"My cousin ... a very well-educated woman appears to believe that Muslims are about to take over Canada and change our government laws to Sharia law," a reader wrote to Canada's National Observer in a recent email. "I would like to be able to refute this opinion with facts."
The reader included in the note a series of emails between her own family members. What followed was a crash-course in the effects — and the effectiveness — of disinformation.
Citing various far-right websites, her relatives warned about fictitious threats, such as "leftists" supporting "jihad" against Canadian society, the Muslim Brotherhood "penetrating the education system," and the "wave of destruction" unleashed by immigration.
To back up these claims, the reader's relatives linked to the National Conservative News Network Canada, which at first seemed like any other right-leaning Facebook page.
A closer look revealed a darker theme lurking among the seemingly-innocuous political content.
From videos hyping the fictitious threat of creeping Sharia law in Canada to posts warning that Muslims would take over Canada and destroy the country if they weren't stopped, the so-called "news network" read more like the website of a hate group than a news organization — and in at least one instance, it shared content from an internationally-known hate group. More recent posts on the Facebook page promoted conspiracy theories about the Notre Dame fire, which falsely suggested the fire was intentionally set, and pointed the finger at Muslims.
By hiding behind the facade of a "news network," this Facebook page managed to stay active for over three years and amassed a following of more than 200,000 people — all while peddling virulent anti-Muslim hate speech and disinformation.
In recent months, Facebook and its top executives have been met with a rising tide of international frustration over the platform's failure to crack down on the disinformation and hate. Even when Facebook has taken action, it has faced criticism for failing to proactively remove prohibited content and neglecting to follow through on its public promises to ban hate groups. One recent investigation found that, despite the company's pledge to remove white nationalist groups from the platform following the Christchurch mosque attacks, many of these groups are still active on Facebook and even using it for recruitment.
In the case of the National Conservative News Network Canada, the so-called news site was active for more than three years, but Facebook removed it on May 17 after National Observer inquired about it. In a statement, a company spokesperson cited Facebook's policies on hate speech and dangerous individuals and organizations as the reason for the page's removal. According to Facebook's Community Standards, "organized hate" is among the activities prohibited on the platform.
"We do not allow any organizations or individuals that proclaim a violent mission or are engaged in violence and we do not tolerate hate speech on our platforms," Facebook said in a statement. "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."
However, the page was active again a short time later. National Observer asked Facebook why it was back online on May 29. The page was restored "in error" after the page's administrators appealed Facebook's decision to pull it, a company spokesperson said.
The page was removed again, and remains offline at the time of writing.
The ability of the National Conservative News Network Canada to stay active on Facebook for more than three years highlights the challenges facing the company in its efforts to combat disinformation and hate speech on its platform.
In October 2017, Facebook announced the launch of its Election Integrity Initiative, which focuses on cyber threats facing Canadian political candidates and parties, as well as the spread of false information that may influence the democratic process in Canada.
In particular, Facebook is concentrating on "preventing bad actors from spreading misinformation and bad information online," Kevin Chan, Facebook's head of public policy, said upon announcing the initiative. "We don't want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy."
Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould, who joined Facebook in announcing the initiative, specifically cited "the spread of misinformation online ... by those who masquerade as legitimate media sources or individuals" as a threat to the democratic process.
"A well disguised fake news or disinformation campaign can erode the public's faith in the reliability of traditional media sources," Gould said. "It can distort the public's understanding of major issues."
That's exactly what the National Conservative News Network did for more than three years, until National Observer brought it to Facebook's attention.
What is the National Conservative News Network Canada?
Despite its name, the page was definitely not a "news network" — it was a repository for hate speech, with Muslims as the primary target.
In between the political memes and links to mainstream websites were posts warning of Sharia law taking root in Canada, encouraging Canadians to become more Islamophobic, denouncing diversity as a "weakness" and promoting conspiracy theories about everything from the Notre Dame fire and the Muslim Brotherhood to George Soros and so-called "white genocide."
