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Interview with Mathieu Marion from #JeSuisLàQuébec #JeSuisLàCanada

In these challenging times, we are seeing communities come together to support their most vulnerable. Unfortunately, we are also seeing certain communities become the target of hateful attacks online and off.

Mathieu Marion, a member of francophone group #JeSuisLàCanada, shared his perspectives on combating hateful, false and misleading information through counterspeak, COVID-19, and why what happens in digital spaces matters in the physical world.

Can you describe what the counterspeak movement is and why groups like #JeSuisLà are important?
I think the counterspeak movement aims to neutralize social media’s multiplier effect on all kinds of hateful information that impacts our ability to get along and harms the health of our rule of law and our democracy. These networks give higher visibility to hateful rhetoric that can influence public opinion by polarizing it into extreme political positions and even provoke attacks like the massacre at the Sainte-Foy mosque in January 2017. So, we have to react and do our part as community members.

Unfortunately, Facebook (to cite just one example) very rarely removes hateful comments or statuses after one or more complaints and when they do, it’s random. Certain media in Québec (like CBC or La Presse) have recently started to moderate their Facebook pages to remove hate speech. But the situation isn’t ideal. There’s still work to do.

However, whether it’s on Facebook, Twitter, or other platforms, responding to a hateful comment isn’t effective: the discussion that follows never convinces the original poster to change their opinion and it draws attention to the hateful comment, rather than minimizing its reach.

And people often get worked up and might end up replying with insults, risking getting their own account blocked if Facebook says what they wrote violates its community standards. So, it’s not worth the time and it actually does the opposite of what’s intended. Plus, extended discussions with extremists on social media has an impact on our mental well-being.

That’s why the #JeSuisLà tactic seems more promising. When you ignore other hateful comments on a thread and leave a positive comment using facts and reasoning, plus hashtags like #JeSuisLàCanada and #JeSuisLàQuébec, your comment will get likes that will push the thread higher in the FB algorithm, making most of the hateful comments invisible and drawing the attention of new people who view the thread away from those comments.

We’ve noticed that comments with these tags rarely prompt hateful responses. The tags seem to dissuade people.

Why did you decide to get involved with the #JeSuisLà movement? Were you inspired by a particular experience, comment, or article?
I learned about #IAmHere in this Guardian article. After that, I was able to find and join the Canadian group #IAmHereCanada. I then got permission to use #JeSuisLàQuébec for a francophone team.

Given the political context in Québec, using just #JeSuisLàCanada would have had a negative effect because it would have been easy for nationalist critics to dismiss a comment with that hashtag as “federalist.” Unfortunately, it seems difficult to attract members for this francophone group at the moment.

From what you’ve observed, what topics are most likely to attract problematic comments?
In Québec, it’s topics around secularism and the Muslim headscarf that attract the most hateful comments because of the vigorous public debate on questions such as reasonable accommodations that led to the Bouchard-Taylor report in 2008, the Parti Québécois “charter” in 2013-2014 and more recently, the Québec ban on religious symbols. Another topic to add is immigrants entering Canada unauthorized at Roxham Road on the border with the United States. Most of the immigrants are of Haitian or African descent and they’re targeted in racist reactions.

Immigration in general is a hot topic because Quebecers in some age groups and regions are afraid that their people and culture will disappear and see immigrants as a risk to their survival. Reducing the number of immigrants is a recurring topic currently. Multiculturalism is also often criticized because it’s seen as a policy aimed at destroying Québec, rather than respecting the rights of minorities and helping them integrate.

Other topics like climate change lead to outbursts that target Greta Thunberg, young people ecologists, etc., rather than minorities.

In the context of COVID-19, what has changed in terms of the involvement of participants and/or the content that you see online in the news and comment sections?
At first, COVID-19 had a calming effect: the main columnists that feed xenophobia in the province turned their attention elsewhere. But for some time now, fear is pushing people to look for scapegoats for the crisis and media content that mentions Jewish, Indigenous, or Muslim people often receives many racist comments.

In terms of dangerous, hateful, misleading or poorly informed remarks, what action would you like to see from government? Civil society? Ordinary community members?
I don’t really think the government can do much without running the risk of getting accused of censorship. However, certain politicians — like Maxime Bernier — should stop adding fuel to the fire in order to gain sympathy and votes. Others need to become more aware of the reality on social media and the abuse that happens there. I would say that the first issue is having independent media, an essential condition for the health of our democracy. They have financial difficulties and the government should find a way to finance them better.

In Québec, there are a number of organizations doing effective work, like the Commission des Droits de la Personne et des Droits de la Jeunesse and the Ligue des Droits et Libertés. Here again, the financial means to do good work should be provided. Unfortunately, the Quebec Press Council is not a very effective tool for countering fake news and hate-filled columns.

As for regular community members? I’d love to see more of them join #JeSuisLàCanada!