Politics

Experts urge task force on antisemitism to penalize uncooperative social media platforms

An international task force is calling on governments to adopt a clear definition of antisemitism and push social media giants to be more transparent on how they remove hateful content — but stops short of saying those companies should be fined for doing a poor job of policing of their platforms.

Experts who spoke to task force are calling for direct action against social media giants

A graffiti removal worker cleans antisemitic graffiti, including a swastika, that was spray painted on the door of The Glebe Minyan in Ottawa, on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

An international task force is calling on governments to adopt a clear definition of antisemitism and push social media giants to be more transparent on how they remove hateful content — but stops short of saying those companies should be fined for doing a poor job of policing their platforms.

The group's interim report acknowledged that many of the experts and civil society organizations it spoke to are looking for more.

The Inter-Parliamentary Task Force to Combat Online Antisemitism was convened in September 2020 in a bid to cross-promote policies on combating online hate speech in different countries.

The task force includes lawmakers from Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel and Australia. Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, Conservative MP Marty Morantz, NDP MP Randall Garrison and former Liberal MP Michael Levitt make up the task force's Canadian contingent.

NDP MP Randall Garrison is one of the Canadians serving on the task force. (CBC)

Imran Ahmed, founding CEO of the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, was one of the experts who spoke to the task force. The report says he called for "government pressure or legislation that would affect the platforms' 'bottom lines' as the key way to ensure change in the online space."

The task force also spoke to Jeff Orlowski, the filmmaker behind Netflix's hit documentary The Social Dilemma. The report says Orlowski "described the financial incentive that social media companies have to keep you engaged for as long as possible" and warned "without regulation, the platforms do not have incentive to limit content." 

"We realize that steps will be incremental," said Brian Herman, director of government relations for B'nai Brith Canada, a Jewish advocacy group that also spoke to the task force. His organization was looking to the task force to call for international cooperation on combating antisemitism online and legislative power to compel social media platforms to crack down.

"Overall, we value a road map from the inter-parliamentary task force," Herman said.

Housefather said he is not opposed to stronger rules for uncooperative social media platforms and hinted that could show up in the task force's final set of recommendations.

He said it would be perfectly reasonable to introduce sanctions if a company is warned and does not act.

"I don't think we've reached that point yet in our international consensus," he added.

He said the task force's interim report was meant to find common ground for countries that "have different rights or different charters of rights and different local politics."

Antisemitic memes spilling into real-world violence

In May, during the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas, B'nai Brith warned that online antisemitic memes were inspiring real-world violence and that its "anti-hate hotline was ringing off the hook with reports of harassment, violence and online bullying."

University of Windsor law student Tiphaera Ziner-Cohen, a modern Orthodox Jew, told CBC News she experienced hate both online and in the real world.

"I received messages telling me that I killed babies, calling me a baby killer, telling me that I'm going to Hell, I'm going to be burning in Hell," she recalled.

In May, she said, she and her younger brother were visiting downtown Toronto during a pro-Palestinian protest. She said a group of protesters identified the pair as Jewish and began to chase after them.

"After they punched my brother, they grabbed me, threw me on the ground, someone straddled me and started punching me in the face," she said.

The federal government announced new legislation to tackle online hate last month and has adopted a clear definition of antisemitism based on the one drafted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, as recommended by the task force.

Ottawa's new legislation does not include the power to impose fines on social media platforms, although the government has said it would have separate legislation to govern the likes of Twitter and Facebook.

Canada is also convening a summit on antisemitism next week.

It's not clear when the task force will issue its final set of recommendations, but its chair, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Democrat, Florida), suggested they will have teeth.

"No matter what the leaders of these social media companies and technology platforms testify to in front of panels in each of our countries, they simply are unwilling to police themselves," she said.

"We gave them a chance and they have failed to meet the moment."

With files from Michelle Song

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