A small town skinhead from B.C. went to the Big Apple to bite back against racism.
Former violent neo-Nazi extremist Daniel Gallant and current UNBC graduate student was a lab presenter and conference delegate in New York at the Conflict In A Connected World international forum presented by Google Ideas.
"There was the main conference where dozens of experts gave their presentations, and there were also labs, which were closed think-tank sessions. Each lab was broken into a strategically selected group of people. I presented in the lab setting," Gallant said.
His topic of expertise was the role social media plays in connecting hate groups, in crafting counter-narratives and organizing responses to extremists' messages. One of the lab presenters with Gallant was fellow Canadian Mubin Shaikh, a former Muslim extremist who realized his teachers in Syria were twisting the Koran in an effort to serve their own power goals. He vowed to combat radicalization directly. In addition to the undercover work that made him famous - he is one of the operatives who exposed the 'Toronto 18' terrorism plot before it was carried out - he also works with a network of social media interveners. They monitor and closely follow Muslim extremists in Africa who use social media to converse about their activities. When a radical message is sent, the group sends their own follow-up message to the same recipients with a counter-narrative.
"He has direct social media conversations to counteract their propaganda," said Gallant. "If you are an extremist sitting in a conflict area, you are broken down, you are desperate, you're stressed out, and in come these tweets of support from Al Shabaab (Somalia-based militant group), that can have an effect on your mind. Then in comes Mubin's message saying 'no, you don't have to do this, that is a bastardized interpretation of the Koran, think of this perspective of holy scripture instead...' That can change a vulnerable young person's mind at a critical moment."
Gallant, too, is a specialist in de-radicalization. His context, based on his personal background, is white supremacists.
"We are seeing white supremacists flip to Muslim or Hindu extremism," he said. "It sounds ridiculous, but the underlying common themes are actually quite strong. There is a globalization of extremism and a diversification of extremist networks happening, a pluralism within extremist groups [linked by commonalities like] 'we all hate the Jews so let's all work together.'"
His goal is bring the attention of law enforcement, government, the education system and other authorities to these groups as much as the Muslim ones getting most of the recent profile. They are rooted in the same brain processes. Those ways of thinking can be addressed in the individual before they swell into violence.
Gallant said small-town American, British and Canadian youth are some of those recruited into overseas extremist groups. They are most certainly part of local white supremacy affiliations, he knows from his own experience compounded by recent research, which often have direct linkages to national and continental ones, and sometimes the line is also short to international extremists.
It is a problem that goes global after starting local.
"We need to include white supremacy in that same scrutiny," he said. "We need to craft responses to it, and responses to the precursors of it. We don't have any system in place to recognize those early signs, we don't have any social programing or systemic counter-narratives happening to intervene on vulnerable youth."
In fact, he said, local society has a default tolerance for racism.
"It speaks directly to the missing and murdered women in this area," he said. "There is a reason why most of them are aboriginal and female. They are the most vulnerable of our society because of built-in white privilege ingrained over the years. Even if it isn't intentional for most people, it is still there and still an active factor."
Gallant's studies are aimed at future plans to establish prejudice recognition, intervention and deprogramming tools at the local grassroots level, and build the working being done at the academic level to research and converse about the roots and consequences of local racism.