Online Hate and Good Governance - Institute on Governance

Online Hate and Good Governance

2 minute read

Honda. Levi’s. Lululemon. MEC. Unilever. All of these brands have something in common: they are united as part of the “Hit Pause on Hate” campaign and have committed to boycott their paid Facebook advertising until the social media giant takes more steps to prevent hate speech/hateful content on its platform. The boycott has hit the company hard, as stock declines reduced Facebook’s market value by more than US$50 billion.

Facebook released a publicly accessible report in February 2020 that stated “companies are intermediaries, not speakers” and that “holding internet companies liable for the speech of their users could lead to the end of these services altogether.” This leaves the organization with a moral obligation, a user-demanded need, and now a market expectation, to regulate the content shared by their users.

For those that attended IOG’s March Policy Crunch, Navigating the “wild west” of the internet from social media to digital governance, you heard that social media – while in many cases building a broader sense of community and encouraging the exchange of ideas – has also created a perfect storm of fake news, micro targeting, bots, and hate speech. Panelists reflected on the need for federal legislation that will govern this social media storm. The “Hit Pause on Hate” campaign, led by civil society, has brought the private sector into this conversation, in a big way, as corporate global brands hold their fellow big brand peers accountable to conduct themselves according to the norms of an equal and inclusive society.

This scenario brings about important governance questions, many of which are linked to the IOG’s principles of good governance:

  1. Legitimacy and Voice: Laws in many countries, including Canada (Criminal Code 319), define hate speech. But who gets to decide what is hate speech across jurisdictions in an online environment? Good governance needs the voices of citizens, many of whom will have diverse views on any particular topic. Who decides?
  2. Accountability: Who has the legitimacy to regulate and police hate speech online? How will platforms be held accountable?
  3. Fairness: Who enforces the fine line between free speech and hate speech online? When does it become censorship? How do you ensure that the line is fairly applied?

An increasingly digital world demands more robust digital governance, policies and regulation. Weaving these into complex social issues will likely be a significant policy challenge for years to come. As technology advances faster and the demand for virtual presence increases exponentially over the current regulatory systems that pre-date the internet, government digital regulatory policy needs to be unplugged and plugged back in again.

What the boycotting has made clear: there is an urgent need for digital governance that establishes behavioural norms and expectations for online conduct. While we might be far away from a government regulated policy on online hate speech, change may come sooner, as citizens advocate for norm-setting against the online epidemic of hate. The question: is this a fair, legitimate and accountable approach to digital good governance?

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