use to assess what is acceptable and what is not, generally, within society. An extremist is somebody who is very far off that acceptable window. Extremists want to expand the window so that their views become more mainstream. Beyond that is violent extremism. It’s a difficult problem to define from a societal perspective, because a lot of people can have extreme thoughts. But generally, violent extremism is when those thoughts translate into violent actions. These actions pose more harm to society.
Q: What, in your view, explains the increase of right-wing extremist activity, not only in Canada, but around the world over the past few years? What draws people to right-wing extremism?
A: Two arguments have been made, one is cultural, and one is economic. The cultural argument is that societies are changing very fast, particularly in the West, and segments of society feel like they are losing their privileges—to foreigners for instance. Anybody who is foreign and somebody who some people might think is not worthy of the same status that they had is taking away that power. Certain individuals want to hold on to their sense of power and become attracted towards more extreme beliefs that tells them there is a way to hold on to these privileges. Some feel as though they are losing their economic privileges as well—to groups they don’t see as their equals. Often, these beliefs are the result of fear, and possibly feeling threatened by changes, specifically, demographic changes in society.
These are two broad trends that researchers have found. Individuals are attracted to certain extremist ideologies when they feel culturally threatened—when they feel they’re losing their heritage, their privilege, their power, and when they perceive others to be taking their economic opportunities. So those are the two broad trends, at least in the Western context. Preconditions for right-wing extremism are not very different than any other kinds of extremism that arise in society. There are general variables that come up frequently such as political grievances, relative deprivation compared to others in a society, ideologies that give a voice to such grievances, sometimes a trauma or a change in an individual’s life. However, research has still not pinned down the exact mixture of these variables that can cause someone to become radicalized. Just that these variables play some role.
Networks are fundamental to understanding the spread of extremism. The people that you associate with can impact your thoughts a lot. If you identify as part of a group that has expressed grievances against another group or individual, you may eventually take on those grievances, even if they are not the defining feature of yourself. Networks can be political, religious, or educational—whatever you’re around, whatever group you’re apart of, that will influence your thinking.
Q: What role does the internet and disinformation play in radicalizing people in the world today? Is there any connection between belief in conspiracy theories and right-wing extremist beliefs?
A: Research is quite divided on the role played by the internet. Some say, yes—it radicalizes individuals to the point of violent extremism. The New Zealand government recently released a report on the Christchurch shooter noting the importance of YouTube and other sites the perpetrator had ben visiting, which might have impacted his radicalization. Other researchers argue that it’s not the internet itself that radicalizes individuals, but that some individuals who are already radical can use the internet to search information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs. In some respects, you could make the claim that the internet is not very different than newspapers or any other form of media. It’s all media. So, is might be that the already-radicalized individual that makes the choice about what kind of information they’re seeking online.
We don’t have a definitive answer if internet radicalized individuals, but we cannot deny the impact the internet has had on radical right-wing movements globally. The internet provides access to a huge variety of information and allows people from around the globe to connect with each other. If you’re an extremist—say a misogynist, or a hardcore incel, nobody in your immediate circle might identify with your beliefs, but online, in different areas of the world you can connect with likeminded individuals. The result is that you become a part of an eco chamber—you’re no longer alone, this means something—you’re a part of something bigger.
Q: What does right-wing extremism in Canada look like? Do these actors pose any threats to our national security?
A: Canada does have a history of right-wing extremism that has been well documented and researched by researchers like Dr. Barbara Perry. Extremism in Canada is very decentralized and fragmented. Often, extremist groups in Canada are centered around a distrust of authority. This anti-authority sentiment and distrust of government also prevents these extremist organizations or groups from becoming well organized and hierarchical. There is typically a lot of infighting within these groups, because they can’t agree on what they stand for. The infighting means that from a threat perspective, you probably won’t see a big, coordinated attack by any group. However, there is the threat of lone actors, and these kinds of threats are more difficult to predict and mitigate.
