With over 400,000 subscribers, Reddit’s “Canada” forum (known as r/canada) has significant power to influence public discourse.

It might as well be the official subreddit for users based in Canada. When new users sign up to the website using a Canadian IP address, it is suggested to them. Its subscriber numbers dwarf, by a large margin, any other Canada-focused subreddits. Within the forum, users post news stories and keep up to date with current affairs in the country. They debate ideas and politics.

But some of the people who moderate the forum have been accused of harbouring ties to white nationalists, leading some critics to argue that their control over the forum has turned it into a breeding ground for the alt-right.

A user called UsedToDonateBlood, whose identity is unknown and who asked to be referred to as “Neil,” has been trying to blow the whistle about r/canada for some time now. He’s publicized leaked screenshots that appear to show a moderator, username Perma, admitting ideological affinity for white nationalism, and tracked the connections between r/canada’s moderators and Reddit users associated with the alt-right.

On the r/canada side, the most senior moderator, username Lucky75, rejects the premise that moderators have sympathies with white nationalism. The leaked screenshots, Lucky75 says, were taken out of context. More screenshots were provided to Ricochet showing Perma walking back some of the initial comments that sympathized with white nationalism when questioned.

While it might seem like an insignificant spat between anonymous forum users on the internet, the implications run beyond Reddit.

Mapping Canadian subreddits

Reddit is structured as a series of different forums called subreddits. These subreddits are generally organized around specific subjects — whether cars, anarchism, Mac laptops, or otherwise, there’s a subreddit for everything. There are also region-specific subreddits, which mostly just serve as user-managed news aggregators for the area. When a story happens, a user posts it to the subreddit, and if it’s popular among other users it will stay near the top of the forum.

While there are no “official” subreddits for specific regions or countries — the company mostly leaves the subreddits to users to manage — certain forums take on the air of officiality based on their names. If you’re looking for Canadian news and content, it only makes sense to search for the subreddit simply called r/canada.

A story that attracts a lot of attention on a major subreddit like r/canada is likely to also appear higher in search results on Google, and pop up more frequently on other social media sites like Facebook. As the central subreddit for Canadian users, r/canada’s influence in making or breaking specific stories extends far beyond Reddit itself.

While r/canada might be the largest subreddit about Canadian issues, it’s not the only one. Others cater to more specific demographics. For instance, r/metacanada panders heavily to the Canadian alt-right. Another, r/onguardforthee, was created by Neil as an explicitly anti-racist alternative to r/canada.

According to Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, white nationalists attempt to use Reddit in order to gain platforms with a large following. He makes a distinction between the extremist ideology of white nationalism, which is typically expressed in private among people within the movement, and the more watered-down version used in public.

Once white nationalists have successfully infiltrated a given online space, Balgord says, it begins to serve as “a publishing platform for the more sanitized versions of their talking points — their propaganda — that may result in further radicalization and the normalization of racist, anti-Canadian attitudes.”

Explicitly alt-right subreddits act as organizing spaces where white nationalists “find fellow travellers,” Balgord says. “The metacanada subreddit is a safe space for alt-right neo-Nazis.”

That subreddit, Balgord says, is currently engaging in mostly online campaigns to “build support around their favourite political candidates, especially an alt-right mayoral candidate and Maxime Bernier.”

The mayoral candidate is Faith Goldy, an identitarian white nationalist who was fired from Rebel Media for being too extreme. Goldy had appeared on a podcast for the Daily Stormer, an exterminationist neo-Nazi website, and produced sympathetic coverage of the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville in August 2017. She has also been known to recite the “14 words,” a slogan coined by American white supremacist David Lane during his time in prison related to the murder of a Jewish talk show host.

Goldy is apparently aware of the support generated from r/metacanada, having organized an “Ask Me Anything” discussion on the sub where she interacted with metacanada users.

Otherwise, the forum is primarily used as a discussion forum for current events — which in an alt-right space, in practice, looks like mocking the deaths of feminists, wishing death on Justin Trudeau, and regularly targeting Muslims with dehumanizing language and hate speech.

The accusations

According to documentation provided to Ricochet, various users of r/metacanada have taken on positions of authority within r/canada, allowing them significant power to control discourse within the forum. While they don’t deny their former ties to r/metacanada, they say they do not share the ideology of the alt-right.