The comments on the page were even worse than its content: "Muslims should die," one user wrote in response to a March 2017 post advocating for Canada to become a more Islamophobic country. "Murderous savages," another user commented. "They all need to get out of our country," added another.
By the time it was removed in May 2019, more than 198,000 people had 'liked' the page, and over 201,000 people were following it. The page's administrators remain anonymous, but Facebook's transparency feature showed three individuals were involved in running it.
Anti-Muslim Content Masquerading As "News"
Visitors to the page were greeted with a series of pinned video clips featuring false, fear-mongering content about Muslim immigration.
The video clips were a call-to-arms of sorts, encouraging Canadians to stand up and fight back against Muslim immigration. As dramatic music played in the background, lines of text rolled across the screen, warning of a "push to fill my Canada with Radical Muslims." Muslim immigration, the video claimed, would bring "no go zones" and "Sharia law" to the country.
At various points in the videos, the text hinted at the need to use physical force, including a pledge to "engage any violence directed at my family or Canada," and the suggestion
Some of the most vitriolic anti-Muslim content was posted in early 2017 as the government took up Motion 103, also known as M-103, which called on federal politicians to condemn Islamophobia in Canada. The debate surrounding M-103 became so contentious that it spilled over into the streets, resulting in protests, clashes, and threats against prominent supporters of the motion. The House of Commons passed M-103 in March 2017.
On its Facebook page, the National Conservative News Network Canada repeatedly expressed its opposition to the anti-Islamophobia motion, claiming it was being pushed by a "left wing Soros funded terrorist group" whose goals include "introduc[ing] open border[s]" and "defending Sharia law in Canada." George Soros, a philanthropist and Holocaust survivor, is targeted and trolled in countless anti-Semitic conspiracy theories around the world.
In one of its posts opposing M-103, the National Conservative News Network Canada shared a video from the Soldiers of Odin Canada. The Canadian Anti-Hate Network, which monitors hate groups in Canada, classifies the Soldiers of Odin as an "anti-Muslim hate group." The group has direct ties to white supremacy and neo-Nazism, according to the anti-hate organization Anti-Racist Canada.
Other posts espoused beliefs in line with the white genocide conspiracy theory, which falsely claims there's a deliberate plot to cause the extinction of whites through immigration and other policies. The page often portrayed
The page linked to content from individuals and groups that have been banned from Facebook for violating its anti-hate policies. Several posts promoted anti-Muslim content from former Rebel Media employee Gavin McInnes, whom Facebook designated as a hate figure and banned from its platform in October 2018. Others expressed support for Tommy Robinson, another former Rebel Media employee who was banned from Facebook in February 2019 for repeatedly violating the platform’s rules against hate speech.
The National Conservative News Network Canada may be an indicator of what to expect leading up to October's federal election in Canada.
By hiding hate speech behind the mask of a "news network," the page may have been able to more effectively evade policies banning hateful content, while also making the inflammatory disinformation appear more legitimate to readers. Using the word "news" in the name of the Facebook page is a way of "trying to build a facade of credibility," Barbara Perry, a professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology and an expert on hate crimes and right-wing extremism, explained.
"I expect to see much more of this kind of thing happening as we approach the election," she said.
What's the scope of the problem?
The National Conservative News Network Canada is not an outlier. Even as tech companies have cracked down on extremism, hate speech and disinformation, anti-Muslim content thrives on many major social media platforms.
In fact, Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate speech are so common online that they are becoming normalized, Mustafa Farooq, Executive Director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), said. "We are deeply concerned with the way hate is trafficked online and normalized online. It has become part and parcel of our online experience. We don't think that's acceptable."
A recent survey by Léger Marketing for the Association for Canadian Studies, a non-profit organization founded at Queen's University, shows just how ubiquitous online hate is, with an estimated 60 per cent of Canadians reporting that they've seen hate on social media. (1) When asked which groups were most likely to be targeted by hate speech online, nearly half of respondents (46 per cent) said Muslims, while 25 per cent said immigrants, 18 per cent said Blacks, eight per cent said LGBTQ individuals and five per cent said Jews.
