It’s well known that social media platforms play a significant role in facilitating right-wing extremist support networks and propagating extremist narratives. The pervasiveness of right-wing extremist content globally on social media not only normalises extremist content online but has the potential to motivate acts of violence beyond the virtual realm. Therefore it has been a priority to identify exactly how extremist groups use social media to negotiate the use of violence, identify traits that extremists value as being part of the ‘in-group’, what racial identities are targeted as the ‘out-group’, and what aspects of their online activity offer insight into their offline worlds and actions.
To examine these questions a cross-national comparative analysis was conducted on 59 Australian and Canadian right-wing extremist Facebook group pages, drawing from a dataset of 97,479 publicly available posts, between 2011 and 2019. Australia and Canada based groups were compared because both Australia and Canada share historical, cultural and technological synergies and similarities. Australia and Canada share similar though distinct histories of colonialism and post-colonial ethnocentrism; multi-decade campaigns to establish multiculturalism and welcome the LGBTQ community in the social and political landscape. At the same time both have experienced a growth in online extremism and instances of right-wing terrorism related to resident right-wing extremist groups.
In reviewing and analysing this dataset – a number of patterns in online activity, types of user engagement, and the popularity of types of thematic content emerge.
Passive and Active User Engagement
The level of user engagement with online content correlated to perceptions of the acceptance of their ideological beliefs in broader mainstream society. Individuals who engaged with the online content of right-wing groups may have felt that wider society accepts aspects of their ideology and therefore, do not meet online ‘resistance’. This lack of resistance lessens the need for users to demonstrate their commitment to the movement by actively engaging with content online. It was found that administrators of Canadian groups produced more posts over time than Australian groups (+10.5%), and users of Canadian groups actively engaged content (likes, comments, shares) on Facebook at a higher rate compared to Australian groups (+43%). However, users of Australian groups favored passive forms of online engagement (post views) at a substantially higher rate compared to the Canadian movement (+64.9%). This suggests that Australian right-wing groups may be situated in a socio-political context that is more tolerant of aspects of right-wing ideology, compared to Canadian groups who may be met with greater resistance.
Negotiating the Use of Violence
Contextual factors shape each right-wing extremist group’s attitude towards the use of violence. Administrators of Australian Facebook group pages more often and more consistently referenced physical and personal forms of violence, such as ‘punching’ and ‘bashing’, while Canadian groups referenced lethal forms of firearm violence, such as ‘shooting’ and ‘shoot’. This discrepancy in the preferred method of violence is likely influenced by each country’s socio-historical and legislative context, in particular each population’s access to firearms and ammunition.
Identifying the ‘Other’
When it comes to identifying targeted groups, however, there is consistency between Australian and Canadian online extreme right-wing communities. Among Australian and Canadian right-wing extremist groups, Muslims are a prominent ‘othered’ identity or out-group. Within both Australian and Canadian extreme right contexts, Islam is considered to be synonymous with terrorism and poses an existential threat to ‘white’ national identity. Another stigmatised identity or out-group among Australian and Canadian right-wing extremist groups is the police. Police are depicted as unfairly protecting those who are considered harmful to society, unjustly prosecuting those who are considered to represent the nation’s best interest (right-wing groups), and are representative of a weak and/or corrupt democratic government who is (mis-)led by liberal values and ambitions. The words ‘Muslim’ and ‘police’ featured within the 30 most frequently used words by administrators of Australian and Canadian Facebook group pages over the eight year sample period.
Local and Transnational References
Right-wing extremist groups in both countries form part of a broader, indeed transnational, ideological support network that uses social media to share and vent grievances. These grievance narratives are framed differently in each country in reference to particular social and historical circumstances.
Although, as expected, each nation’s groups referenced their own national context most commonly, Canadian groups referenced Australia more than Australian groups referenced Canada. Australia was referenced 1791 times by Canadian groups at a higher frequency (+36.6%) and with greater variation (16 different variations) than Canada, which was referenced 1314 times by Australian groups (with 11 difference variations). While the local context remains an important frame of reference for online activity, this demonstrates that the wider international landscape remains important to extreme right-wing audiences.
The popularity of posts referencing certain racial identities appears to be influenced by each nation’s recent history and ethnographic distribution. For instance, terms such as ‘Asian’, ‘African’, ‘anglo’, ‘breed’, ‘invasion’, and ‘European’ featured in greater concentrations and with greater consistency among Australian groups. However, terms such as ‘blacks’, ‘hispanic’, ‘replacement’, and ‘superior’ were more concentrated and consistently referenced over time in Canadian groups. This has implications for content moderation mechanisms.
In February 2016, in response to user demand for an ability to communally share emotion, Facebook introduced a selection of modified emoji-based affordances (‘reactions’) graphically designed to represent emotional expressions (‘love’, ‘thankful’, ‘haha’, ‘wow’, ‘sad’, ‘anger’).
Although users of Australian and Canadian right-wing extremist groups quickly utilised ‘reactions’ in response to content posted by administrators, Australian groups generally recycled one or two reactions at a significantly higher percentage rate relative to other reactions, while posts from Canadian groups appealed to a wider range of emotional sentiment. Other disparities in ‘reaction’ use include the frequency of the ‘anger’ reaction. The anger emoji reaction was the most popular in both datasets. ‘Anger’s’ popularity among users of Australian and Canadian group pages is not only characteristic of the reactionary propensities of right-wing ideology, but suggests that the identities, topics, and issues posted by administrators may intentionally evoke the anger ‘reaction’ as a means of solidarity.
Social movements leverage the collective effort of their members to achieve an aim. Using collective identities, themes, and interests, members are motivated by a desire for social connectedness and an affinity with a movement’s cause. Social media fundamentally alters the means and capacity by which right-wing groups and movements emerge and encourage their members to take collective action.
Although there are some common identities, themes, and topics that administrators of Australian and Canadian groups share, there remains a diversity of opinion and behaviour between the two movements on Facebook. These similarities and differences can inform counter violent extremist efforts to understand the ways in which sympathetic users interact on popular social media platforms, and how to problematise right-wing ideological narratives in Australia and Canada. As right-wing extremist movements on social media remain despite de-platforming efforts, these findings will support future investigations into how extremists interact on and with social media and their perception of ideological narratives online.