“We were saddened, horrified and deeply angered by the murderous terrorist attack in Christchurch, which was clearly motivated by hatred of Muslims that was at least in part fomented online,” Martin Sampson of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) told the Independent. “This is another disturbing example of how terrorists and mass murderers make use of social media – both before and after attacks – to spread their heinous message.”
On Friday, March 15, 50 Muslims were murdered by a white nationalist terrorist at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. On Oct. 27, 2018, 11 Jews were murdered at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Penn. Both perpetrators had been active in spreading hatred online. In the case of Tree of Life Synagogue, the shooter had written a post announcing his intentions hours before the attack.
“This issue has been of interest to us for some time,” said Sampson. “We included it as a core federal priority in our Federal Issues Guide, which was released in September of 2018. The horrific shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in late October, and the fact that the assailant had been highly active in promoting antisemitism on social media – it is reported that he posted more than 700 antisemitic messages online in the nine months or so prior to the attack – underscored the urgency of the issue and the need to increase awareness about the connection between online hate and offline violence. This is why we launched notonmyfeed.ca.”
The goal of CIJA’s #notonmyfeed campaign is to reduce the spread of online hate speech. “In any democratic society that values freedom and individual rights, no right is absolute,” said Sampson. “Striking a reasonable balance between preserving free speech and protecting Canadians from those who systematically demonize and slander entire communities is a challenging, complex task, but not an impossible one.”
CIJA is calling for a comprehensive response that addresses hate in a variety of forms, not just antisemitism, he said. “We can preserve free speech while protecting Canadians from those who deliberately promote hostility – and even glorify violence – against entire communities.”
Sampson said there is a direct link between online hate speech and violence. “In countless cases – such as in the case of individuals who have been radicalized to participate in terrorism or hate crimes – online propaganda has been a significant factor,” he said. “This is a complex issue. Understanding it and developing tools to counter it is why we are calling on the government of Canada to take the lead by launching a national strategy to tackle online hate, working in partnership with social media platforms and internet service providers.”
Some people contend that, if online hate speech foreshadows offline violence, there may be some value in monitoring it, rather than forcing it underground. As well, if kicked off one social platform, those inciting hatred can just move to another one.
“In cases of ignorance, inappropriate statements or offhand comments that are bigoted, counter-speech is clearly the best response, and these types of online behaviours are not the focus of our calls for a national strategy to tackle online hate. In cases of propaganda being systematically produced by extremists – particularly when it includes the glorification of violence – allowing it to continue can in some cases pose significant risks to public safety,” said Sampson about these concerns. “Moreover, allowing such behaviour to take place on social media platforms often violates the basic terms and conditions of those sites. Social media platforms should enforce their own existing policies.”
The movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel over its treatment of Palestinians is controversial, with some seeing it as a legitimate tactic opposing human rights abuses and others seeing it as a form of discrimination rooted in antisemitism. “It is neither the focus of our policy position on online hate, nor can I perceive any scenario in which BDS would be implicated or affected by a national strategy to tackle online hate,” said Sampson, when asked whether BDS was one of the intended targets of CIJA’s campaign. “To be clear – we strongly oppose BDS and work to expose and counter the real agenda of the BDS movement, but that is a very separate challenge and completely distinct from our call for a national strategy to combat online hate.”
Asked if CIJA has any plans for addressing hate speech in the Jewish community itself, Sampson said, “Our position on online hate is that a national strategy should address hate in a variety of forms, not just antisemitism. This is why we have mobilized a coalition of communities, including the Muslim community, to join us in this effort. We believe every online account should be held to the same standard, regardless of the identity of the person who runs the account. When it comes to the Jewish community, we strive to set an example in how we manage our social media accounts, allowing debate and diverse opinions in the comments section of our posts, while having a zero tolerance policy toward bigotry and hateful comments.”
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He is Pacific correspondent for the CJN, writes regularly for the Forward, Tricycle and the Wisdom Daily, and has been published in Sojourners, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.