Building a made-in-Canada solution to harmful online hate

Researchers say Canada needs a national approach to online hate speech.

Researchers say Canada needs a national approach to online hate speech.

Heidi Tworek and her co-authors have proposed ways to update the way Canada deals with harmful online speech. (Pixabay)

For all it has done to revolutionize communications, the internet has also made it possible for hatred and harmful speech to spread much more rapidly.

And the speed at which harmful online speech has proliferated has outstripped many governments' abilities to manage  it.

Heidi Tworek is an assistant professor in international history at the University of British Columbia, and she recently co-authored a report aimed at helping the Canadian government to take an active role in regulating harmful speech online.

Heidi Tworek (Heidi Tworek/Twitter)

Tworek uses the term "harmful," rather than "hate" speech because there is already federal legislation that governs hate speech, she told Nora Young, the host of Spark. Using the term "harmful speech" covers "all sorts of abuse and harassment that happens online that may not be illegal but is still hampering our democratic discourse," she said.

"This abuse is disproportionately directed at women and minorities...and can also prevent those people from really wanting to engage online."

First of all, Tworek recommends that the Canadian government figure out which departments are actually responsible for regulating online content, especially where foreign interference is involved.

The second goal is to encourage civil-society research on harmful online speech. Unlike most European countries or the U.S., Canada has no dedicated support for that kind of research. "We can only have evidence-based policy if we have evidence," she said.

Most controversially, she and her co-authors recommend the creation of a "Moderation Standards Council," which would bring together all the big social media platforms, civil society groups and the government to come up with set of best practices when it comes to managing online content.

The key is to siphon out harmful speech while protecting the right to free expression. Tworek said she's not suggesting that the government become a regulator of content, but rather that it fosters a better dialogue about the type of content that is being displayed to Canadians.

Different online communities have different standards; what's acceptable on Reddit may not be on Facebook, she pointed out, and this has to be recognized.

"It wouldn't require everybody to operate in exactly the same ways, as a platform like Instagram is more visual, than, say, Twitter, which is more text-heavy."