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Investigators work the scene of a shooting at a supermarket, in Buffalo, N.Y., on May 16.Matt Rourke/The Associated Press

Online searches for “The Great Replacement” – a conspiracy theory apparently followed by the white man charged with killing 10 people in a Black neighbourhood grocery store in Buffalo – have surged in Canada in the past year, according to a recent report presented to the federal government’s public safety committee.

The agencies who study online radicalization and right-wing extremism say early intervention in the form of counselling may be one of the most effective tools in preventing violent attacks.

Moonshot, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that monitors violent extremism, was tasked by Public Safety Canada to study online searches by Canadians for material related to far-right groups. Its co-founder, Vidhya Ramalingam, presented the findings of research conducted from 2019 to 2020 to members of Parliament last week.

Canadians’ searches for far-right content increased by 19 per cent each week during periods when the government called for pandemic-related lockdowns, she said, because more people were at home and online. And one of the most searched-for categories was white supremacist conspiracy theories, in particular “The Great Replacement.”

The conspiracy theory is based on the false idea that there is a powerful movement to use immigration to replace the political and cultural power of white people in the West. Ms. Ramalingam testified that the theory and related terms, including “white genocide,” were searched 25,000 times between 2019 and 2020 in Canada. Men between 25 to 34 were the adult users who were most interested in that content.

Ms. Ramalingam said in recent years, such theories “have been pushed further and further into the mainstream,” but they have also been merged with others, making exposure to them easier.

“One of the strongest trends … is this kind of blending and metastasization of ideologies and conspiracy theories and narratives,” she said. “White supremacist theories, election disinformation, anti-vax conspiracy theories, these were once very separate movements online and offline.”

While the three-week convoy protests this year were ostensibly about vaccine mandates and pandemic lockdowns, a strong element of white supremacy was woven into the movement. Pat King, who was arrested for his alleged involvement in organizing the protest in February, has posted many videos feeding into “replacement” conspiracy theories in recent years, explaining the so-called “depopulation of the Anglo-Saxon race” to his followers.

For many who subscribe to these erroneous white genocide theories, there is a belief that a violent resistance is necessary, and those who commit acts of terror against immigrants, racialized people and religious minorities are seen as heroes for the cause.

In a lengthy manifesto obtained by police, the suspect in the Buffalo attack this past weekend apparently claimed to be inspired by the man who killed 51 people in the Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque shootings of 2019. The Christchurch shooter is believed to have taken some inspiration from the man who killed six and seriously injured five at a Quebec City mosque in 2017.

Ms. Ramalingam’s company has worked with tech companies, governments and organizations to intervene in the earliest stages of extremist activity online by developing an open-source system that redirects people who might be searching for “The Great Replacement” or other extremist terms online.

A user might be shown an ad in their results on a search engine or social media app that takes them to a page with “constructive alternative messages.” The most successful they’ve run so far in the U.S. simply said, “Anger and grief can be isolating,” and took users to a page with self-help or counselling resources.

In Alberta, the Organization for the Prevention of Violence, or OPV, has enrolled about 50 people in its psycho-social deradicalization program called Evolve since it launched in 2019. Many participants have found Evolve on their own, while others have been referred through family, friends or even the police or courts. The program experienced an uptick in referrals since the winter convoy protests.

Though some subscribe to conspiracy theories like “The Great Replacement,” staff in the program never start off trying to correct or argue with the beliefs of participants, explained Michael King, OPV’s director of research. For one, it just makes their beliefs more entrenched, and also it doesn’t do much to build trust with people who usually have high levels of mistrust in institutions.

Instead, he said, mentors (who were previously involved in extremism themselves), social workers and a psychologist look at things the participant might be struggling with: securing housing, for example, or finding a new job.

“If you start helping them with that [and] you’re sticking with them for a few months, then they start saying, ‘Okay, I can trust this person.’ And slowly but surely you get to a point where ideology can be a topic that will be put on the table and discussed.”

Both Mr. King and Ms. Ramalingam said sustained funding is necessary for this work and the deployment of those funds must be community-based, where social workers and psychologists can better tailor their approach to local needs. Most Evolve participants, for example, have been with the program for more than two years, Mr. King said.

The way these extremism movements have proliferated online through platforms such as Discord and Twitch (the latter of which the Buffalo shooter used to livestream his attack) has made the work of deradicalization especially difficult.

“A lot of people who are trying to disengage will find it difficult because of the online environment – they can access it so easily,” said Mr. King. “It’s there, it’s always there.”

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