Neil says that before creating r/onguardforthee in January 2017, he was a regular user on r/canada. In his time there, he would sometimes point out that other users had a history of posting racist content. Those posts, he says, were swiftly removed by moderators — the effect of which, he says, was to hide the ideological affinities of racist users. The users were not banned.

The fact that racist users were protected, Neil says, has to do with the ideological affinities of the r/canada moderators.

The subreddit has 17 moderators, all of whom have been given “full permission,” which means that they have as much power to manage the subreddit as possible. Moderators can only be removed from their position by another moderator who has been in the position longer — a system of seniority. Of the 17 moderators, eight have been added since last spring, when seemingly damning screenshots of a private chat between r/canada’s moderators were leaked.

In that chat, moderator Perma was asked “so you’re a white nationalist?” The answer: “slowly becoming one, yes.” In separate screenshots taken the same day, provided to Ricochet by senior r/canada moderator Lucky75, Perma writes, “I worded my original white nationalism statement incorrectly.”

In those same screenshots, moderators discuss immigration, with a consensus seemingly emerging that Canada has too many immigrants. Those chats took place on Jan. 22, 2017, two days after Donald Trump’s inauguration as president of the United States, and well before the supposed “wave” of irregular border crossings from the United States into Canada (For the record, UNHCR data shows the number of asylum seekers coming to Canada is actually decreasing and there was no spike in asylum claims this summer, despite much overheated rhetoric to the contrary).

When asked for comment, Perma told Ricochet, “I’m not a white nationalist, never have been and never will be.” The moderator said that the comments were taken out of context. “I’m a leftie but I moderate without any political leanings,” wrote Perma

Other leaked chat logs show Perma defending a regular r/canada poster known to share racist content, including links to neo-Nazi blogs. The user in question has since been banned from r/canada, after the initial leaks occurred, for anti-Indigenous racism.

Moderator offers cash bounty for dirt on a Vice journalist

Perma isn’t the only moderator on r/canada who has been subject to controversy. Another moderator, username Dittomuch, formerly a regular poster on r/metacanada, had put a “bounty” on VICE journalist Mack Lamoureux after the publication of an article about a racist Halloween party. Dittomuch had offered $250 in exchange for proof that Lamoureux had said something racist in the past, with the goal of smearing the journalist.

Today, Dittomuch claims that the Vice affair was mostly tongue-in-cheek, and stresses that it occurred before becoming a moderator on r/canada. “Myself and Mack [Lamoureux] had a solid back-and-forth and traded emails originally with the intent of meeting up for a beer.” The meet-up did not occur, and Lamoureux ended up writing a story for Vice titled “I talked to the person who put a bounty out on me.”

Another moderator, username Medym, acted as a moderator on r/metacanada while also moderating for r/canada. After the screenshots were leaked, Medym withdrew from the moderation team of r/metacanada, in what Neil describes as a public relations move due to the uproar around the accusations of alt-right sympathies.

In a comment to Ricochet, Medym said, “I wasn’t paying attention to [r/metacanada], and certainly not able to devote time to moderate it. When I joined the r/canada moderation team, that’s where I put my efforts.”

In his time as a moderator for the sub, Medym referred to r/metacanada users as “delightful” and “some of the best people on all of Reddit.” As a moderator of that subreddit, Medym was present for and tolerated posts that mocked the victims of terrorist attacks for not being racists, applauded white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, and promoted the “white genocide” conspiracy theory.

In the initial screenshot leaks, Medym was seen defending a racist user — associated with r/MetaCanada — and arguing that they should not be banned from r/canada. Neil stresses that, during that same time period, users who objected to racist posts or the racist posting history of other users were often banned for complaining or bringing up to posting history of others, while endless second chances were given to overtly racist users.

One of the racist r/canada users protected by Perma and Medym — a user with the handle Ham_Sandwich77, who has since been banned by new moderators — went on to dox (reveal personal information) and threaten other Reddit users, including Neil.

The r/canada moderators at the centre of the accusations have retained their positions on the subreddit, along with the moderator who added them to the team. They continue to have full permission to manage what gets seen, what is allowed, and what is prioritized on the forum. While a group of other moderators were added after the controversy — Neil describes them as “good mods” who have the right intentions — the controversial moderators remain in place.

Because moderators can only be removed by other moderators who have been in the role for a longer period of time, the only r/Canada moderator with the power to remove the moderators mentioned here is Lucky75. When asked for comment, Lucky75 told Ricochet that the moderator team “has my full support.”