Don’t use post-9/11 vocab in future online regulations

Published in The Hill Times on February 23, 2022

By Steven Zhou

One constant and jarring example of someone who was taking part in the Ottawa convoy with a history of hate is Pat King, whose 200,000-plus Facebook followers helped turn the convoy into a national item.

King did a live stream in 2019 where he said the election that year “ain’t gonna matter unless you wanna change your national language to Chinese or Mandarin or Hebrew.” This is after he became infamous for a “white genocide” rant.

Other convoy supporters loudly hoped for violence: maybe the convoy can birth Canada’s Jan. 6, referring to the storming of Capitol Hill last year.

The ability of far-right actors to organize, grow, and publicly show force reflects how a lack of online regulations fuels the rise of intolerance both inside and outside of cyberspace.

Just a year before a gunman killed six Muslim worshippers in a Quebec City mosque, media research company Cision documented how intolerant speech on social media rose 600 percent among Canadians between November 2015 and November 2016.

Muslim advocacy groups in particular have called for better regulation of online spaces to protect their communities and others, while also being on the receiving end of too much heavy-handedness and even discrimination from law enforcement. It’s a rather useful experience to draw upon while trying to strike the right balance between better online regulations and protections of civil liberties.

The federal government recently presented community groups with legal frameworks for possible future online regulations. In the summary guide of the government’s approach is a section that includes vague language about referring certain kinds of “potentially terrorist and violent extremist content” to law enforcement or CSIS, on a case-by-case basis.

On the surface that might sound reasonable, until one considers how broad and vaguely defined terms like “terrorist activity,” “terrorist content,” or “terrorism” (all used in the proposed regulations) are clearly derived from a post-9/11 language that has disproportionately helped criminalize, prosecute, and incarcerate Muslims in the past 20 years.

Ottawa can’t risk worsening that pattern in the name of national security, particularly in a time when the Emergencies Act has been invoked. Marginalized communities exercising their right to advocate and speak must be protected from that kind of fire power, should the security establishment aim it their way at some point.

The securitization of Muslims, who are enduring online hate and mass murder, is made possible by a vocabulary that helps conflate community or individual advocacy with extremism. That’s the sad truth about our post-9/11 past. We have to move away from it and not double down on the same positions.

People who want to advocate for or talk openly about Palestine, Afghanistan, or other global issues or movements shouldn’t have to worry about a visit by CSIS or the RCMP.

Muslims across the country have gotten plenty of these visits, including university students with zero connections to terrorism. This happened so much that groups set up a hotline for students to call for help when CSIS visited.

There’s a clear difference between spirited discussion and advocacy over hot-button topics and growing hateful spaces that need to be regulated. Just look at what some mass shooters consumed as part of their online diet.

The judge who sentenced the Quebec City gunman pointed to how the latter binged anti-refugee material. His lawyer confirmed that he read and watched Islamophobic content, mostly to help justify his actions.

Similar mass murderers, from the 2019 Christchurch shooter who killed almost 50 Muslim worshippers, to the 2011 Norway attacker who killed more than 70 people, all published online manifestos replete with Islamophobic sources, rhetoric, and memes. The latter’s manifesto helped inspire the former.

The scapegoating of swarthy foreigners and dodgy Muslims have helped grow entire online ecosystems for far-right actors eager to blame all sorts of problems on an external Other. This has helped fuel murder thanks to a lack of online regulations.

But future rules in this Wild West must be cognizant of recent history. Inherently broad terms like “terrorism” have been weaponized against Muslim Canadians like Maher Arar or Omar Khadr who spent years being tortured in foreign prisons.

There’s no reason for Canada to extend this dark tradition by recycling the same muddy language in laws that are supposed to protect its citizens from hate, intolerance, and violence.