One in four Canadians say it's become more acceptable to be prejudiced against Muslims over the past five years, found an April 2019 survey conducted by Ipsos for Global News. (2)
This lines up with the activity of hate groups in Canada, which have coalesced in recent years around anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment as a kind of unifying ideology, said Perry.
"They see Muslims and immigrants as the last acceptable bastions for discrimination," Perry said in a phone interview. "The loudest calls for action revolve around immigrants and Muslims."
What are the real world consequences of online hate?
According to a Statistics Canada report released in November 2018, the number of hate crimes reported to police in Canada soared in 2017, reaching an all-time high since the government started issuing annual reports on the problem in 2009..(3) Hate crimes against Muslims saw the sharpest rise, with the number of reported incidents increasing 151 percent from 2016 to 2017.
Data from NCCM, which tracks anti-Muslim hate crimes in Canada, indicates the rise in hate crimes has continued through 2018 and into 2019, Farooq said. (4)
Furthermore, Farooq added, official statistics on anti-Muslim hate crimes fail to capture the true magnitude of the problem because so many incidents go unreported.
"Many folks are scared to report these incidents," he said, while others don't know to report incidents of hate because "it has become so normalized that hearing someone yell a slur ... may not be something people think they should report."
This may be particularly true for online hate, which is often underreported but still has a tremendous impact on the lives of those targeted.
With the wounds of the Quebec City Mosque shooting still raw — compounded by the trauma of other anti-Muslim attacks and hate crimes — exposure to the flood of anti-Muslim content on social media "continues to re-inflict the community with fear and trauma," Farooq said.
Just last week, another hate incident took place at the Quebec City Mosque. According to a statement by NCCM, which cited witness reports, "the perpetrator yelled Islamophobic and anti-immigrant messages while physically assaulting one of the congregants."
Research strongly indicates that exposure to online hate is linked to an increased incidence of hate crimes offline, and recent history is rife with examples that confirm these findings.
"You don't need to be a member of an organized hate group" to be radicalized online, said Faisal Khan Suri, president of the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council (AMPAC).
In today's world, hate groups are using digital platforms to reach unprecedented numbers of people with propaganda and extremist content, Suri explained. "Social media platforms are so easily accessible," he said. "They're using them because they can."
Canadian political parties are using anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric echoing the style of U.S. President Donald Trump, who used it heavily during his 2016 campaign, shows the technique can be effective, said Perry.
"We need to be vigilant about these things, in terms of their capacity to shape public opinion going into the election."
As for the National Conservative News Network Canada, this is one hub of disinformation and hate that won't be coming back: After removing the page for a second time, Facebook told Canada's National Observer that it had disabled the page's ability to appeal the decision ever again.
Behind the story: This investigation started with a tip from a National Observer reader. After reporter Caroline Orr followed up on the tip and investigated the Facebook page, she pulled the story together using interviews with activists and academics well-versed in online hate and Islamophobia, and reached out to Facebook for its perspective. Reporter Emma McIntosh provided editorial and stylistic guidance.
1) Survey by Léger Marketing for the Association for Canadian Studies: https://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/hate-speech-targets-muslims
2) Survey by Ipsos for Global News: https://globalnews.ca/news/5275557/1-in-4-canadians-acceptable-prejudice-against-muslims/
3) Statistics Canada hate crimes data: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/181129/dq181129a-eng.htm?HPA=1
4) National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) hate crimes data: https://www.nccm.ca/map/#
As part of the Election Integrity Project, National Observer is tracking disinformation, social media manipulation, and the spread of hate online. We'll be keeping a close watch on things, but we need all the eyes and ears we can get, so if you see examples of this type of activity, please let us know. You can reach our reporters, Caroline Orr at [email protected] or on Twitter at @RVAwonk, and Emma McIntosh at [email protected] or on Twitter at @EmmaMci.