Combating online antisemitism requires public oversight of social media companies: task force report

Fighting online hate against Jews requires clear legislative and regulatory oversight developed by government and civil society with the technology sector, according to the final report of the Canadian Task Force to Combat Online Antisemitism.

The task force was led by the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS) of Concordia University and funded by the federal government.

“Social media companies themselves have asked for guidance and clarity when acting against online hate. Indeed, addressing these issues was never the job of these unelected businesses,” the report states.

“Their regulatory actions should, therefore, be overseen by publicly elected officials, working in consort with civic experts to rein in corporate actions, safeguard society and ensure that what is hateful offline serves as the standard for what is unacceptable online.”

The report recommends that Canada work with other governments and international bodies “to collectively mandate transparency of approach and algorithms, and require anonymized data sharing to ensure that dangerous actions can no longer hide behind misunderstandings and unchecked corporate prerogative.”

The 26-page paper is authored by MIGS digital fellow Alyssa Blank. Struck last summer, the task force brought together Canadian and international experts from different fields to suggest ideas on how government, the tech sector and society as a whole might address antisemitism on the internet, including Holocaust denial and distortion, which is seen as having worsened globally during the pandemic.

Its work, which included three closed-door virtual roundtable discussions, was supported by Heritage Canada through the anti-racism secretariat.

The advisers were: Irwin Cotler, Canada’s special envoy for preserving Holocaust remembrance and combating antisemitism; former New Democratic Party leader Tom Mulcair, a visiting professor at the Université de Montréal; Catherine Chatterley, founding director of the Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism; Naomi Kikoler, director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, affiliated with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum; Michael Levitt, president and CEO of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center and a former Liberal MP; and Lana Cuthbertson, founder and CEO of Areto Labs, an Edmonton-based social enterprise combating abuse online.

The report makes an interesting observation about the necessity of getting at the root of the issue – ignorance of who Jews are. While widespread adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism is seen by Jewish community leaders and others as key, the task force says, first of all, what a Jew is must be defined.

“While (the IHRA definition) is an excellent step, it will not move the needle on online antisemitism” alone, the report indicates. “While there has been considerable work related to understanding what hatred of Jewish people is, little effort has been spent in identifying what a Jewish person is.”

As a result, the Jewish community has lost potential partners in combating online hate among “marginalized groups assuming that Jewish people are white individuals who have chosen to practise a religion that has been unpopular throughout history and not who they actually are: a racialized group with distinct markers as well as cultural and religious practices… This has led to the sidelining and dismissal of Jewish concerns.”

The task force says that hate speech that is illegal elsewhere should be equally prohibited online, and that existing Canadian laws regarding freedom of expression and its limitations can and should be applied.

“In other words, the issue of online hate is as much an equal rights principle as it is a free speech principle. It is about the need to protect people against demonstrable harm… It is about the rights of minorities to be protected against vilifying speech. This is an international treaty obligation, yet it is often excluded in these discussions.”

This approach would have more force if Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, which covered hate messaging and was repealed by Parliament in 2014, was restored, the task force notes.

The task force also emphasizes public education directed at adults and not only students. This can be done, it says, through “the innovative use of social media platforms to elevate marginalized voices and direct users to specific content and through the introduction of diversity of content… so that media programming includes diverse voices and experiences.”

Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, co-founder of an international parliamentary group studying online antisemitism, applauded the task force’s aims at the report launch on March 31.

He said disinformation—the deliberate spread of harmful untruths of any kind—is fuelling antisemitism and other hate, and social media platforms must be more vigilant in controlling how their algorithms direct those susceptible to such messaging.

Emmanuelle Amar, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs’ Quebec director of policy and research, said the organization hopes that the Canadian government’s pending legislation on mitigating online harm “sets an international standard in obliging social media companies to show results and not just best efforts, with penalties for non-compliance.”