“Can you tell me your name and what you do?” Jesse Brown asks the second of two guests on today’s episode of CANADALAND.
“My name is Kurt Phillips,” the guest offers. “I am a high school teacher in southern Alberta.”
“And what do you do when you’re not teaching high school?”
“When I’m not teaching high school, I’m hunting Nazis.”
For more than a decade, Kurt Phillips has been a scourge of Canada’s far right, meticulously documenting and exposing the online activities of the country’s organized white supremacists. From 2007 through last fall, he carried this out via Anti-Racist Canada (ARC), a proudly ratty Blogspot blog on which he’d pen upwards of 200 posts a year, each densely packed with dozens of screenshots cataloguing the incriminating boastings and entertaining infighting of those who’d happily send their fellow citizens to the gas chamber, if only they could get their shit together to figure out how.
It’s vital work, and for most of ARC’s life, Phillips carried it on anonymously, for reasons that are obvious. After being outed around this time last year, he joined the leadership of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, and even kept the blog going for several more months. He now continues much of his work on Twitter.
At Canadaland, we’ve paid a fair share of attention to the organs of the far right. So it’s well past time we turn our focus to the activist media that’s been thanklessly chugging along in the background, expanding the concept of service journalism one unmasked Nazi at a time.
This is an edited version of Brown’s interview with Phillips, in which they discuss the warning signs ahead of the attack on the Capitol, the changing face of radicalization, and what it takes — and takes out of you — to chase down the worst people on the internet, year after year.
You’ve been hunting Nazis on the Internet since before it was cool.
In the late 1990s, early 2000s, while I was at the University of Regina, I started following and keeping tabs on some of these hate groups. I was fascinated by the mentality behind why they would believe what they do, but also by the horror that these were people who were also harming people. Eventually, after following these groups and individuals for so long, I thought, “Well, I’ve got a fair amount of knowledge, I might be able to do something useful with it.”
Have you been involved in investigating the people who took part in the siege of the U.S. Capitol, specifically some of the Canadians we know were there?
Yeah, I have been, and there are a bunch of us with the Canadian Anti-Hate Network who are trying to figure out, specifically, who the guy with the Canadian flag was. We’ve got some leads. He’s left some breadcrumbs for us to follow.
Tell me a bit about how you do that.
Well, sometimes it’s a bit of skill and luck. A lot of the people who are online who are in these kinds of groups and movements, they have an arrogance about them. They really do think that they’re smarter than everybody else and that they’ve managed to cover their tracks very, very carefully. The reality is, sometimes they leave mile-long trails that are fairly easy to follow. Sometimes, though, they are quite skilled at keeping themselves concealed, in which case the digging comes through.
I guess you were doing OSINT, open-source intelligence gathering, before it was called that.
Apparently, yes. I don’t think I ever had quite the level of skills that some of people have — it was more of, when you’re trying to crack a safe, just trying every single combination. If you looked at the blog, it was obvious I was not particularly technically savvy. People have commented on how ugly it was, and I kind of took that as a compliment. I liked my little ugly spot on the interweb.
How do you reverse-engineer people through those breadcrumbs?
Early on, they would happily provide information. They would post their pictures on Stormfront, for example, or they would share their social media profiles. When they started to hide things a little bit, then you go in more surreptitiously. I create socks [fake accounts] on social media, and I get into their groups. I never interact with them, except to say, “Well, thank you for inviting me, I appreciate this, I hope I can contribute to the cause.” And then I stay silent and let them speak, and kind of record what they say and other little hints they give as to who they might be. Of course, on Facebook, some people still provide their real names. Those that don’t, usually provide enough information within a few months, maybe a few years, to be able to figure out who they are.
With the siege of the Capitol, there were pre-breadcrumbs, there was planning, yet it seemed to catch so many people unawares. Did you know that was going to happen before it happened?
I think most people who are in this world knew what was going to happen. Maybe not to the degree or in the way that it did, but we knew something was going to happen. There was chatter online for weeks prior to this. And one of the things that was always frustrating when I was writing the blog, was that I could see a member of a hate group committing a particular crime, and media would report on it, but they wouldn’t mention that he belonged to, say, the Aryan Guard or Blood & Honour or Volksfront. So there’s no context. I mean, they attacked somebody of colour, but media only talks about the assault. They don’t talk about it as if it were a potential hate crime or somebody was targeted because of their ethnicity.
And I see echoes of that here. People want to believe that this was novel — certainly, not something that white people do. The reality is, we’ve seen it year after year, decade after decade. It’s often frustrating when you see it, because you’ve reported on it. You tell people, you provide information, and very few people appear to act on it.
And when you learn something, what do you do with that information?
Well, when I wrote the blog, if I was 100% certain of the identity of a person, I would post it to the blog. I would never post any other identifiable information, but I would say, “This person’s involved in this, and people need to be aware in their community.” I knew the blog was viewed by a number of people — activists certainly, but also law enforcement. It was always very funny, I also had people who were in these hate groups following the blog. I think they viewed it as their version of the National Enquirer, to keep up on their rivals within the hate movement.
