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A phone buzzing with hate
The Heritage Minister recently said that new legislation will be tabled in the House of Commons to regulate social media and online hate speech. Image: Dasser Kamran/Fulcrum

How do you curb online hate? Experts look towards Parliament for answers

While the internet and social media have a plethora of positives, they both hold a dark side: the ability to easily express and share hate speech.

A recent study conducted by the Canadian Race Relations Foundation (CRRF) found 93 per cent of participants believe online hate speech and racism are a problem

Of the 2000 Canadians surveyed, 49 per cent believe that online hateful content is a serious problem. In addition, 60 per cent believe the federal government should be more active in removing and managing hateful content online.

With the recent release of this study along with real life events like the U.S. Capitol riots and the controversial social media ban of former U.S. president Donald Trump, experts and Canadians alike are looking to re-ignite the conversation regarding social media etiquette and barring online hate.

Kimberly Bennett, director of communications at CRRF, says that their survey was in direct response to the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. 

“Because of the insurrection that happened in the U.S., so now it’s top of mind for people, but this has been a situation that has been happening since the genesis of social media,” she said. 

“I think we conducted the survey the week after. It was a fresh issue but it was also something we know has been a conversation that’s been going on for years. But we decided to take advantage of that, when it was top of mind for most Canadians.”

But even with the events that transpired during the Trump-era in the United States, the world of online hate speech has been around for a long time. Though at times, it can be heightened or sparked depending on real-life events.

Richard Moon, a legal professor at the University of Windsor, believes that while Trump’s presidency isn’t the only factor in the increase of hate speech, he has been a factor in normalizing that type of content.

“I think he represents something, it’s not exclusive to him. He made remarks that could under our law be viewed as hate speech. He’s not the only one but the most prominent one to have helped legitimized and normalized hateful views which makes them easier to spread,” he said.

“It embolds people, makes them feel like these are legitimate views and there’s nothing wrong with expressing them and I shouldn’t be fearful expressing them.”

Bennett agrees, but adds that how social media platforms have been designed helps with the spread of hateful content.

“Social media allows for anonymity, so you can spew hateful or harassing language online without people necessarily seeing you or getting in contact with people which can embolden people.”

Moon expresses the need, but also difficulty, in creating a definition for hate speech. 

“Coming with a definition that is clear is a difficult one because it’s very context dependent,” Moon said. “And one of the challenges for social media is there’s also a massive volume of posting, and their ability to oversee, identify, and remove content that could be hate speech, it’s a real challenge.”

“I think the definition of hate speech is exactly the same if it was face to face or on an online platform,” added Bennett. “The difference of what is hate speech and what is racism, and seeing whether one is regulated and one is not, which is what we tried to examine through the survey.” 

Controlling the amount of online hate speech

While some of these measures have been automated through bots, many social media platforms still struggle with the sheer volume of content Moon points out, and it’s resulting in some positive content being accidentally blocked and removed

Bennett says that according to what she was seeing in the survey, this isn’t as much of a concern for Canadians as removing hateful content in general is.

“Some of the things that Canadians indicated is that they want racist or hateful content to be pulled within a 24 hour window of being posted,” Bennett said. 

“They also want social media platforms to inform law enforcement of any kind of hate speech that appears online that is in violation of hate speech legislation. They’re also in favour of laws that hold perpetrators online accountable.”

Cindy Tran, a masters of journalism student at Carleton University, says that she has experienced online hate herself for an article she wrote following a racist incident involving her grandmother.

“My grandmother was assaulted at home by some teenagers and it was indeed a racist incident. After I wrote this big opinion piece, and in the comments I would see ‘how do we know you’ve even experienced this’ or ‘there’s no proof no evidence,’ and later comments were directed at Asian people, saying ‘they’re so docile, so complacent,’ ” she said.

“It’s very demoralizing, it hurts a lot. You really need to take time for yourself and take a step back, because it does take a toll on you.”

The hate eventually moved over to her personal social media accounts.

“On my Instagram I had some people DM me saying ‘why are you posting this stuff, you’re making it worse for Asian people’ and I said no it’s a very important topic,” Tran added.

“I think people need to learn to consider how others feel when they see these comments. And it’s such a simple thing to do but not a lot of people are doing it.”

Anti-Asian racism in particular has seen an increase since the onset of COVID-19. Tran says that this type of continuous attack can take a toll on people. 

“I’ve been seeing a lot that people are just completely ok slandering each other in the comments,” she said. I’ve seen so many people misunderstand situations and they think it’s ok to say harmful things on Facebook posts and I don’t think they truly realize how much those words impact someone, especially when it demeans their character or demoralizes in some way.” 

Moon adds that hate speech is no longer a single case situation. Instead, platforms have allowed for many people to overload one person with hateful comments or even just social criticism to an alarming level.

“It’s complicated in the online world where you can have a piling on that wasn’t possible before. Before you might get a letter or an email saying that was a stupid thing, but now the response can be massive,” Moon said. “Now it’s straight online. Social criticism has always been with us and it’s not inappropriate, but it’s stepped up to a whole new level.”

The platform design for social media helps with the overwhelming feeling of receiving hate.

“Now with social media, it’s reached a point that (hate speech) has entered the mainstream and it seems to circulate more freely and widely now.”

Moon adds that if a person is a victim of online hate speech there are actions they can take, including reporting content to the platform or to the police.

“There needs to be some kind of oversight, but also recognize that social media platforms are a central part of the infrastructure of public discourse, and it’s pretty important that some idea of free speech be protected, given it’s where most of us exchange information and communicate with others now,” Moon said.

Curbing the problem

In a recent CBC interview, the global director and head of public policy for Facebook Canada, Kevin Chan believes Parliament should clearly define what kind of content shouldn’t be included on the social media platform.

Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault recently said that new legislation is planned to be tabled in the House of Commons to regulate social media and online hate speech. 

“They (social media platforms) really want this taken out of their hands,” Moon said. “The real challenge for social media platforms is to have a system for the relatively rapid removal of posting that could be reasonably viewed as hate speech without it being over inclusive and including protected speech. But it’s also a challenge for the federal government to regulate.”

Currently, The Charter of Rights and Freedoms along with certain provisions protects Canadians’ right to expression. However, Moon explains that there are limitations to that freedom.

“Our courts have interpreted the scope of freedom of expression quite broadly. Most of our freedom of expression cases are resolved under the limitation provision, where the court decides if there’s good reason to limit expression.”

In June of 2019, a report was submitted to the House of Commons titled Taking Action to End Online Hate. In it is a list of recommendations and action items proposed to track, report, and end online hate speech. While they list the benefits of an online community, such as “new avenues for free expression”, they also list the dangers. 

“Despite all of these benefits and opportunities, there was consensus among witnesses that online platforms and the Internet are being used to spread hate and to radicalize, recruit and incite people to hate.”

Bennett hopes that further research and discussion around racism will bring action. 

“We will continue to put out research that is relevant to the topic of race relations in Canada, and we hope that information will help illuminate discourse whether at the kitchen table or in the halls of legislature.”

But at the end of the day, Tran believes a message of kindness is what people need to consider when posting online. 

“When it comes to online hate speech or hate comments, people think they have a right to give their opinions, and when those opinions turn into attacks on people, people need to consider what they preach to the world,” Tran said.

“I’ve always been a firm believer in if you’re being kind to the people around you then kindness will always follow you, regardless of who hurts you.”