I’d like to address recent comments made by Mr. Jagmeet Singh in reference to online hate speech and potential governmental responses to it. While I respect Mr. Singh’s convictions, I believe he is proposing an act of dramatic governmental overreach.
It is unfortunately and undeniably true that racism is a thriving, dangerous force all too present within Canada. Police-reported hate crimes in our country have seen a marked increase since 2016, with 2019 seeing a total of 1,946 incidents, a 7% increase from the previous year alone. To make matters worse, a report released by the Canadian Anti-Hate Network suggests that the true number, based on the number of self-reported hate crimes, is closer to 223,000, suggesting that the police-reported statistics represent less than 1% of the reality of the situation. This was all in the days before the pandemic, mind. In 2020, the number of police-reported hate crimes rose from 1,946 to 2,669, a staggering increase of nearly 40%. It is, put simply, an appalling situation.
I bring up these statistics because they are essential context. It is against this backdrop of increasing ethnocentric violence that Mr. Jagmeet Singh, leader of the NDP, made a statement to the media, prompting the federal government to directly address the issue of online hate speech. This statement was directly motivated by an egregious act of violence committed upon a Muslim family in London, Ontario on June 6th, killing four innocent family members and leaving behind an orphan. To quote Mr. Singh, “we know that online hate is radicalizing people. We cannot leave it to Youtube or to Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook to regulate hate. They don’t have an interest in doing that.” It would indeed seem that Facebook’s automatic systems tend to encourage divisiveness and radicalization, and its human owners have done little to discourage this. “It is up to us to make sure that hateful messages that are put out purposefully to divide… that has to end,” Mr. Singh further stated. “We need to see that action, and the Liberals have been delaying for far too long on this.”
I would be lying if I said I did not share Mr. Singh’s anger. It is true that the Liberal Party made several promises in the last election cycle regarding online hate speech, of which very little of consequence seems to have come of them. It is also true that the lack of moderation on social media websites, particularly the now-defunct Parler, can be directly linked to the flourishing and spreading of hateful ideas. However, I have serious concerns about the government taking control of regulation efforts in such a direct fashion. As it stands, the Criminal Code is primarily geared towards removing hate speech from public places, giving judges the nation over the authority to remove offensive material from public computers or domains. Note the wording, however. While we may use it to chat with friends, plan barbecues and share pictures of our adorable animal companions, Facebook is by no means a “public” space. It is effectively a private service, which most people access through privately-purchased computers. Youtube, another vector for radicalizing content, is similar in this respect. This presents an obvious problem in terms of combating hate speech; in order to remove hateful content, we would need to provide the government with the authority to access and alter digital content in a private sphere. I think any lawyer worth their salt would find this legal territory to be murky and uncertain.
One step towards media control
Freedom of speech is one of the basics of human rights. As a human rights advocate and protector, I predict that giving a government the absolute authority to censor content on the internet can lead to catastrophic results. Power corrupts, as the saying goes, and that kind of overreach would give the bureau responsible for it quite a lot of power. Once the government is permitted to censor online content, they gain the ability to control and silence information unfavourable to their position. This can bring our country one step closer to a repressive Internet environment like China. As much as we’d like to directly address and silence hate speech, creating an online environment where people are required to self-censor in order to avoid provoking governmental backlash is not the solution.
So, what now?
I won’t pretend that hate speech is simply a problem that can be solved by hoping that all those who partake in it will simply be shamed into compliance. The truth is, reducing and combating hate speech is an arduous task with no easy answers. I would, however, like to point to the Green Party’s platform concerning the combatting of identity-based hate. Our agenda stresses the need for education, for awareness programs that can potentially combat the vitriol of online hate speech. It may not seem like much, but knowledge and understanding may be our only road to progress in an instance where more direct action is either dubious or outright impossible. It is only through addressing the root problems of hatred in a comprehensive way that we can hope to prevent further tragedies.
Never give out a tiny territory of human rights, that can be a domino effect that can eventually seal everyone’s mouth.