How susceptible is a university to extremism?

Marc-André Argentino, Concordia extremism researcher, discusses the psychology and the dangers of extremist radicalization

Graphic Taylor Reddam

On Jan. 6, a fire made its way into Washington D.C.

Several hundreds— equipped with red, white and blue flags, guns and zip-ties—crawled up walls, ravaged down building barriers, and exploded through golden doors and glass windows. Howling out agonized, crescendoing protest slogans and calling for a halt to the election certification process, the violent mob supplanted themselves in the halls of the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to disrupt democracy for their own interests.

Many of these people were supporters of QAnon—the widening and baseless conspiracy theory that claims that President Donald Trump is fighting a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping pedophiles in government, business, and the media. 

The disastrous effects of the widespread belief in this theory have ranged from online verbal abuse and threats towards politicians and journalists, to offline acts of violence and attempted terrorism. 

An example is the 2019 case of Anthony Comello, a 25-year-old man accused of killing a New York mob boss. Comello was convinced his mob boss was part of the “deep state”—a group of Liberal individuals working to undermine Trump. (Comello had appeared at one court appearance with a QAnon symbol sketched onto his palm with blue pen-ink.)

Even though the QAnon conspiracy has its roots in U.S. politics, it has also started to sink its fangs into Quebec, and other parts of Canada.

Some of the infamous anti-mask protests in Montreal over the summer saw people waving QAnon flags. Many of the organizers and speakers themselves believed in and espoused QAnon beliefs.

For example, Alexis Cossette-Trudel was a speaker at some of these marches in Quebec. He has been a frequent contributor to far-right media outlets and broadcasted his beliefs through his Youtube channel, Radio-Québec—which had 124,000 subscribers—and through his Facebook page—which had 77,000 followers. Both accounts have now been shut down by their platforms.

Another example is Stéphane Blais, a leader of the Foundation for the Defense of the Rights and Freedoms of the People, who has spoken at some of these anti-mask protests. His foundation has gone to the extent of filing lawsuits against the Government of Quebec for lockdown measures — Blais has called the pandemic “nothing more than an international coup d’etat from a clique of powerful thugs against the peoples of the world”

“Due to the different types of legislation and events we’ve had in the past, we’ve fermented an environment that is quite racist and xenophobic. This makes Quebec more vulnerable to radicalization.” — Marc-André Argentino

Read more: What Far-Right Groups are Active in Quebec?

“Quebec does have a history of far-right actors here,” said Marc-André Argentino, a Ph.D. candidate in Concordia’s Individualized Program who researches extremism. Part of that can be explained by nationalism, he said. “Due to the different types of legislation and events we’ve had in the past, we’ve fermented an environment that is quite racist and xenophobic. This makes Quebec more vulnerable to radicalization.”

Argentino has spoken out widely about QAnon—and has been quoted in the media by major outlets such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, BBC News and CNN. As a student and researcher, his work initially focused more broadly on the nexus of religious and political ideologies, and how extremists used various means to “recruit people to their causes, inspire acts of violence and impact our democratic institutions.” His shift towards QAnon happened in recent years, after the conspiracy theory began to receive more attention. 

One of the main reasons he became increasingly drawn to the research is equal parts skill and passion. “I realized I was very good at figuring out how to get into these communities. I have a deep curiosity and passion for it,” he said.

The function of extremism is similar across extremist groups—usually involving some sort of violent means to establish a significant change in the current world order—but different agents of radicalization each have their own beliefs, precedences, and methods.

Argentino uses the far-right as a primary example: “With some of the far-right uprisings, part of it is what they perceive as a historical erasure of their culture and perception of what the American republic should be, trying to return to a pure version of a constitutional republic as they perceived it was in 1776.”  So, ultimately, a common objective that far-right groups share with other extremist groups is the return to what they see as “a perfect vision of the world,” Argentino said.

Some of them, he said, have apocalyptic desires—they see the world as politically and socially corrupt to its core, so there are no political or social solutions available to them. Violence is the only answer.

Argentino stressed however that most people get radicalized because of personal factors—an individual may have personal grievances or be in a vulnerable position, which forces them to believe that extremism is the only path they can take. 

Even though he says poverty isn’t one of the large factors that lead to radicalization, it could contribute to a certain extent because when people go through negative changes, they will often try to rationalize it and that could lead them to potentially becoming radicalized. He used the effects of the pandemic as an example.

People who have lost their businesses or their livelihoods due to the pandemic may seek answers to explain what happened to them and to find solutions to their issues. However, they might find themselves led to extremist conspiracy theories rather than facts.

“But it’s not necessarily because they’re poor. It’s because they’re trying to explain an evil that’s befallen them,” he said.

Mental health is similar in this case: “Not everyone who becomes an extremist is mentally ill, but it is definitely a factor that makes someone more vulnerable,” he said.

Certainly, the pandemic has had an effect on the rate of extremist violence worldwide.

The Washington Post reported in July that the pandemic, at the time, had energized far-right groups and given them the ability to connect with a large and exponentially growing audience. This audience is “the legions of the anxious and unemployed, many of whom are confined to their houses with near-limitless time to spend on social media.”

This could affect virtual youth spaces as well. Two months after the start of the pandemic, the United Nations released a report estimating that over one billion children and young adults were confined to their houses, and many of them were spending more time online.