Right-wing extremist activities have continued amidst the pandemic, mostly due to inadequate information. In addition to false narratives about the origins of the virus, there has been an increase in reports of violence against minorities from Asian backgrounds. There has been hate speech and hate crimes perpetuated against Chinese people and other Asian ethnicities. We’ve also seen lots of anti-mask and anti-vaccine protests happening across the country as well where individuals belonging to radical right-wing groups have also shown up, however these instances aren’t unique to Canada.
Sometimes right-wing extremist ideologues interject themselves into situations where people have likeminded sentiments, i.e. anti-government, and try to infiltrate these protests and spread their conspiratorial beliefs. Hence, even though those protesting the government lockdowns might not be right-wing extremists, they might find common ground with those who are, because they both share a similar disposition towards the government’s involvement in our daily lives. Individuals protesting at these rallies might be illiberal or libertarians, anti-masker, anti-government, but not necessarily right-wing extremist. If extremists do insert themselves in these activities, once again—since networks can be powerful force in recruiting individuals towards a particular group or movement, there’s the potential for these ideologies to be made accessible to a wider audience.
Depending on what happens post-COVID, economically, and socially, is it possible that Canada could see its own populist movements similar to what we’ve seen in the U.S for the past four years. Disinformation and extremism has definitely played a role [there]. I could see populism as more of a problem, perhaps in provinces like Alberta or Quebec. We don’t necessarily have right-wing extremist politicians in Canada, but because we are very diverse regionally, and because we are so spread out, sometimes our politicians at the regional level can use rhetoric that favours different groups over others.
In Europe extremist parties have been able to gain votes and tangible political capital—and they are in the legislature. We don’t have those kinds of parties here. I find it less likely that far right groups would gain political power or be associated with parties that have political power, but I do feel that they can be more successful in changing the rhetoric or causing polarization in our society.
Q: Is it possible to counter right-wing extremist ideology? How do we address the problems it creates?
A: There are two issue here: Countering the message and containing the problem. When it comes to countering the message, I don’t think government or policymakers will be successful. They’ve already tried counter messaging when it comes to groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda. People don’t like listening to the government. This strategy doesn’t really work. When Trump was elected, people were shocked. They wondered how someone who lies so blatantly and uses the rhetoric he used could come to power. Well, the simple answer is that facts don’t always matter. People need an emotional connection and impact. The framing of the message is important. People on the left and the right sometimes perceive the same issues very differently, this is all to do with framing. For example, some see abortion from an angle of, a child is being killed, others see it as a bodily-autonomy issue. More attention needs to be given to the emotion when counter messaging initiatives are conducted.
Nevertheless, I don’t think governments can do that. I think maybe non-profit organization, community organizations, and educational institutions are better suited for this task. I think government and policymakers could be useful when it comes to containing these problems. We need to start by defining the problem. Law enforcement still needs to work on clearly defining terminology like right-wing extremism. What is considered hate speech or a hate crime within this milieu, and what would classify as a terrorism or radicalization situation? Proper boundaries need to be defined. The word terrorism has mostly been applied to religious extremists in Canada, more specifically, Islamic extremists.
I think in Canada, we can still contain the problem so that it doesn’t become as serious as it has in some of the European countries and in the U.S. In Canada it is a very opportune time for the government to take this problem seriously and take some steps which will positively influence our trajectory away from some of the movements we’ve seen in other Western countries as of late. Canada is a very diverse country, people are generally supportive of immigration, and we have large provinces, with different politics. I think updating our terrorist entity list with the addition of right-wing extremist groups on it is certainly a welcome start.
Aden is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at University of Toronto. Her major and minor fields are International Relations and Comparative Politics respectively. Her PhD research focuses on comparing the recruits and non-recruits within the radical (far-right and Islamist) groups in Canada through a gendered lens. Her dissertation asks the following question: what stops someone from joining a radical group, even when all the risk factors are present? Aden is a SSHRC CGS Doctoral Scholar, a Junior Affiliate at the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS), and a Student Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. Along with her PhD studies, she has completed multiple student terms for federal departments such as Public Safety, Global Affairs, and the Department of National Defence.