Out in the open

Social media and the rise of public hate speech

AFTER COLTEN BOUSHIE'S shooting death on a Saskatchewan farm, another tragedy unfolded in the roiling ether of social media. 

Hate-filled rhetoric spilled out on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, some of it referencing Gerald Stanley—charged, but not convicted, of second-degree murder in Boushie’s killing.

“His only mistake,” wrote one rural municipality councillor, “was leaving witnesses.” The councillor later resigned over the post.

In Ontario, a Facebook page under the name “Thunder Bay Dirty” is populated with photographs of Indigenous people, connected to sometimes-violent commentary. In one posting, a man lies unresponsive on the ground; the photographer claims to have “poked” him in an effort to awaken him.

“Next time poke him with something sharp … or a bullet,” commented a page user.

More recently in Ottawa, Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick appeared before a House of Commons committee in connection with the SNC-Lavalin affair. He described social media as a “vomitorium” fuelling debate so toxic he fears someone could be shot during the upcoming federal election campaign.

The escalation of such hateful rhetoric is often pinned to the United States, particularly since the election of its Twittering president, Donald Trump; but whether such activity has trickled over the border, or is simply part of a wider, unstoppable global trend, matters little. 

Online hate has come to Canada, and no one seems to know how to stop it.

“We don’t know how to deal with these technologies; they’re so young,” says Dr. Scott Thompson, assistant professor of sociology in the College of Arts and Science. “We don’t have the experience of understanding what it means when there are all these tweets. If you look at the birth of the printing press, there was a similar societal response of destabilization of everything until people got their minds around this new piece of technology.

“The generation coming up now is going to have a better take or a better understanding than the generation that’s living through it for the first time.”

Dr. Scott Thompson, assistant professor of sociology in the College of Arts and Science, specializes in issues of surveillance and technology. [icon image] David Stobbe
Dr. Scott Thompson, assistant professor of sociology in the College of Arts and Science, specializes in issues of surveillance and technology. David Stobbe

Thompson specializes in issues of surveillance and technology, particularly as they relate to exerting social control and influencing behaviour. As he points out, people are more likely to conform to a viewpoint if they perceive a norm, and social media has made it much easier to encounter extremist views.

Social media is not, by miles, just for the average person trying to connect with friends or those with similar viewpoints. It has become much, much more than that.

“You also see a lot of governments weaponizing the information from Twitter to identify people and imprison them or kill them,” Thompson says. “There is excellent work coming out of Citizen Lab (at the University of Toronto) finding the ways governments are doing this—in addition, finding the viruses and other things embedded in apps that governments and private companies use to locate individuals and disappear them.”

Thompson pauses. “It’s scary talking to me. I’m sorry,” he says.

It’s scary, in part, because the private corporations running social media platforms have an incredible amount of power, holding and using our personal information as they do. Their actions are shifting morality, says Thompson. 

But what can be done to reduce the proliferation of hate, violence and fear online? 

“The funny answer is, there are the rules of the Internet, and one is, don’t read the comments,” he says.

“On the other side, it’s education and it’s a nightmare because you’re talking about regulating free speech. It’s not like we don’t regulate certain types of speech; we do. It’s just this technology is very new and we have not yet figured out the proper way of analyzing and restricting this hurtful speech.

“I would caution giving it up to the private corporations that run them, to make the decisions about what is acceptable speech. It’s a matter of them being unaccountable private organizations.”

The other colossal factor influencing people’s perceptions of society via social media is the intervention of, usually, far-right groups, which engage both actual people and bots to populate the Internet. 

“Someone who has one voice on Twitter is different from someone with the capacity to hire thousands of writers or hundreds of thousands of bots. There’s an unequal capacity there,” Thompson says. “This makes the production of stereotypes and how to hurt people much easier. It’s unbalanced reality.”

In the Boushie case, there were certainly ‘real’ people expressing themselves online, on all sides of the issue. But they were not the only ones weighing in.

People gather in Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto on Feb. 10, 2018, to protest the verdict in the trial of Gerald Stanley, who was acquitted of murder in the death of Colten Boushie. [icon image] Chris Donovan / Canadian Press
People gather in Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto on Feb. 10, 2018, to protest the verdict in the trial of Gerald Stanley, who was acquitted of murder in the death of Colten Boushie. Chris Donovan / Canadian Press

“When you have those cases, because they’re so politicized, it’s really hard to know exactly what’s going on. You have legitimate conversation happening, you have people legitimately interested on all sides of the issues to understand it in more depth,” Thompson says. 

“But you also have political actors trying to gain from it—far-right movements like Sons of Odin, who are known to use social media bots and other technology to make it look like they have more membership and will latch onto these types of cases to try to recruit people by making it look like their opinions are held by the majority.”

Dr. Robert Innes (MA’00), head of the Indigenous studies department in the College of Arts and Science, agrees that a lack of knowledge around social media contributes to hate speech—albeit a different kind of ignorance in the Boushie case.

“There were comments mainly emanating from one Facebook page,” he says. “Why would they provide these comments? I’m assuming they thought it was private. It wasn’t like a news story comments section where you can hide behind a fake identity. These were all real people with real names and pictures, and their own Facebook accounts were linked (to the page).

“That folks on Facebook would post kind of shows you, on the one hand, the level of racism is so extreme that people don’t mind putting those comments out in the public sphere; but, at the same time, we could be talking about people who don’t understand social media.”

