Anti-hate group calls on regulator to monitor social media platforms

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The federal government should appoint a regulator with the power to force social media companies to release information to help combat far-right extremism, an anti-hate group told MPs on Tuesday.

Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, said an ombudsman could put more pressure on tech companies to do more to reduce harm online.

“The basic idea is that you have an ombudsman, a regulator, a well-resourced one, with investigative powers so they can kick down the door of Facebook and take their hard drives,” Balgord told members. public and national security of the Commons. committee studying “ideologically motivated violent extremism”.

“I’m being a little hyperbolic here, but we know these platforms are hiding data from us and lying to journalists, so we need broad investigative powers to investigate them.”

Balgord said the regulator should be empowered to issue recommendations on the algorithms social media platforms use to engage with their audiences and bring cases to court. He said platforms should be threatened with fines if they refuse to follow the regulator’s recommendations.

Balgord was one of three experts who testified before the committee on Tuesday. All three described the rise of far-right extremism in Canada, made possible by social media.

Balgord drew a direct line from anti-Muslim groups through the Yellow Vest Canada protests to the convoy protest that paralyzed downtown Ottawa for three weeks and blocked border crossings. He cited the Jan. 6, 2021 mob assault on the Capitol building in Washington, DC, as an example of what such moves can lead to.

Audience members wear yellow vests and one person wears a jacket with the logo of La Meute, a far-right group, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in a question-and-answer session in Saint-Hyacinthe, in Quebec, on January 18, 2019. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

“They’re not all racist, they’re not all violent,” Balgord said. “Not all the people on January 6 were either. There were groups in those circles who decided they were going to try to do a coup and they swept a lot of other people out there .

“The same thing is happening a bit here. We have more extreme elements of our far-right movement than others, but overall they are becoming a threat to our democracy,”

Barbara Perry, director of the Center on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University, said the convoy protest showed “the risks and threats associated with the right-wing movement in Canada.”

Perry said the convoy protest demonstrated an ability to organize at scale through encrypted and unencrypted social media platforms.

Police push back protesters outside the Senate of Canada building on Friday, February 18, 2022. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

“It’s where they’ve been able to show this skill that they really have in terms of being able to tap into broader popular concerns, grievances, anxieties and weave them into their own narratives,” he said. she declared.

Perry called for better law enforcement intelligence, saying police failed to properly assess the nature of the convoy protest. She also pointed out that some officers donated to the convoy or shared online conspiracy theories and misinformation.

Wendy Via, co-founder of the US-based Global Project Against Hate Extremism, told MPs that social media platforms are major drivers of hate speech and conspiracy theories and called on the government to ask them accounts.

“The United States, Canada and many other countries are currently being inundated with hate speech and conspiracy theories like QAnon, anti-vax, election misinformation and the Great Replacement, spreading through poorly moderated social media,” she said.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a rally on the grounds of the Canyon Moon Ranch festival January 15, 2022 in Florence, Arizona. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Via said American militias have established themselves on both sides of the border and people like former US President Donald Trump have “legitimized hate and other extremist ideas”.

“Research shows that Trump’s campaign and policies galvanized Canadian white supremacist ideologies and movements and his endorsement of the truck convoy, along with media figures like Tucker Carlson, undoubtedly contributed to the influx of donations. Americans at the truckers’ headquarters,” she said.

Representatives for Facebook owner Meta told the committee that he monitored groups and accounts linked to the truck convoy 24/7 once the convoy started and saw no reports. hate speech or violent content in association with the protest.

“We haven’t seen dangerous organizations, a significant number of dangerous organizations and individual involvement in the blocking of convoys and the protest in Canada,” said David Tessler, head of public policy for Meta.

Rachel Curran, public policy manager for Meta Canada, said some content that violated Facebook’s Community Standards had been removed, but Facebook users were allowed to criticize the government online.

“Expressing opposition to government mandates is not against our community standards and so we allow it on our platforms,” she said.

Michele Austin, Twitter’s director of public policy for Canada and the United States, said her company was also monitoring the truck convoy protest.

“We knew when it was happening in Ottawa, we knew when it was happening in Alberta, and we exercised and enforced our rules where appropriate,” Austin told CBC News after the committee hearing.

Austin said Twitter received reports from users. Convoy organizers were also talking about their plans on Twitter Spaces.

Tuesday’s hearing came amid speculation about how billionaire Elon Musk’s decision to buy Twitter and his commitment to promoting free speech could change the social media platform.

Austin told MPs it was too early to know what might change and that Musk’s purchase of Twitter could take months.

Both companies have defended their extremism-related actions, saying they have invested money and hired staff to monitor it on their platforms. Curran said that, for example, 250 white supremacist groups have been banned from Facebook and the company is working with law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Curran said less than $10,000 was raised for the convoy protest on Facebook.

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