Toronto Star

Time to tackle online abuse


In recent weeks, Canadian journalist­s, including several at the Toronto Star, have been the target of online harassment and threats of physical harm. The disturbing attacks have laid bare problems in how such threats are investigat­ed, even whether they are taken seriously.

The misogynist­ic, often racist, threats are sent from anonymous accounts, the identity protected by the email providers. Emboldened by their anonymity, the abusers are confident they can get away with their threatenin­g behaviour.

That’s because they do get away with it — at least most of the time. That’s a failure of government and law enforcemen­t agencies who are not only letting down the victims of online abuse but society at large. These threats are done deliberate­ly to intimidate and to chill the voices of those in the public sphere, including journalist­s. When people are fearful of participat­ing in the public square, whether online or off, that poses a real and present danger to the functionin­g of our democracy.

The Toronto Star has joined The Hill Times, Global News and the Canadian Associatio­n of Journalist­s in calling for action after the Star’s Saba Eitizaz, Rachel Gilmore of Global News and The Hill Times’ columnist Erica Ifill were the latest targets of threats.

That appeal comes in a letter sent to the chiefs of police in Toronto and Ottawa with copies to federal ministers of justice minister, public safety, Canadian heritage, women and gender equality and youth, the RCMP commission­er and Ontario’s attorney general.

The letter asks for a “comprehens­ive and co-operative” approach by police forces to investigat­e such complaints. The organizati­ons have also asked the police services to “review and improve” the process for filing complaints involving hate speech and harassment. This after the reporters had frustratin­g experience­s trying to file police reports and were left with the impression that officers were dismissive of their complaints. Police services have a responsibi­lity to ensure a victim-centred approach to addressing people’s legitimate fears for their safety.

“It is increasing­ly evident that online abuse is a growing problem for people in our industry and beyond. We have seen up close the terrible toll that such threats and hate can take. This is a profound and spreading social harm that we cannot afford to ignore and which we must find ways to more effectivel­y counter,” the letter states.

For its part, the federal government has committed to addressing harmful content, including hate speech and incitement to violence through new legislatio­n that aims to hold social media platforms responsibl­e for ensuring user safety.

However, the process is dragging on. The federal government promised legislatio­n within 100 days of its current mandate and has missed that deadline.

The federal government is doing its due diligence around what is a complex issue by consulting with communitie­s, experts, and looking to other jurisdicti­ons. It is also helpfully contributi­ng funds to help organizati­ons explore innovative ways to address disinforma­tion, online harms and threats.

Yet, the longer it takes for legislativ­e change, the more challengin­g it becomes for people to not only express themselves online but to participat­e in the political process itself. With municipal campaigns about to start in various provinces, candidates running for public office will once again be vulnerable to hate.

This week, the Samara Centre for Democracy is presenting its new report, the SAMbot 2021 Federal Election Snapshot.

The non-partisan charity deployed the machine learning bot, which reviews millions of tweets for rude, threatenin­g and sexually explicit content, to track the toxic tweets received by incumbent candidates and party leaders during the last federal election. It found that nearly one in six tweets over the 36-day election period were likely toxic, over half of which included threats.

“Online toxicity is a barrier to civic engagement. It is often noted as a key reason why Canadians might leave politics, hesitate from entering politics, or simply avoid the political conversati­on altogether,” reads the report.

Journalist­s, politician­s, advocates, and others who face online harms and threats are left dealing with the impact on their mental health, fears for their personal safety and grappling with whether to continue their work. That’s not acceptable. It’s time to take such threats and harassment seriously and crack down.

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