Regardless of how social media was understood in Saskatchewan, the angry commentary escalated to a degree that horrified Innes. Some commentators said the other youth accompanying Boushie on the day he was shot should also have been killed. 

“When it spilled over to ‘the other youth who were present should also have been killed,’ or that ‘I will kill some people who come on my property,’ that’s more than just anger, although maybe fuelled by anger; but that is now clearly hate.”

Innes ponders whether hate speech should be treated differently on a policy and law enforcement level. The RCMP, he notes, did not lay charges over the online comments, which he found “very surprising.” 

Dr. Robert Innes (MA’00) is head of the Indigenous studies department in the College of Arts and Science. [icon image] David Stobbe
Dr. Robert Innes (MA’00) is head of the Indigenous studies department in the College of Arts and Science. David Stobbe

“There wasn’t even an opportunity to have a discussion in court about whether or not those kinds of comments (online) meet the standard,” he says. “As a society, we left it up to the RCMP to make that decision without letting the courts actually look at it. That is an implicit permission to say, ‘Yes, we can say these things online, we can advocate for the killing of Indigenous people online, and that’s not hate speech.’ ”

Innes wonders if individual online commentators will be more careful in the aftermath of the Boushie outcry.

“Certainly they let their guard down,” says Innes. “The racism we have in Saskatchewan is not usually so public. It’s for Indigenous eyes only and white people can go along their merry way (saying), ‘I don’t hear racism.’

“Most of those types of comments will be not in the public realm. They’re still out there. People will be a little more careful. They learned their lesson; they were publicly chastised. They will make sure they can say these things without being held to account for them.”

People do let their guard down on social media, perhaps because it’s ethereal, perhaps because people can access platforms that make hate normative or perhaps because they’re hiding behind a computer. On top of that, connecting online is addictive, says Thompson.

“People like to tell stories. Companies are actively trying to addict people to these sites, even to testing dopamine activity in the brain,” he says. “As humans, this is how we learn things, though telling stories. This technology has exploited it.”

As Thompson notes, the younger generation provides some hope that social media will be, if not more positive, at the very least better understood as time rolls on. 

Max FineDay (BA’15), former president of the University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union and the executive director of Canadian Roots Exchange, belongs to that generation. He has been involved in social media for 11 years—since the age of 17—and is now fully engaged in the conversation around Reconciliation in Canada.

“My generation grew up with social media; we’re probably the most adept at engaging online and we’ve used this tool as a form of connecting,” FineDay says.

“But there’s always that ugly side of social media. There might be that one friend from one class on your social media and the only time you interact with him is when you see that racist article that they share.”

FineDay suggests we approach social media interactions with great care, digest information and determine where it’s coming from, and ask whether it’s the truth or something entirely different.

“I get worried when talking with my friends about how we engage in social media, the siloing that happens within movements. We only have particular friends … we’re not exposed to other ideas. Is that healthy? That’s something I see my generation grappling with.”

And hate, particularly on platforms such as Twitter where people can sign up without using real names or photos, is easier to express without accountability.

“That’s particularly dangerous when we’re talking about issues of immigration, issues of Reconciliation … poverty and homelessness and all these things everyone seems to have an opinion on, even if they don’t have a background or education on that particular issue.

“How healthy is that for our democracy, for our country? That’s a particularly troubling thing, a particularly scary thing that people don’t have the answers to yet.”

Through his work at Canadian Roots Exchange, FineDay is attuned to the conversation around Reconciliation online. Much of it has been very discouraging.

“CBC and other news websites have closed commenting on issues of Reconciliation because people were getting on the comments section and participating in the distribution of false ideas about Indigenous people,” he says. “That speaks volumes. That doesn’t bode well.

“It wasn’t just commenting as anonymous. People were connected to their Facebook pages. What kind of a future does that paint for us? Can we say that an entire society can be judged by a few commenters on social media sites? I don’t think so. I certainly hope not.

“But does it speak to the level of acceptability that our country, our region, has, that people express racism clearly and without hesitation? Do these people realize they will face no consequences as a result of their words? Have stereotypes and the vilification of Indigenous people become so commonplace that they can engage in these hurtful ways without thinking twice about it? I think that speaks to where we are, as well, as a society, as a region, as a country.”

Max FineDay (BA’15) is the executive director of Canadian Roots Exchange. [icon image] Submitted
Max FineDay (BA’15) is the executive director of Canadian Roots Exchange. Submitted

FineDay advocates for taking this issue into our own hands, as positive members of society.

“We need to be proactive in sharing articles and sources that are credible and legitimate that can help our friends and neighbours through our digital platforms. We think by not engaging we’re not harming, but that allows those who want to do harm to create and shape the narrative.”

But FineDay is not mired in the gloom and fear surrounding hate online. He sees the positive work that can also be done there.

“It’s such a gift we have to share this information. In my work with Indigenous young people and non-Indigenous young people, I’m sharing across the country stories of hope and positivity and facing the challenges we still have to overcome in this country.

“I absolutely think it will work. It will take more than social media, but education is the first step (and) social media is a powerful tool.

“We’re so used to being polite Canadians, where we don’t want to start a fight at dinner. But we have to. We need to challenge that and it’s going to take every one of us.”
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