It’s not often the defining moment in a French language leaders’ debate happens in English, but that’s what Rebel News served up on Wednesday. After a Federal Court judge ordered the Leaders’ Debates Commission to let one of its reporters cover the debates, Rebel News used its questions to talk about itself. For a website that likes to accuse the prime minister of being a narcissist, Rebel’s house looks dangerously glassy here.
After Justin Trudeau explained Rebel’s exclusion from the debates was a decision made by the commission, not his government, he returned the stone thrown in his direction.
“The reality is, organizations — organizations like yours — that continue to spread misinformation and disinformation on the science around vaccines … is part of why we’re seeing such unfortunate anger and lack of understanding of basic science,” he said. “Frankly, your — I won’t call it a media organization — your group of individuals need to take accountability for some of the polarization that we’re seeing in this country.”
For the thousands of people who watched this clip, it was a satisfying rebuke of an organization that has contributed to the polarization of our political discourse in Canada. But while the exchange between Rebel News and the PM may have been an unwitting gift to the Liberals, the exchange should remind everyone that all groups dedicated to spreading misinformation and anger are a cancer on our body politic. These groups specialize in ginning up fear and anger around any number of causes, whether it’s attacking progressive leaders like Rachel Notley and Trudeau or undermining the scientific consensus around climate change and vaccines. Indeed, it’s built right into their business models, and the prime minister’s rebuke will almost certainly generate a renewed flow of donations and cash for groups like The Rebel.
That’s why, if the Liberals emerge as the biggest player in the next Parliament, Trudeau needs to do more than just talk a good game about bad-faith actors. He should move forward with amendments to the Criminal Code, the Canadian Human Rights Act, and the Youth Criminal Justice Act proposed by his government earlier this year to take aim at online hate speech and those who traffic in it.
Those amendments would make it easier to launch complaints against online publications and individuals who trade in targeted harassment and hate, and levy fines of up to $20,000 for those found guilty. That’s a far cry from the penalties available under German law, which include fines of up to $73 million for companies that don’t remove “obviously illegal material” within 24 hours. But it’s a step in the direction and one that’s pretty clearly overdue.
And while social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter in Canada were exempted from those proposed changes, it’s only a matter of time before they’re looped into this as well. That’s where the vast majority of online racist, misogynistic and other hate is generated and shared, according to a 2020 report from the U.K.-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue.
And while Canadians have a reputation for being polite, the report’s data suggests it is undeserved. It showed Canadian users on the fringe website 4Chan created 1,636,558 posts or 5.71 per cent of the total content. When compared to the country’s “estimated internet-using population,” Canada had the highest per-capita rate of users in the world on that website.
It was hardly the only one, either. In total, the researchers found 6,660 right-wing extremist channels, pages, groups, and accounts across seven social media platforms, which included mainstream sites like Facebook and Twitter and more marginal ones like Gab, Fascist Forge, and Iron March. In total, those forums reached more than 11 million users.
And in case anyone still wants to pretend this is all just talk, there’s the terrorist attack earlier this year that killed a Muslim family in London, Ont. Anti-Muslim hate, along with broadsides against Trudeau and conspiracies about COVID-19, is the bread and butter of these online hate factories, and the consequences are spreading nearly as virulently as the virus itself. Just as the COVID-19 virus replicates inside the host, these forums and websites are creating new vectors for hate and violence and infecting a growing population of vulnerable people.
It’s time to start inoculating ourselves more aggressively against their spread. That means all of our political leaders, including the ones who know some of their supporters frequent these websites and forums, have to speak out decisively against anyone who trafficks in hate.
Opinion: Until all of our federal leaders, including the conservative ones, take a harder line here, the twin viruses of hate and misinformation will continue to spread, writes columnist @maxfawcett for @NatObserver. #elxn44
It was good to see Trudeau stand up against Rebel News and everything it represents. Jagmeet Singh is right to refuse to answer its questions. And Erin O’Toole has finally accepted, if somewhat belatedly, that he can’t keep granting interviews to the website. But until all of our federal leaders, including the conservative ones, take a harder line here, the twin viruses of hate and misinformation will continue to spread.