For a violence-free future, we need to address online hate speech

“It needs to stop.”

Minister Catherine McKenna said it best last year when she described an incident of hate speech she experienced on the job.

Unfortunately, hate speech, especially online, hasn't abated. It's worsened.

In fact, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Nations is reporting that online hate speech against Asian, Black, Indigenous, Jewish, Muslim and other minority groups has grown significantly. In the wake of the global crisis, an AI-start-up L1ght found that hate speech on Twitter directed towards China and people of Chinese descent has increased by 900% since the end of March.

And many times online hate speech is gendered, targeting trans and cis women and non-binary people disproportionately.

That's why for us at YWCA Canada, as we work towards eliminating gender-based violence, we see how critical it is to address online hate speech. It's an infringement of our human rights and we all have a role to play in stopping it. If left unchecked, this hatred will remain a corrosive force in our society and we risk losing the incredible contributions and perspectives of so many communities.

In my work with YWCA, from coast to coast to coast, I've had many conversations with young women and non-binary people about the emotional toll online hate speech takes on them. They tell me about the challenges on their mental health, feeling socially isolated and also feeling scared to engage civically and in their community. This is not okay.

As more of us spend time online to adhere to physical distancing requirements, the civic square is now virtual. So we need our online spaces to be safer as we engage, debate and share our thoughts and ideas.

Online hate evolves as our platforms to connect and engage change, so how can we keep up? More importantly, are we capturing what online hate speech is in real time?

For example, social media over the last 10 years has looked very different with the popularization of platforms like Instagram and TikTok. With new features and ways that people are abusing social media platforms, we also need to develop different means to address hate speech on Facebook, Twitter and beyond.

Part of the challenge has been that the communities most affected have not been adequately engaged in not only identifying what hate speech looks like but also how to counter the harms through the development of tools, policies and organizational actions.

That's exactly what YWCA Canada hopes to address through our Block Hate: Building Resilience Against Online Hate Speech initiative, supported by Public Safety Canada.

We can't do this work alone or in silos. We need everyone stepping up from government, to tech companies to organizations that work directly with the communities most affected. But how do we do this?

From the work I've done and what I've seen on the ground – we need three components. First, we need coordinated action that understands the ongoing lived realities of people most affected by engaging diverse communities. Next, we need to build community-led and validated tools that increases the capacity for all of us to act. Finally, we need to raise awareness about this issue and the tools we can use to stop it.

This week, as the Canadian and global YWCA movement celebrates Week Without Violence, I urge all of you think about how you can be part of stopping online hate. That's exactly what we need to create a violence-free future.

Maya Roy is the CEO of YWCA Canada, the nation's largest and oldest gender equity organization. YWCA Canada launched its Block Hate: Building Resilience Against Online Hate Speech project. Follow on Twitter at @YWCA_Canada to learn more.

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