You were just making the information available and saying, “Hey, just FYI, this might be your neighbour. This is their name. They are a member of this Aryan Nazi group.” Do I have that right?
Very rarely would I call people to action. The only times would be when I found somebody who was in the military, for example, and say, “This is a person that’s in a position of authority. This is a person that is possibly training for nefarious purposes. Contact the Department of Defence, let them know this is a person who is involved in these kind of groups.”
You did this work anonymously for a long time, and even appeared on an episode of our podcast Commons under a pseudonym. Anything you want to say about the experience of being exposed?
It was surreal. I had always assumed the possibility of being doxxed. I knew people were looking for me. So I had prepared for scenarios A, B, C, D, and E. I hadn’t prepared for scenario F. And that was the one that kind of threw me for a loop. A person who I at one time thought of as a friend released the information about me.
I got a few hate messages sent to my real Facebook profile, but for the most part, they were being sent to my place of employment, to my family. My parents got a bunch of messages saying that they couldn’t wait to have somebody put a bullet in my head. But I got very little of it. It was like being at the centre of a hurricane and seeing everything whipping around you but not having the power to stop it.
How would you describe the changes in these movements since you started tracking them?
They always come in waves. There’s an uptick and eventually a decline. If you go back to the KKK of the 1920s, at one point there were 25,000 members in Saskatchewan, and within a few years it had declined to almost nothing. The Heritage Front was at its height by 1992-93 and then it declined precipitously. Right now, we’re on a particularly long-lasting and very high wave.
I’ve told people that things were easy when I first started. You knew who the bad guys were. They dressed stereotypically in leather bomber jackets, shaved heads, Doc Martens. You knew who they were.
“When I first started, supportive journalists would get told by their editors, ‘Nobody is going to be interested in reading that. Canada doesn’t really have a problem with racism.'”
One of the trends that we’ve seen is the radicalization of people who wouldn’t normally have gone down that route. Social media has done an incredible amount of damage to our society: we have at our fingertips access to more information than we’ve ever had in human history — but also access to more disinformation and bad players who are willing and knowledgeable enough to use that to manipulate people.
Some of my own relatives have gotten caught up in QAnon, this overarching conspiracy theory that encompasses all others. And if you are a rational person, just looking at it from a distance… “So you think that the world is controlled by satanic pedophile child-eating Satanists? Okay, that doesn’t make any sense.” But when you’re immersed in that world and when your echo chamber only reinforces that, we see the consequences. Twitter and Facebook and other platforms are now trying to put the genie back in the bottle. They could have done something long before, but they chickened out. And they created a monster. And we’ll be dealing with the repercussions for years.
You teach high school students, young people who are trying to make sense of the world and figure out what’s actually going on. Is that whole process of radicalization something that you contend with much?
What I do in my classroom is, like any teacher, teach how to think critically. We discuss, “Well, what is a proper website? What is a proper source of information and what isn’t? What is trying to manipulate people?” What I do with my own students is what I hope people will do in the world with their own families. You know, challenge them. So, “Okay, so you think this is real? You still believe that Obama was born in Kenya? Okay, well, let’s look at this. Here’s his birth certificate. Here’s this. Here’s that. So you’re going to try to claim to me that Barack Obama and his family, back in the 1960s, at the height of segregation, had this plot to put him — a mixed-race African-American man — as president of the United States? Does that make any sense to you?” And try to get them to start thinking for themselves.
You’ve probably heard of examples of people who are in a riot, and they’re acting as a group, not as individuals. By getting people to think for themselves and by calling them out, we begin to get them thinking how to move out of that to “Okay, well, that doesn’t make any sense.” And you kind of gradually, hopefully bring them back to the light.
I wonder if it works. I remember that quote, “You can’t reason someone out of a belief that they didn’t reason their way into.”
That’s true, and it’s one of the things I think we’ve all been trying to contend with in our lives. Most of us have loved ones who are maybe a little bit odd. You might have differing opinions politically, but you still love them. Now they’ve gone in such a direction that it’s really hard to view them as the same person. And I wish I had a ready answer for how to deal with that, particularly for those people who have already gone down those rabbit holes. At this point, I’m trying to prevent people in my own life from going down them.
What you do online, as I understand it, is not to talk people out of their beliefs but to publicly shame them. And I say that without judgment — perhaps we need more shame. In your opinion, what works better against radicalized racism: public shaming or criminalization?
That’s tricky, because on the one hand, I don’t like shaming people. But on the other hand, if you have beliefs that are so harmful that people are willing to hurt people because of those beliefs, I think they need to be exposed. I think that what I was doing was helpful.
One of the things that was really satisfying for me over the years were the people who had been in hate groups who got out of them. Partly because of the things I was writing about, people got to think about their values. Why did they believe something in the first place? Why did they go down that road? And a lot of them contacted me, saying that I was one of the people who helped get them out of it by getting them to question their assumptions. A lot of these people were quite young when they got in, especially when I first started the blog. They were young people who were really looking for a place to belong, a place that was kind of a home for them. These groups are in some ways almost like cults: they show you that you’re loved, they show you you’re appreciated. And it’s insidious how the ideology gets brought into it, slowly and slowly, and then more quickly, until you are somebody who’s been radicalized.
