Get Tough With Social Media, Say Global Lawmakers

Nov. 18, 2020

By STEVE ARNOLD

Jewish advocacy agencies are calling for stiff fines, cuts in government spending for online advertising, and new regulations to force social media companies like Facebook and Twitter to get tough with online hatemongers.

B’nai Brith Canada, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre (FSWC) and other organizations told a panel of international lawmakers recently that getting tough is the only way to get the tech giants to help drain the cesspool of online antisemitism polluting their platforms.

The groups made their points during the first public hearing of the Inter-Parliamentary Task Force to Combat Online Antisemitism. That body, comprised of lawmakers from Canada, the United States, Israel, Great Britain and Australia, launched in September to deal with the growing problem of online hate.

“In the crisis we are facing now this issue has become all the more pervasive,” said Michael Levitt, CEO of FSWC. “We are seeing antisemitism being weaponized now under the thinly-veiled guise of anti-Zionism.”

One suggested tactic is to form an agency like the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, a voluntary, self-regulatory body created by the country’s private broadcasters to deal with viewer complaints about news and entertainment programs.

Another is to make directors and officers of social media companies personally responsible for allowing their platforms to be used for hate speech.

“The platforms offer an unprecedented opportunity to spread antisemitism,” said Jaime Kirzner-Roberts, director of FSWC Canada’s campaign against antisemitism. “They have to be held responsible for the material they publish.”

In a news release following its presentation, Michael Mostyn, CEO of B’nai Brith Canada, said after years of pressure, “there have been some clear signs that social media platforms are gradually coming around,” but the problem is far from solved.

What’s needed, said Mostyn, is greater transparency and a chance to provide input to their policies.

“If necessary, governments and civil society must exert a leadership role. The Jewish community is absolutely ready to contribute to these efforts,” he said.

In its testimony, B’nai Brith argued a key to combating online hate and antisemitism is to define the problem for a global audience. One such tool is the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA)’s definition of antisemitism. That definition has been adopted by several Canadian municipalities, the federal government, and recently in Ontario.

B’nai Brith also argued antisemitism should be seen as an issue of human rights, not simply one of religious freedom. Many of its current forms must be understood as “hatred and demonization of the State of Israel that exceeds the boundaries of legitimate policy criticism.”

“A clear legal and policy framework – domestically and internationally – is required to bring coherence to efforts to take down hate.”

Agencies around the world have noted shocking rises in antisemitism, often driven by driven by conspiracy theories about Jews being responsible for the COVID pandemic. In Canada B’nai Brith has noted an 11 per cent rise in online antisemitism and harassment that often advocates genocide.

Social media companies haven’t been ignoring the problem. Earlier this year, for example, Twitter began flagging some tweets from U.S. President Donald Trump for violating policies that ban threats of harm against an identifiable group.

And last month, Facebook announced a new policy banning Holocaust denial.

In an email exchange, a Facebook spokesperson said the platform found and removed nearly 90 percent of hate speech content before being reported, and in the first quarter of 2020, took action against 9.6 million postings.

Over the last year, “we’ve conducted 14 strategic network disruptions to remove 23 different banned organizations, over half of which supported white supremacy,” the spokesperson said.

In Canada, the company’s work has included a $500,000 program announced earlier this year for the Global Network Against Hate, in partnership with Ontario Tech University’s Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism.

Other Canadian participants in the task force include Members of Parliament Anthony Housefather (Liberal), Marty Morantz (Conservative) and Randall Garrison (NDP). Israel is represented by MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh (Blue and White).

Inter-Parliamentary Task Force to Combat Online Antisemitism

Lawmakers from five countries have joined forces to launch an international effort to fight online antisemitism.

The Inter-Parliamentary Task Force to Combat Online Antisemitism includes legislators from Canada, Australia, Israel, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Anthony Housefather
Anthony Housefather

The effort involves two Canadian MPs: Liberal Anthony Housefather from Montreal, and Conservative Marty Morantz from Winnipeg, as well as former Toronto Liberal MP Michael Levitt, now President and CEO of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center.*

“Over the last several years, there has been an alarming increase in antisemitic incidents across the globe, with many originating online,” a Sept. 29 statement from Housefather’s office states. “As social media posts do not stop at international borders, members of the national legislatures of Australia, Canada, Israel, the United Kingdom, and the United States have come together across party lines to launch the Inter-Parliamentary Task Force to Combat Online Antisemitism.”

Marty Morantz
Marty Morantz

Task force members include: Member of Knesset Michal Cotler-Wunsh (Blue and White, Israel); Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Democrat, United States); Congressman Ted Deutch (Democrat, United States); Congressman Chris Smith (Republican, United States), Member of Parliament Josh Burns (Labour, Australia); Member of Parliament Dave Sharma (Liberal, Australia); Member of Parliament Andrew Percy (Conservative, United Kingdom); Member of Parliament Alex Sobel (Labour and Cooperative, United Kingdom), and the two Canadians MPs.

The launch of the task force follows campaigns working to expose online antisemitism, including the #NoSafeSpaceForJewHate campaign that served as a global call to action to combat the virulent antisemitism that goes unaddressed or inadequately addressed on social media platforms.

The task force has the following goals:

• Establishing consistent messaging and policy from Parliaments and legislatures around the world in order to hold social media platforms, including Twitter, TikTok, Facebook, and Google, accountable;

• The adoption and publication of transparent policies related to hate speech;

• Raising awareness about antisemitism on social media platforms and its consequences in order to acknowledge the tremendous responsibility that comes with the power the platforms hold;

• Emphasizing that if one minority cannot be protected by hate speech policies, then none can be. This Task Force will therefore serve as a means for protecting all minority groups from online hate;Underscoring that the fight against antisemitism is a non-partisan consensus in democratic countries.

Online hate, including antisemitic animus, “is growing exponentially,” stated Housefather. “Posts are viewed across national borders and impact people in many jurisdictions. Social media platforms have failed to adequately address hatred on their own. But they cannot be expected to create different policies in every separate country. By working together, we can create international definitions and recommendations for regulating social media platforms that can then be reviewed and hopefully implemented by each individual country.”

Stated Morantz: “Online hate is an abhorrent reality on social media platforms. I am honoured to work on a bipartisan basis with my Canadian colleagues, as well as international colleagues, to find solutions that keep all those safe who might suffer from online hate, antisemitism and discrimination.”

Said Cotler-Wunsh, daughter of former Canadian justice minister Irwin Cotler, “Always and at this time in particular, as we stand united in fighting a global pandemic, another virus rages that requires global collaboration and cooperation. By working with multi-partisan allies in parliaments around the world, we hope to create best practices and real change in holding the social media giants accountable to the hatred that exists on their platforms. It is imperative that we work together to expose the double standards.”

* The above updates Canadian members of the task force.