In January, Facebook started removing some content from the main Yellow Vests Canada page after the company was made aware of comments calling for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to be killed. At the time, a Facebook spokesperson told Global News it was taking action to mitigate any “real-world harm” that may stem from activity on the platform.

“We do not tolerate harassment on Facebook, and it’s our aim to prevent any potential real-world harm that may be related to content on our platform,” the spokesperson said. “That’s why we remove content, disable accounts and use a combination of technology, reports from our community and human review to enforce our policies.”

But recent activity on the Yellow Vests Canada page indicates that these efforts are falling short. And as Canada's federal election fast approaches ⁠— with all the fierce rhetoric that the campaign is sure to elicit ⁠— real-world consequences, which are already in evidence, could quickly pile up.

In recent weeks and months, yellow vest demonstrations across Canada have frequently attracted far-right extremists and hate groups. In numerous cases, yellow vest members have faced criminal charges for threats they posted on Facebook, while others have been arrested and found to be in possession of weapons and explosives after leaving threatening posts on the social media platform.

Violence continues to be a problem at rallies organized and attended by the yellow vest, thrusting communities like Hamilton onto the "front line" of extremist activity in the region. On any given weekend, white nationalist figures and far-right groups like the Canadian Nationalist Party, Soldiers of Odin and Wolves of Odin, Proud Boys and Northern Guard can be seen marching alongside demonstrators in yellow vests — and in many instances, engaging in acts of hate and violence.

According to activists who monitor the yellow vest movement, none of this would be possible without Facebook.

“It's their primary tool for networking and advertising events,” one of the operators of the Twitter account Yellow Vests Exposed, which monitors incidents of hate and violence posted to social media by yellow vest protesters, told National Observer. “Without Facebook there would be no yellow vest movement in Canada.”

Extremism is a feature, not a bug

Members of the yellow vest movement are, in many ways, using Facebook exactly as it was meant to be used. They’ve created an extensive network of local and national chapters under Facebook’s “groups” feature, and created affiliated Facebook pages for many of those groups. They also use Facebook’s “events” feature to organize and advertise events across Canada.

This is what Facebook was designed for — and that’s why it’s so alarming to see what the platform has enabled in the case of Canada’s yellow vest movement. In the process of building social networks and connections to friends, Facebook has also helped create networks of hate and, potentially, new pathways to extremism.

The connection between the yellow vests' online activity and the mounting real-world consequences couldn't be clearer.

In the process of building social networks and connections to friends, Facebook has also helped create networks of hate and, potentially, new pathways to extremism in Canada.

In some instances, members have used Facebook to explicitly call for groups like the Soldiers of Odin to join them at their public rallies, and often their calls have been answered.

Members of the III% community — considered by experts to be among the most dangerous extremist groups in Canada — have shared videos from yellow vest rallies they attended, and those posts were then shared on the Yellow Vests Canada Facebook page.

Some yellow vest Facebook pages have even more overt ties to hate groups. For example, one of the moderators for the Okanagan Yellow Vests page self-identifies with the Soldiers of Odin, and one of the main events pages for the yellow vest movement openly touts the presence of the Canadian Combat Coalition at their rallies.

In April, Facebook said it was banning the Soldiers of Odin and any associated content, including linked pages and groups. The company reaffirmed this statement in response to an inquiry from National Observer. Yet months later, a user who openly identified with the group was still permitted to be a moderator for a yellow vests page.

Other administrators and moderators have openly celebrated violence and engaged in hate speech both on and off Facebook. For example, an administrator for the Yellow Vests Ontario page posted a celebratory video touting the violent actions of a man who was arrested and charged for assaulting counter-protesters at a rally attended by the yellow vests. Facebook removed that video after National Observer inquired about it, but a slew of other videos from the same person remain online, including footage of fellow protesters yelling anti-gay slurs at a Pride parade. Alongside the videos are comments from other users threatening to dox attendees of the Pride parade.

Another administrator for the Yellow Vests Ontario page posted footage of himself using antisemitic rhetoric and slurs. He was also photographed at a yellow vest rally alongside Paul Fromm, who has been described as "one of Canada’s highest profile white supremacists" and was recently investigated by authorities for allegedly posting the Christchurch shooter's white supremacist manifesto to his organization's website.

Following a recent weekend of demonstrations, an administrator for the Yellow Vests Canada Facebook group in Gueph, Ontario, announced on his own Facebook page that he was “organizing another rally.” He then directed attendees to “bring your weapons.” That page is still active.

The tone is quite obviously set from the top on these Facebook pages. When police arrested and charged Chris Vanderweide (aka “helmet guy”) with two counts of assault with a weapon following a June 15 incident at Hamilton Pride that was caught on camera and spread widely on social media, members of Yellow Vests Canada’s Facebook page jumped to his defense. In some cases, Yellow Vest group members even celebrated the violence and shared memes of Vanderweide smashing people in the face with a helmet, while others expressed support for "gay bashing."

