The rise of authoritarian populism in developed nations in an Age of Trump is widely regarded as a backlash against immigration, economic insecurity, and globalization. International relations are fraying and the old rules of trade agreements are being dismantled with protectionist trends. In a 2018 lecture in Toronto, American public policy expert Ronald Ingelhart argued that, for most of human history, people could pay attention to little more than the quest for survival. Lately, however, with the decline of war, life-threatening diseases, and the imminent prospect of starvation, young people are more focused on identity, culture, social justice, peace building, and environmental issues.
But there is a darker side to these developments that Inglehart overlooks. In the Globe and Mail on April 30th, Mark Kingwell discussed the increasing prevalence of rage, especially social media-fueled “white guy anger.” He sees it as a Western luxury—“an envy-indulgence of the birth-based lucky”—the privilege of experiencing and expressing political rage.
These “guys” come from all walks of life and communities large and small. In Canada, they gather on the internet to strategize and seek pathways into mainstream politics. They are anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, sexist and racist. A trove of 150,000 messages posted between February 2017 and early 2018 revealed the private communications of a loosely aligned node of Canadian right wing extremists, energized by the rise of white ethnonationalism in the United States.
This ominous trend is threatening political stability on a global basis. The powerful reach of white extremists facilitated by social media has given rise to calls for better checks and balances, both from tech giants and governments. The threat they pose on Facebook was violently underscored when a racist gunman killed 50 people at two mosques in New Zealand, using the platform to post live video of the attack, which have been widely shared on the internet. Weeks later, this massacre was followed by a series of attacks on Sri Lankan Christian churches, in announced retaliation, and a synagogue in California.
What is fueling this deadly internet virus? To an extraordinary extent, it is video games. The New Zealand gunman wrote that the video games Spyro the Dragon 3 taught him “ethno-nationalism” and Fortnite trained him to be a killer. Fortnite now rakes in around US$250 million per year, as the most popular online first-person shooter video game in the world. The game has led to “e-sport” as the young generation’s principal collective pastime. This is “electronic sport,” a form of video game competition. Typically these are organized, multiplayer video game competitions, particularly between professional players, who earn huge salaries.
This trend has been enthusiastically embraced by some universities which, like Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia, now offer programs in e-sport. An estimated 23 million people in Canada alone identify as gamers. A gaming stadium is expected to open this month in Richmond, BC. In Asian countries, over 1.23 billion persons identify as gamers and e-sport is six times more popular than in North America.
My review of Dave Grossman’s book, Assassination Generation: Video Games, Aggression and the Psychology of Killing (2016), in the April 2019 issue of Peace Magazine mentioned numerous studies showing the deleterious effects of such games. These findings continue to be ignored, along with evidence that gaming has contributed significantly to the rise in mass murders. The main preoccupation in the aftermath of each such massacre is with gun control—obviously an essential response, but far from the sole preventive option. According to Megan Condis, author of Gaming Masculinity: Trolls, Fake Geeks, and the Gendered Battle for Online Culture, gaming provides particularly fertile soil for the seeds of resentment to grow into hate.
Internet-based recruitment efforts by white supremacists use social media in ways that slowly habituate the potential converts to hatred. Recruiters don’t wait for their targets to discover them. They go to the targets. They stage casual conversations about race and identity where disaffected, vulnerable adolescent white males hang out. Gradually, racist rhetoric is normalized. Extremist chat room messages also involve the buying of weapons and attempts to influence political parties. These have occurred in conservative parties and the campaigns of leadership candidates throughout Canada.
Video game communities are an ideal recruiting venue. The thematic material involves a narrative about the “invasion” of “our spaces” by people of colour, feminists, and immigrants. Their violent elimination is the solution. This fosters an “us” versus “them” mentality organized around race and religion. On one white nationalist message board called Stormfront, participants debate which mainstream video game releases are most amenable to white power ideology.
In May 2019 the Trudeau government announced a new “10 point digital charter,” but it was only a timid first step. We need to update free speech laws and decide how they are to be enforced.
Rose Dyson is a media analyst in Toronto.