‘Tip of the iceberg’: Why Canada’s online hate-crime data doesn’t tell the full story

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For the first time, Statistics Canada has revealed data on hate crimes committed online.

It comes as concerns surrounding online hate around the globe have reached new heights in the aftermath of deadly attacks, many of which can be traced back to the internet.

The report, published Tuesday, included a brief section on online hate, explaining that between 2010 and 2017 there were 364 police-reported cyber hate crimes in Canada. The statistics include only online hate that was reported to police, then found to be a criminal violation.

READ MORE: Hate crimes against Jewish Canadians keep rising — anti-Semitism isn’t just history

Warren Silver, an analyst at StatsCan, explained to Global News the government agency decided to look into the “intersection of when hate crimes were also cybercrime-related” given the growing discourse about online hate.

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Cyber hate-crime data laid out in the report mirrors findings in other parts of the report — noting the same groups are targeted in person as online.

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Muslims encountered the most online hate at 17 per cent, that was followed by hate based on sexual orientation at 15 per cent. Fourteen per cent of the cyber hate crime reports were aimed at the Jewish population, and 10 were targeted at black Canadians.

Uttering threats, at 35 per cent, was the most common type of reported cyber hate crime, followed by public incitement of hatred (18 per cent) and criminal harassment at 15 per cent.

Online hate crimes accounted for 11 per cent of overall hate crimes.

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Gaps in reporting

While numbers offer some insight into the state of hate online in Canada, what they really reflect is how little we know.

Amira Elghawaby of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network noted that 364 police-reported cyber hate crimes over eight years is a very low number.

“I think what we really need to know is that the number is really, very, very small,” she told Global News, comparing the statistics to a recent poll that indicated much higher numbers about online hate.

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In January, a poll of 1,519 Canadians by Léger Marketing for the Association for Canadian Studies, found that 60 per cent of Canadians has seen “hateful or racist speech on the internet.”

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Elghawaby said one reason for the discrepancy is that Canadians who see or experience hate aren’t reporting it to police.

“I think that is frankly because a lot of people aren’t necessarily reporting what’s going on online,” she said.

Part of the problem, Elghawaby explained, is that there is very little education among Canadians on how to react to online hate, including how to report it to police.

“There is generally a lack of information and education, and law enforcement is really failing to communicate to the public,” she said.

When hate is reported, Elghawaby said not all police forces across the country follow the same standards of recording information. That can cause gaps in the information Statistics Canada produces.

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“We really are not aware of how seriously police are taking online threats,” she said, explaining that she has encountered situations in her work where it has taken an “incredible amount of effort to get police to respond and press charges.”

Pressing charges for online hate is also tough, which makes the Statistics Canada data even more limited when it comes to providing a full picture of online hate in Canada.

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Silver noted the report only includes online hate that was deemed to be “criminal violations.”

“So there might be many more incidents that come to the attention of police, where maybe the victim felt that this was a threat or criminal harassment, but it did not meet the Criminal Code definition of threats or harassment,” Silver said.

Laying criminal charges

Elghawaby explained that the threshold for online hate speech to be considered a criminal violation is quite high.

The Criminal Code of Canada includes terms related to hate speech in these sections: Section 318, Section 319 (1) and Section 319 (2). These areas outline the offence of “advocating genocide” against a group, the “public incitement of hatred,” and the “wilful promotion of hatred.”

READ MORE: Canada’s criminal code doesn’t mention ‘hate crime’ — so how do we hold people accountable?

But to actually lay charges on these sections is difficult, especially when they need the approval of a provincial attorney general.

“It just seems like there is this lack of co-ordination between law enforcement, crown attorneys and the attorney general on the topic of prosecuting online hate crimes,” Elghawaby explained, adding that sorting out the process hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves.

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But online hate crimes have become the centre of attention for advocacy groups, who are pushing the government and social media giants to take action.

“Too often nowadays, this incitement [of hate] is taking place on the internet and it is influencing others that unfortunately take violent and drastic actions and that’s what really needs to stop,” Michael Mostyn, the CEO of Jewish organization B’nai Brith Canada, said this week.

READ MORE: Social media bans, fines and penalties — how countries attempt to combat hate after tragedy

The National Council of Canadian Muslims has also been pushing for better data — and more action — on online hate.

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In a press release following StatsCan’s report, the organization said it was “encouraged” by the inclusion of online hate crimes but that much more work is still needed to shed light on the issue.

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