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Learning hate

In a single month in 2022, the Toronto District School Board reported six antisemitic incidents in its schools. At three schools, students in middle grades performed the Nazi salute and shouted Nazi slogans. This was in front of their Jewish teachers and classmates. Antisemitic graffiti appeared on three other high schools in that same month of February 2022.

The surge in antisemitism may seem shocking, but it is part of a broader trend. In the first year of the pandemic, police-reported crimes motivated by racial or ethnic hatred jumped 80%.

The two developments — the pandemic and the rise in hate crimes — are not unrelated. Spending countless hours online during lockdowns, people — adult and children alike — were exposed to more of hate-motivated and factually inaccurate content that pervades social media and gaming sites.

What would motivate 12-year-old Canadian urban kids in the year 2022 to re-enact one of the worst hand-gestures and declarations in human history? The answer lies in their back pockets. They've seen it done online.

The students admitted as much when questioned after the incidents.

“These are not ‘bad kids',” says Marilyn Sinclair, the Markham-based daughter of a Holocaust survivor and founder of Liberation75, an organization that commemorates the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps and seeks to promote Holocaust education across Canada. “They're not Holocaust deniers. They've just been subject to so much mis- and dis-information.”

The distinction is not just semantic. Misinformation is factually incorrect; disinformation is deliberately misleading, incorrect with malicious intent. It is not a new concept. In the 1920s, Joseph Stalin created what was called a “dezinformatsiya” unit within the Soviet security agency KGB. Its central duty was to spread false rumours and shape public opinion. But disinformation takes on new meaning in today's digital universe. Social media — and the bots, trolls, hackers and microtargeters that underpin it — provide a breeding ground.

Sinclair is working with Toronto District School Board's Jewish Heritage Committee. Together, they want to better understand exactly how and why antisemitism is seeping into the school system. In recent months, Liberation75 published a report based on a survey of 3,600 Toronto students from grades 6 through 12. Asked whether a Holocaust in which six million Jews were murdered had taken place, two thirds responded yes. Ten percent said they thought it was a fiction or exaggeration and 23 per cent didn't know what to answer.

Part of the problem is ignorance. Sinclair hopes it will be addressed by making Holocaust education a mandated part of Grade 6 history curriculum. Ontario is the first province to agree to do this, beginning in the 2023 school year. But the much bigger and more complex problem, which extends well beyond the classroom, is the proliferation of online hate and disinformation, and how it manifests in the physical world.

As another example, in December 2022, two Ottawa students found a swastika on the floor of their high school and reported that another student made a Nazi salute gesture. With an investigation still ongoing at the close of 2022, the incident is just the latest in a series of antisemitic incidents in Ottawa schools, said Andrea Freedman, the president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa. As reported by the Ottawa Citizen, Freedman says that incidents over the past 18 months have ranged from swastikas to gas chamber references and the use of the Nazi salute. She added that it can be hard to know for sure how many incidents. “Kids don't necessarily tell their parents,” she explained.

In March 2022, the federal government convened an advisory group to help craft legislation to address the pressing human rights matter of harmful online content. Among the group's experts were specialists in the law, child protection, psychology, media, communications, ethics and public policy. The challenge, in the Government's own words, is to create “safe and respectful spaces online” while protecting freedom of expression for people in Canada.

It's no easy task. Emily Laidlaw chairs the group. She is a professor of law at the University of Calgary, and holds a Canada Research Chair in Cybersecurity Law. Professor Laidlaw acknowledges that the inherent conflict between the right to free expression and the right to live free of hate will never be perfectly reconciled. What matters, she says, is the process through which those rights are balanced.

At the moment, the balance is off. Laidlaw sees the cumulative impact of online hate and disinformation as a “slow burn” in which harmful, hateful viewpoints have gradually become embedded — as in the Toronto students' embrace of antisemitism. But it's hard to know who to point a finger at: the purveyors of hatred; the online platforms that host and amplify it; or the gaps in the legislative framework that fail to prohibit it?

It's these gaps that the Canadian Human Rights Commission has been vocal about for years. It goes back to the 2014 repeal of the section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act that once sought to address hate speech in Canada, rather unsuccessfully. We have said repeatedly — including at a 2022 event hosted by the Globe & Mail as part of their comprehensive study into hate in Canada — that this issue needs a comprehensive solution. It is not enough to add Section 13 back to the Canadian Human Rights Act. That was a blunt tool for an old era. We need better tools to address online hate that promotes antisemitism, and all other forms of religious intolerance, including Islamophobia.

Even in a new era of more inclusive classrooms, the reality is that hate is on the rise. And as matters currently stand, the only federal recourse for a victim of hate is the criminal justice system. Existing limits on freedom of expression, as defined in criminal law, are there for good reason: words and images can cause real harm. The question is how best to enforce those limits in our growing digital universe, and are they enough to address the problem?

Police can lay charges such as mischief, harassment, spreading hate propaganda, or incitement to violence, but these crimes are only rarely charged, can be hard to prove, and the perpetrators — often a diffuse mob hiding behind IP addresses — are hard to track down.

Professor Laidlaw would like social media platforms to be compelled to show how they are protecting their users from harm. She argues that just as carmakers must design cars with driver safety in mind, so too should social media companies prioritize the safety of their users — even if this complicates a business model that thrives on outrage, polarization and discord.

There are no easy answers and no quick fixes. But Professor Laidlaw feels it's essential that people in Canada remember: “Freedom of expression is not absolute. It is freedom governed by law.”

In other words, freedom of expression is not a one-way street where hate has the right-of-way. As Canada's Supreme Court has said: “Not all expression is created equal.”