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Online hate speech could result in attacks on politicians, MP Angus warns

A Canadian politician could end up being physically attacked or killed if nothing more is done to deal with the rise in hateful comments online, NDP MP Charlie Angus warned today.

Speaking during a panel discussion, Angus said incidents like the security incident outside the prime minister’s residence  last summer, an attempt by a citizen to “arrest” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh in September and the murder of British MP Jo Cox in 2016 are things he never dreamed were possible when he first ran for office.

“Now it is a possibility,” said Angus as he called for a better system to deal with individual threats fuelled by online activity.

“My concern is that without that, one of our MPs or some provincial member will be a victim of someone doing something really wrong because they’ve been amped-up or they’re off, and we could have a tragedy.”

Conservative MP Bob Zimmer says algorithms make heated online political discussions more profitable for social media companies. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The comments came during a panel discussion on the impact of online comments on Canadian politics, organized by the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting and the Samara Centre for Democracy.

The federal government is now drafting new legislation to limit what can be said on social media.

Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault told the House of Commons heritage committee two weeks ago that Canada is not exempt from the kinds of forces that led to the attack on the U.S. Capitol building in January and the role that social media played in it.

Guilbeault is planning to set up a new regulator that would have the power to monitor social media companies and levy stiff fines on companies that allow things like hate speech to remain on their platforms.

While the new regulator initially would be paid for by the federal government, Guilbeault is also considering the possibility of web companies contributing to its operating costs.

Liberal MP Iqra Khalid received hate mail and death threats after tabling a motion calling on the government to condemn Islamophobia. (CBC)

Conservative MP Bob Zimmer said governments aren’t keeping up with the web giants.

“These social media platforms and big tech are moving at a 1,000 miles an hour and legislation is moving at about a mile an hour,” he said. “They know it and they’re taking advantage of that slowness of our response to what they are doing and they are making a whole lot of money in between.”

Zimmer said one of the problems is that the algorithms used by social media companies ensure that the companies make more money from heated political discussion that keeps people engaged.

As for the threat of that online discussion fuelling real-life violence, Zimmer said the risk should be balanced against the right to free speech and the need to keep Parliament Hill accessible to Canadians.

“I’m concerned by what potentially can happen but I think we should always err on the side of keeping that place the people’s place,” he said.

Liberal MP Iqra Khalid — who has herself been the target of hateful messages — said the “fear is very real.” She said some of her constituents hesitate to comment on her social media posts because they fear they’ll be targeted by online trolls.

Khalid pointed to the riot at the U.S. Capitol building as an example of where online threats can lead.

“I think what has happened down south really helps us to understand the severe implications of the ability of certain groups to organize on social media platforms,” she said.

Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault is drafting legislation to restrict things like hate speech on social media. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Khalid said she would like to restore Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, saying it would give victims of hate speech online a way to go after their attackers.

Section 13, which prohibited sending hate messages by phone or internet, was repealed by Parliament in 2013 through a private members bill presented by a Conservative backbencher.

Angus said politicians are well protected when they are on Parliament Hill but that protection doesn’t always continue when they are in their ridings, on the road or online.

Angus said he learned that first-hand last summer, after someone attacked him on Facebook every day for two months.

“I was dealing with constituents every day who were very freaked out. What I realized from that — because I just never thought that was going to happen to me — was that I didn’t really have much support at Parliament,” he said. “I was having to deal with the police. I was having to deal with the Crown attorney’s office.”

Angus said the threat to political figures is real.

“I’m very much more concerned about the threat right now to personal members of Parliament or public figures.”

Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at [email protected]


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