Online Disinformation and Harmful Speech: Dangers for Democratic Participation and Possible Policy Responses

Journal of Parliamentary & Political Law 13: 215-232, 2019

18 Pages Posted: 23 Jun 2020

See all articles by Chris Tenove

Chris Tenove

University of British Columbia (UBC) - Department of Political Science

Heidi Tworek

University of British Columbia (UBC) - Faculty of Arts

Date Written: February 1, 2019

Abstract

In advance of the 2019 federal election, the Canadian government began to address challenges posed by posed by new digital technologies and the rapidly-evolving information system. These policy responses include revisions to Canada’s election law and the creation of a federal task force to monitor and respond to online interference during an election campaign. However, much can still be done to uphold the communications element of electoral integrity, both by government and by other stakeholders including journalists, social media companies, and civil society organizations.

This article focuses on two related challenges: disinformation and harmful speech online. By ‘‘disinformation,” we refer to intentionally false or deceptive communication to advance political ends. We use the term ‘‘harmful speech” to refer to communication that is abusive, threatening, denigrating, or that incites violence. We clarify the risks that disinformation and harmful speech pose to democratic engagement and democratic processes, and synthesize current research about their creation, circulation, and political impacts. We then examine the current regulatory context in Canada (at the time of writing, February 1, 2019) and highlight gaps.

We conclude with policy recommendations that would enable the Canadian government, social media platforms and journalism organizations to better understand and reduce the threats to democracy posed by disinformation and harmful speech. These are partly drawn from policies that other countries are pursuing. We call for a three-pronged policy framework: 1) greater enforcement of existing laws, 2) regulation to encourage and help social media platforms address abuses; and 3) improved civil society measures, especially by journalism organizations.

Previously published in the 2019 Special Issue of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law entitled The Informed Citizens’ Guide to Elections: Current Developments in Democracy (Toronto: Thomson Reuters Canada, 2019).

Keywords: electoral integrity; disinformation; harmful speech; democratic participation; social media; media regulation

Suggested Citation

Tenove, Chris and Tworek, Heidi, Online Disinformation and Harmful Speech: Dangers for Democratic Participation and Possible Policy Responses (February 1, 2019). Journal of Parliamentary & Political Law 13: 215-232, 2019, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3613166

Chris Tenove (Contact Author)

University of British Columbia (UBC) - Department of Political Science ( email )

Vancouver, V6T 1Z1
Canada

Heidi Tworek

University of British Columbia (UBC) - Faculty of Arts ( email )

United States

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