6 steps Canadians can take when they spot hate speech online

Addressing online hate speech is everyone's responsibility, one expert says. Getty Images

Addressing hate speech online can be tricky and sometimes dangerous, but that doesn’t mean comments should go ignored.

In rare cases, they can transform into real-life violence, such as the case of a Portland, Ore., man who attacked Muslim women on a train in May, before killing two men who came to their defence.

The suspect, Jeremy Joseph Christian, had been posting Islamophobic and anti-Semitic comments online.  He posted a fake news story of Hillary Clinton wearing a hijab in May 2016 and wrote: “I’ll knock that Hijab off her faster than you can say Burka in Pig Latin if she steps in Rip City.”

According to HuffPost, Christian also shared memes that depicted  Jews during the Holocaust.

WATCH: Man charged in deadly Portland stabbing goes on hate-filled rant in court

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Man charged in deadly Portland stabbing goes on hate-filled rant in court

One expert says there’s more Canadians can do to make sure online hate is stopped before it worsens.

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“We know what these experiences are fairly common,” said Matthew Johnson, who works with online literacy group MediaSmarts in Ottawa. He added that it’s “everyone’s responsibility” to flag such content. Here’s how he says Canadians can do it in a safe way.

1. Educate those using the internet

Teaching those using the internet how to recognize hate is imperative, said Johnson. Hate comments can often be disguised as educational material, but contain biased or false information. This information tries to change and often radicalize a user’s views, he said. Education can happen in several ways, such as through schools and reading materials.

2. Flag content to social media sites

Johnson says social media sites have a duty to encourage users to flag harmful content, meaning they should have clear options listed on their websites, and transparent policies on how they deal with hate speech. Johnson says larger sites, such as Facebook, may not be able to address each concern, which can often deter people from filing reports.

“[Users] just don’t have faith in what’s going to happen,” he says, adding it’s up to the sites to fix that.

3. Speak out

Directly responding to the person posting hate comments isn’t always the best idea, says Johnson, but speaking out is still important. If the abuse is occurring on an online page or forum, contact the administrator. If someone is bullying classmates or peers online, contact a school teacher or principal.

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4. Appeal to the larger community

If you need to speak out online, it’s better to post messages addressed to the broader community rather than a specific person, Johnson suggests.

“Confronting them is not the best idea,” he says. “You’re unlikely to change the mind of the person making the comments unless you have a personal connection.”

Instead write a post to the group in general, urging everyone to maintain openness and respect for others.

5. Comfort the victims

 Those affected by hateful comments may feel hurt or even fearful for their safety. Johnson says reaching out to them and comforting them will empower them to seek help if needed.

6. Contact law enforcement

“Hate content is very narrowly defined” in the Criminal Code of Canada, which means charges are rare, Johnson said. But contacting police can be helpful for several reasons.  They can provide advice on how to handle the situation, resources you may be unaware of, and keep an eye on things.

And finally, Johnson adds that several of these steps can be taken at once, rather than one at a time. For more tips on how to handle online hate, you can visit MediaSmarts’ guide.

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