“In the United States, to their credit, they recognize this as part of the American landscape. Canadians, we like to be smug and think, ‘No, it doesn’t happen here.'”
And we see that today with people who normally might never have gone down this route.
The other struggle a lot of people, including teachers, have is how do you talk to people about what’s real and what’s not, especially when you still want them to question authority? You want them to ensure they’re not taking everything at face value, but also that they’re receiving information that’s not trying to manipulate and radicalize them.
I tell my students, “Just because I tell you something doesn’t mean you should believe it. You should investigate what I have to say. You should investigate what everybody has to say. But there are also bad players out there that are going to try to manipulate you. So you have to look at the evidence, how it conforms with what you already know about the world in which you live, and go from there. Not everything online is going to be real.”
One thing that seems really underexamined is how much fun these trolls and racists have had in recent years, seeing that they can change the world from their desktops. And they’re not looking to learn because they’re having too much damn fun. The value of what you and others do is make it less fun, like, “Dude, you’re not Batman, you don’t get to have a secret identity.” It’s sort of an assertion of a wider socialization, which is, well, “Here’s what society thinks of you.” As far as I can tell, that’s what worked after Charlottesville.
A lot of them really genuinely believe that everybody feels the same way they do because of the echo chamber that they’re in. These are people who truly believe that Justin Trudeau is the most hated man in Canadian history. And when the election occurred in 2019, they were genuinely shocked to the point where they literally couldn’t believe the results were anything other than fraudulent. They couldn’t be convinced that that’s not true.
Another reason why I published the blog was to get the information out that, no, this is not mainstream. This is not what everybody believes. Trying to expose that and saying, “Look, you believe that you are the mainstream — you are not the mainstream. Most people do not agree with you. You’ll find your subculture somewhere online. But that doesn’t mean that that is what most people accept.”
Too many people in Canada, the United States, around the world don’t know about this subculture. They don’t know about these groups. It’s very easy to ignore it and believe that it’s fringe because it is fringe. But as we saw in Washington, DC, even fringe groups could cause a lot of damage. They could be very dangerous.
Why do you think we generate so many of these far-right figures and groups in Canada?
Canada really has punched above its weight in this world, which is sad. I think part of that is because of the Canadian belief that it doesn’t exist here, so we ignore it. We don’t acknowledge it occurs. And when you don’t acknowledge something as possible, it allows it to take place. I mean, to pretend that Faith Goldy or Lauren Southern or the Proud Boys couldn’t be here even when they are, or to dismiss it as just an anomaly, it’s very easy then to say that it doesn’t really exist, it’s not something we should be concerned about, and it’s not something we should fight against.
In the United States, to their credit, they know their history: a lot of Americans recognize this as a part of the American landscape. Canadians, we like to be smug and think, “No, that’s something that happens in the United States, it doesn’t happen here.” And in our smugness, we allow it to fester without really putting a spotlight on it and preventing it from occurring.
Do you ever get tired of spending so much time with these people, watching them, reading them, tracking them? Does that have an impact on your wellbeing?
When I started the blog, I really believed I was untouchable, that I could look at these individuals and groups from almost an academic point of view and emotionally detach from it. Over the years, it became apparent that that wasn’t possible. I liken it to granite: No matter how strong it is, eventually it wears down with repeated exposure to the elements. I mean, I burned out, and I think that had I not been doxxed, I couldn’t have kept up the pace for another 12 years.
It must have been lonely work that I’m not sure many others were doing for a long time. But it seems like a whole practice is developing around it and there are now funded organizations and very sophisticated new techniques and that this work is being distributed among so many people. I wonder if that might be a way in which you could feel good about passing the baton to the next generation of digital Nazi hunters.
That’s true. When I first started, I was essentially the only game in town. One of the things I really appreciate seeing is the change, not just in online activists and the groups that have been established but also in the journalism.
There’s a greater recognition that these are things that are worthy of reporting on. When I first started, I would send information to journalists, friendly journalists, who were interested in the subject matter, who got told by their editors, “Well, nobody is going to be interested in reading that. Canada doesn’t really have a problem with racism.” So it got shelved. We don’t see it being shelved as much now.
It’s really interesting how the suppression of stories like that feeds right back into the conception that we don’t have things like that here.
Exactly, and that was one of the things that always frustrated me. Like, “You say we don’t have racism. I’m showing you we have racism. We have a lot of it.”
Do your students know about this part of your life?
They did when I got doxxed. I’ve always made a point of not including my political leanings in my classroom. But being opposed to racism isn’t — well, it is a political issue, but it isn’t a partisan political issue. A person on the political left should be as opposed to racism as a person on the political right.
I think it’s okay for a teacher to be opposed to racism.
Precisely. I certainly thought so, but it was funny, when I got doxxed, I was preparing my students for an exam. I said to them, “So you may have heard some things about me. Just know that I always make a point of not bringing my politics into the classroom, and hopefully you don’t you don’t feel uncomfortable around me.”
And one of my students — you know, I had a large number of Filipino students in the classroom — she said:
“Mr. Phillips, you’re okay. You’re good.”