It’s beyond time. Social media companies need to take responsibility and get serious about tackling online hate. And the government is starting to ensure they do.
I had the honour of being a member of the Canadian delegation during the Malmö International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism which took place earlier this month.
Throughout the meetings, there were repeated calls to take action against online hate and antisemitism, calls we must heed.
The time to act is now.
There is a dark side to social media that must be addressed. These shadowy elements can be found on our most popular social media platforms polluting these forums with hateful antisemitic, anti-Black, anti-Asian, anti-Indigenous, misogynistic, Islamophobic, and homophobic content. These posts, videos, and memes are easily discoverable and readily shared.
From appalling bullying in online classes, to “Zoom-bombing” of synagogue services by neo-Nazis, to dangerous conspiracies about the origins of the pandemic, Canadians are exposed daily to a barrage of hateful and divisive online messages.
I work at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), a leader in combating online hate. We see first-hand the dangerous impacts of online antisemitism. According to the Anti-Defamation League, “Hitler was right,” or a version thereof, was tweeted more than 17,000 times during a single week in May.
The Jewish community is not alone. According to a 2021 survey by the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, 42 percent of respondents have seen or experienced hateful comments or content inciting violence online and younger and racialized Canadians are significantly more likely to be confronted with this hate.
At the Malmö forum, Prime Minister Trudeau pledged, “Domestically, our government has committed to introducing new legislation to address online harms.” Legislation is a much-needed protection for Canadians against online hate and antisemitism.
We welcome the Government’s commitment to table a bill to address online harms, including online hate. We look forward to working with the Government – and all parties in the House – to produce a bill that will set a new international standard in online hate regulation.
The risks of inaction are too great to ignore.
We know that online hate can become real-life violence. Christchurch’s Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre and Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue stand as notable examples. It is incumbent on all of us, before it is too late, to combat online hate with the best tools available.
There is widespread support amongst Canadians to tackle this issue. The Canadian Race Relations Foundation survey cited earlier indicated that 93 percent of Canadians believe that online hate speech and racism are problems, of which 49 percent believe they are “very serious” problems.
The same study showed that at least 60 percent of Canadians believe that the federal government has an obligation to pass regulations preventing hateful and racist rhetoric and behaviour online. Only 17 percent prefer no government involvement at all.
Some argue that the upcoming legislation is too soon or lacks sufficient consultation. We disagree.
In spring 2019, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights spent months studying the issue, and it produced a comprehensive report in June of that year.
The Government has since conducted broad consultations, both formally and informally. Arif Virani, then-Parliamentary Secretary to the Justice Minister, held formal consultations. Then-Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault held more consultations with many stakeholders including industry and community groups. In summer 2021, the Heritage Department held yet another consultation process, and many organizations provided their own input to Ministers, Members of Parliament, staffers, and civil servants.
In addition, committee study of a future online harms bill will give Canadians another opportunity to present their perspectives.
We acknowledge the views of free speech activists who fear any government intervention and, therefore, oppose intervention against online hate. But it is not an either-or issue.
We can have legislation that acts as a shield against the dangers of online hate while balancing the right to freedom of expression.
To be sure, freedom of expression is a core Canadian value. With a carefully crafted bill, we are confident that Parliament can both protect our collective right to express even unpopular or controversial opinions online and ensure that all diverse communities are protected from dangerous, hate-filled content.
Richard Marceau is Vice-President, External Affairs and General Counsel at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).
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