Online threats and hate speech against politicians is mounting, officials say

Online hate and politics are clashing with increasing frequency as pandemic stress mounts.

Just one example is Quebec politician Christine St-Pierre, who received an avalanche of insults after she posted online that she received a COVID-19 vaccine.

She was called crazy, a liar, dangerous to others. Some commented about her hair, while others offered sarcastic condolences.

While it’s important for the public to hold politicians accountable and express criticisms, particularly during a global pandemic, some say personal threats and intimidation should never be part of the job.

However, they are popping up more and more on social media feeds, and the fear is whether these threats will continue offline.

Over the past three weeks in Quebec, at least four mayors have said that vicious online attacks are part of what is pushing them out of public office. The comments have been over issues ranging from COVID-19 measures to garbage collection and roadwork.

“Having attack against us, it's normal, we're elected people and it come with the job,” Philipe Roy, the mayor of the Town of Mount-Royal, said. “But when it touch member of your family, sometimes you just say well maybe enough is enough.”

The province’s premier also went online to say he’d had enough. Francois Legault recently wrote on Facebook that every one of his posts now leads to “an avalanche of aggressive, sometimes even violent, comments and slurs, obscenities and even threats.”

He called anonymous posters cowardly, adding that while it is normal to be criticized in politics, he was instructing his team to delete off any abusive comments and conspiracy theories and report threats to the police.

Heritage Minister Steven Guilbault has been a victim of similar comments and is planning to table legislation about online hate. He has proposed defining five categories of illegal online activities and create a regulator to handle online hate specifically. The legislation would not address misinformation online, but would focus on hate speech on the internet.

Critics warn against any law limiting freedom of expression on a forum designed to give all a voice, while others say that freedom of speech shouldn’t be used as an excuse to abuse and threaten others.

“Dealing with business model of social media is what government can do,” said Marie Lemensch, who studies online hate against women.

It would be a necessary crackdown, said Suzanne Roy, mayor of Sainte-Julie, a town on Montreal’s south side, and head of the union representing municipal leaders now campaigning for respectful debate.

She says tough criticism is necessary, questioning leaders and their decisions is part of healthy democracy, but that intimidation and threats are not.