Much of this has been going on since the earliest days of Canada’s yellow vest movement. A video from mid-December 2018, when the movement was just getting started, clearly shows members of the Soldiers of Odin and Wolves of Odin gathering alongside yellow vest protesters in Edmonton. The protest soon spilled over into violence.

Those who have been tracking the yellow vests' social media activity are concerned about the escalation they've seen online — and what it may turn into offline.

"My worry is that as they continue to work themselves into a lather about the danger posed by the enemies they have constructed we're going to start seeing more people act on those beliefs," Anti-Racist Canada (ARC), a media collective focused on combating hate, intolerance and violence, told National Observer.

"The writing about civil war has become common on social media," ARC said. "Calls for the assassination and/or execution of Prime Minister Trudeau, who they believe is a traitor bent on destroying the country, are common, and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter do little to stop the spread of this."

"While most might be blowhards, there are always those who may, given the conditions, act to stop what they have been convinced to be a threat."

National security researchers have expressed similar concerns.

In a December 2018 report, the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies (CASIS) warned that the movement could become a national security threat “as Yellow Vesters become increasingly characterized by their death threats against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, clashes with counter-protesters, and the movement’s growing support from local [right wing extremist] groups, seeking to utilize the YVC as a means for expanding their supporter base and normalizing extremist rhetoric."

The presence of right-wing extremist groups within the ranks of the yellow vest movement creates "the potential for extremist narratives to be pushed into the normative political sphere and turn the YVC movement into a Violent Transnational Social Movement (VTSM).”

A threat to democracy

The pattern of threats and hate speech is problematic enough of its own, but with Canada’s federal election quickly approaching, there’s another reason to be concerned about Facebook groups like Yellow Vests Canada. The global rise of far-right reactionary movements has coincided with a flood of propaganda and disinformation on social media, much of which plays into the racial and cultural grievances that are commonly expressed by yellow vest members.

Facebook groups like Yellow Vests Canada also provide fertile ground for bad actors — foreign and domestic — to weaponize hate and use it to sow further discord as part of broader influence campaigns. On social media, it's much simpler to spread falsehoods than to correct them, and far easier to widen societal divisions than to bridge them.

In January, Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould called on social media companies to address these threats and take action to protect our information space during this critical time period.

“Digital platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Google, have emerged as important spaces for democratic debate,” Gould said in a statement. “But we are concerned about the risk online manipulation poses to the integrity of our election.”

“We expect social media platforms to take concrete actions to help safeguard this fall’s election by promoting transparency, authenticity and integrity on their platforms.”

Karina Gould

Karina Gould, Minister of Democratic Institutions, made an announcement regarding federal parties’ leaders’ debates in the Foyer of the House of Commons, in Parliament, in Ottawa, on October 30th 2018. Photo by Alex Tétreault

Despite a clear pattern of hate speech, suggestions of violence, alliances with hate groups and involvement in offline violence, Facebook has determined that the Yellow Vest Canada page is not in violation of its policies.

Facebook did remove a handful of posts after National Observer inquired about specific instances in which members of the Yellow Vest Canada group coordinated with known hate groups and posted content glorifying violence and/or hate groups, but the company declined to take further action against the Yellow Vests Canada group.

In other instances, Facebook has taken much more decisive action when pages and groups have established a pattern of violating the platform's policies. In May, Facebook permanently removed the National Conservative News Network Canada after a National Observer investigation uncovered a slew of Islamophobic content hiding behind the facade of "news."

In March, Facebook announced its “Standing Against Hate” policy, which expanded its existing ban on white supremacism to include white nationalist content, as well. However, a recent external audit determined that the policy doesn’t go far enough, in large part because it focuses only on content that explicitly uses the terms “white nationalism” or “white separatism”:

Facebook’s current white nationalism policy is too narrow, because it prohibits only explicit praise, support or representation of the terms ‘white nationalism’ or ‘white separatism.’ The narrow scope of the policy leaves up content that expressly espouses white nationalist ideology without using the term ‘white nationalist.’ As a result, content that would cause the same harm is permitted to remain on the platform.

But the problem runs deeper than inadequate policies. In many instances, Facebook’s own tools and algorithms are the very mechanisms by which hate is enabled and amplified. Among the platform’s recent changes was a move to prioritize events and groups over pages, including pages of mainstream news outlets and other verified sources. While this change was intended to help slow the spread of disinformation, it has also produced unintended consequences.

According to a May 2019 report by the Washington, D.C.-based National Whistleblower Center (NWC), Facebook “is providing a powerful networking and recruitment tool to terrorist and hate groups,” with features that can be used by these groups “to identify and recruit supporters.”

“The widespread and persistent promotion of violent content and extremist ideology by terror and hate groups shows that they see Facebook as a valuable tool for networking and recruiting new members,” the report stated.

Now the question is, when will Facebook see this, too?