The report states, “the increase in the number of young people engaging in unsupervised internet usage—particularly on gaming platforms—offers terrorist groups an opportunity to expose a great number of people to their ideas.”

The pathology of extremism is even being witnessed in university spaces, especially in Europe. In recent years, the far-right German political party, Alternative for Germany, has asserted influence on German university campuses. The Identitarian movement—a group that originated in France and has strong racist, anti-immigrant views—has attempted to recruit students across European universities through pamphleteering and sticker campaigns.

“It’s not a magic formula that makes someone an extremist; it’s a combination of multiple elements,” — Marc-André Argentino

Argentino says the main reason university students may become vulnerable to radicalism is the possibility of having a lack of strong support systems within the university.

“If there is no supervision for someone if they feel vulnerable or that there’s no one who they can really turn to…when you’re in those positions sometimes you might be led to hazardous in-groups,” he said.

Students go through many stresses and challenges, he acknowledged, and when it comes to dealing with these, it may turn into “them turning to means that aren’t necessarily the best ones.” he said. 

Especially in the context of the pandemic, students may be in a situation where the usual support systems and mentorships are not available to them.

“You are forced to learn and adapt to different scenarios, you are going to have a lot of different pressures — economically, socially, and politically,” he said. 

When one is isolated at home during the semester, they may not have access to resources such as in-person counselling, in-person support from professors, or financial support— and this could put them in a “negative position.” 

“If you’re in this position, you may seek that help online and if you’re not wary of where you’re seeking help from, you may fall down the wrong rabbit hole.  Or you may fall upon someone who may try to recruit you into a movement. And it puts you in an awkward position because you’re seeking help but not knowing that this person might be trying to manipulate you,” Argentino said.

However these are still mostly environmental factors, he said. If you were to look at the full picture, you must also take into account the personal grievances or biases that one might have that may push them into radicalization. 

“It’s not a magic formula that makes someone an extremist; it’s a combination of multiple elements,” Argentino said. 

Argentino does not see our university, Concordia, as particularly more susceptible to student radicalization and extremist violence than other universities. The only vulnerability is that we have a very large, wide and diverse population of individuals, and this provides an opportunity to recruit a large pool of people. 

Even though he continued on to say that universities, in general, are not the most central or common-place sites of extremist recruitment, he did offer suggestions for how Concordia could prevent instances of its students becoming radicalized or recruited.

One of his main suggestions is to raise awareness—universities should educate students about how these groups recruit, how they portray their messages, and how they look for individuals.

He suggested that we teach people that “these groups do exist, that they’re not as small or as fringe as some individuals might believe, and that there is a possibility that they would pose a threat to us.” However, finding the balance between raising awareness and fear-mongering is imperative, he said.

He also stressed the importance of universities providing adequate mental health support. 

“Concordia has a long way to go when it comes to mental health support [...] Improving these systems can be a preventative measure,” he said.

He again emphasized that if a student becomes radicalized, part of the reason is that their universities, their societies, their countries are not offering them the support they need—so they look for this support in darker places.

“So it’s really about trying to find what the gaps are in what our students need, and then making sure that we have the resources to fill them,” he said.

Beyond the university, he had a number of suggestions for how the province can improve its protections against extremism. He suggested working on legislation that could reduce the existence of xenophobia and racism in the province, and providing the tools so that xenophobia and racism are more properly monitored.

Argentino also put forward that the population should be provided with social safety nets, especially during the pandemic. 

“The pandemic has shown that though we were quite lucky in a way in Canada, there's still a lack of safety nets for a huge part of the population. This creates a larger vulnerability to extremism and it is something that we need to make sure we strengthen over the years to come,” he said.

Beyond the province, he thinks one issue that is leading to an exacerbated spread of extremism is a lack of cooperation between multiple sectors of society. 

The technology sector is one of the main culprits when it comes to the spread of global extremism. They have algorithms that track the content people engage with, and these algorithms then suggest more and more extreme content to keep the user engaged. 

He uses the example of eco-fascism. According to a Vice article, eco-fascism is an “ideology that blames environmental issues on overpopulation, immigration and industrialization, problems that followers think could partly be remedied through the mass murder of refugees in Western countries.”

You may be watching a video regarding vegetarianism, and then you’re suggested a video about veganism. Once you click the veganism video, you get offered more and more extreme suggestions. This could lead you to eventually being suggested content that supports and promotes eco-fascism, said Argentino.

Read moreRecognizing Eco-Fascist Rhetoric

The same thing happens with extremists and technology—extremists find a video about a certain right-leaning topic, and then their suggestions become more and more extremist as time goes on. 

Tech companies need to be more transparent about how their algorithms work, Argentino suggested, but they also have to change their business model. However, he is less hopeful that they will do this on their own.

“The problem is that the ways the platforms catalyze radicalization are also the ways the platforms make money. And that core functionality is never going to change. Because it’s tied to their profit margin and to their shareholders.” Argentino said.

Therefore, he suggested a multi-sectoral approach where governments, civil society and academia need to work together hand in hand to come up with the best legislation possible. Building relationships between different sectors is essential to develop the most effective regulations—the tech platforms aren’t going to do it voluntarily, he said. 

Looking at the larger scale issues is crucial. Dealing with the bigger, more culpable institutions like governments and tech corporations is necessary in order to affect change at the university-level. Establishing this approach can make both our campuses and our students safer. 

This article originally appeared in The Influence/Influenced Issue, published January 13, 2021.