Online Hate Speech Is On the Rise...But Is There Anything We Can Do About It?

When it comes to the Internet, people often post without pondering; but you may want to think twice about airing certain sentiments online as they could attract criminal prosecution. 

This is a lesson learned too late for one Surrey resident, who was arrested earlier this week after he posted a disturbing comment on Global B.C.’s Facebook page. In the post, which featured a picture from Surrey’s Vaisakhu Parade, the 46-year old wrote “Imagine what one pressure cooker bomb could have done…missed opportunities suck.” 

While he may have considered his comment a joke—albeit a horribly inappropriate “joke” in extremely poor taste—the Surrey RCMP disagrees, characterizing it as something much more sinister: hate speech potentially worthy of attracting a criminal record and perhaps even jail time. 

The RCMP says that the investigation is ongoing, but it has not ruled out the possibility of laying criminal charges in connection to the post. 

After all, there are a number of laws in this country in relation to hate speech. They are in place in order to protect ourselves, our communities, and minorities from hate speech and hate propaganda. These laws specifically serve to restrict the publication and public expression of particular messages and sentiments that are intended to incite hatred towards members of particular groups.

While the right to free speech and expression is infringed by these laws, the Supreme Court has held the infringement to be a reasonable limitation and therefore lawfully justified in a free and democratic society. 

There are three specific circumstances under which police may lay charges pertaining to hate speech. 

The first deals with situations wherein a person either advocates or promotes genocide. This offence is considered to be a very serious one and carries a maximum penalty of five years in jail. Thankfully, it is very rarely used. 

The other two offences are more common and deal with publicly inciting or promoting hatred. If a person is convicted of committing either of these crimes against an identifiable group, they will face a maximum penalty of two years in jail.

The stakes are high, and the message is clear—hate speech is despicable and will not be tolerated in this country.

However, even in spite of such consequences, hate speech is on the rise.

The World Jewish Congress has reported that a new anti-Semitic post was added to social media every 83 seconds in 2016.  In 2017, media marking company Cision reported a 600 percent rise in the amount of intolerant hate speech posted online by Canadians. Hashtags like #whitepower and #seigheil became popular on social media platforms. Many analysts have linked this growing, vocally racist contingent to a rise in extremism across the border following the election of Donald Trump. 

Whatever the reason, there is no denying that this type of violent and hateful speech packs a bigger punch with the aid of the Internet. 

It also results in action.

It is no surprise that with increasing Internet intolerance, hate crimes against Muslims went up 253 percent between 2012 and 2015. In 2017, police reported a 47 percent rise in racially motivated hate crimes across the country, with the biggest increases in Ontario and Quebec. This statistic includes violent crimes, as well as nonviolent crimes such as hate-related property crime, threats, harassment, and the incitement or promotion of hatred. 

This troublesome trend cannot be tolerated. 

There is a public interest in ensuring that this type of behaviour is curbed, which, in turn, means that hateful and intolerant speech also must be halted. 

And our federal government appears to agree. 

The Commons committee on justice and human rights is currently examining this very issue. Its members are considering whether new or revamped criminal sanctions should be put in place in order to address growing concerns around hate speech and hate propaganda online.  

This may be timely, as provisions dealing with hate speech were first added to the Criminal Code in the 1970s. This means that our current laws were not created with the Internet age in mind. Although they can—and often do—apply to online comments, these laws were not created for this purpose, which may reduce their applicability and effectiveness in an increasingly digital world.  

After all, the Internet is a unique communication tool, unlike any other we have ever seen. 

The freedom, speed, and ubiquity of the Internet allows users to share information with a much wider audience, in relatively short order, without much effort at all. The phenomenon of self-publishing on the Internet also leads to opinions being presented as facts and can ultimately result in a dangerous spread of misinformation…and hatred.  

Our laws need to be adapted in order to keep up. 

While there are a number of legislative possibilities, it may be wise to add specific provisions that exclusively pertain to online hate, or to enact sentencing principles that codify hate speech done online to be an aggravating factor, attracting harsher penalties. 

Whatever option our lawmakers ultimately land on, though, there is little doubt that you should—at the very least—think twice before posting potentially offensive and hateful content online. 

Read this article in The Georgia Straight.

Sarah Leamon