• Rabbi Idan Scher

Parliamentary Testimony - Eliminating Online Hate

On April 11th, 2019 I had the honour of testifying to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights and these were my notes:


On Oct. 27, 2018, 11 Jews were murdered at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Penn.


The murderer had been highly active in promoting antisemitism on social media – it is reported that he posted more than 700 antisemitic messages online in the nine months or so prior to the attack. Just two hours before the attack, the murderer foreshadowed his actions in his final, disturbing online post


On Friday, March 15, 50 Muslims were murdered by a white nationalist terrorist at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.


As the Washington Post put it: "These murders played out as a dystopian reality show delivered by some of America’s biggest technology companies. YouTube, Facebook, Reddit and Twitter all had roles in publicizing the violence and, by extension, the hate-filled ideology behind it."


The shooter also released a 74-page manifesto denouncing Muslims and immigrants that spread widely online. He also left behind a hateful social media trail on Twitter and Facebook that were basically footnotes to his manifesto. Over the two days before the shooting he posted about 60 of the same links across different platforms, nearly half of which were to YouTube videos that were still active many hours after the shooting.


As these horrific attacks demonstrate, hate can be lethal – and online hate can foreshadow mass violence.


There is no question that the internet has become the new frontier for inciting hate that manifests itself offline.


In 2017, the World Jewish Congress, representing Jewish communities in 100 countries, released a report indicating that 382,000 antisemitic posts were uploaded to social media in 2016. Stated differently, that is one antisemitic post every 83 seconds.


According to Cision Canada, a Toronto-based PR software and service provider, there was a 600% rise in intolerant hate speech in social media postings by Canadians between 2015 and 2016.


James Rubec, architect of the study, says that, while some of the intolerant or hate speech was generated by bots, as determined by analyzing the high frequency of posts over a short time, the researcher noted that the bots’ language was later mimicked by human users.


These numbers are staggering.


The Canadian Government rightfully prides itself as a global thought and action leader in the area of protecting the rights, safety, and quality of the lives of the people within its borders and world wide.


And we personally have felt this. We felt it at our synagogue two years ago. And so it continues to be. Canadian law-enforcement agencies have been exceptionally responsive in providing support to Jewish institutions, particularly following the Pittsburgh attack. However, what is now needed is for federal policymakers to prevent similar atrocities by launching a national strategy to combat online hate.


The explosive growth of digital communications has coincided with rising alienation from traditional media and institutions. Extremists have taken advantage, preying on vulnerable, disaffected individuals via the same digital tools and collaborative online culture that now shape so much of our world.


There is, of course, no way to fully eliminate the threat of hate-motivated violence. But a strong, national strategy to combat online hate could make a meaningful difference in protecting Canadians.


The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs has set out a four step policy recommendation towards fighting online hate.


Step one of the recommendation is Defining Hate. One very important prong of this step is for the Canadian government to define what constitutes hate. This should begin with the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. The IHRA definition is a practical tool that should be used by Canadian authorities in enforcing the law and by social media providers in implementing policies against hateful content.


The further steps of CIJA’s recommendation include tracking hate, preventing hate, and intervening to stop hate.


On the last step, intervening to stop hate, I would like to make it very clear we are not looking to police distasteful speech. Freedom of expression is a core Canadian value. We are focused on the glorification of violence and systematic propaganda demonizing Jews and other communities.


We are confident that an effective balance can be struck between protecting free speech and combating online hate that demonizes entire communities and leads to violence and murder.


This is a complex issue. We are calling on the government of Canada to take the lead on understanding it and developing tools to counter it. We are calling on the government of Canada to launch a national strategy to tackle online hate, working in partnership with social media platforms and internet service providers and other appropriate partners. This is a crucial step in making a difference.


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