International lawmakers urge action on online anti-Semitism

A group of lawmakers from five countries, including Canada, is scathing in its criticism of tech giants for failing to adequately address anti-Semitism and other hateful expression online.

The Inter-Parliamentary Task Force to Combat Online Anti-Semitism, formed last September, is calling on social media platforms to be more accountable and governments to consider regulatory or legislative means to curb harmful content, which it says is growing at an alarming rate.

“The tech companies are simply unwilling to police themselves, no matter what they say. This is a public safety issue. The law has to step in. We gave them a chance, so government now has to step in,” said U.S. Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz during the release of the task force’s interim report via webinar on July 14.

The Canadian MPs on the task force are Liberal Anthony Housefather of Montreal, Conservative Marty Morantz of Winnipeg, and New Democrat Randall Garrison of British Columbia. Former Toronto Liberal MP Michael Levitt was also a member.

Members from the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Israel also cross party lines, an important point made by the task force, which believes a non-partisan, supra-national approach is necessary to tackle a global problem that knows no boundaries.

Hateful rhetoric on digital platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok, which have billions of users, is fanning real-world violence, they warn, which was seen in the wake of the Israel-Hamas conflict in May when anti-Semitic incidents spiked.

The report makes four preliminary recommendations, the first being that all levels of government should adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of anti-Semitism, which the task force says provides the clear framework required to recognize what is unacceptable.

Social media platforms should be more transparent in how they use algorithms to direct users to certain sites, often those of extremists, or to remove content, and issue regular quarterly reports on this activity.

Governments should establish a regulatory process or independent oversight body to ensure these platforms are complying with national laws on hate.

“Legislators and social media platforms must recognize the danger of disinformation online and that anti-Semitism is an example of other forms of disinformation online and should therefore both be considered within the wider conversation on online extremism,” the fourth recommendation states.

Garrison acknowledged that any attempt to control online content will come up against charges of infringement of free speech and censorship, but he argues the rights of those targeted must equally be protected.

“Hate and violence restrict their freedom of expression. We must protect all members of our society, their right to participation in full debate without fear,” he said.

Democratic Representative Ted Deutch said this is especially thorny in the U.S. not only due to the constitution, but the lack of a legal definition of hate speech as well. The result is “no effective action by Congress” and “little or none” by tech companies, which are largely U.S.-based, to police hate content, he said.

But that is changing, as evidenced by the participation of two Republicans on the task force.

Housefather cited inconsistency in the companies’ policies. For example, Twitter, bans some offensive content yet allows the Iranian regime to repeatedly call for “the genocide” of the Jewish state, dismissing it as “sabre-rattling.”

U.K. Labour MP Alex Sobel noted that the “fringes” of the internet, such as anonymous chat rooms, are also generating a great deal of hateful content, and are harder to rein in.

Over the past year, the task force consulted with civil society organizations and technology experts, including the Network Contagion Research Institute and Centre for Countering Digital Hate. In Canada, they met with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, B’nai Brith Canada, and Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre.

Michal Cotler-Wunsh, now a former Knesset member, emphasized that the task force’s work has just begun and it aims to make practical recommendations in its final report.

Schultz concluded that, “We are in a Wild West situation…a Whack-a-Mole situation. We have to work together internationally because legislation in one country will not prevent spread elsewhere, and barely even in that country.”

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