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Rebuilding Canada’s Public Square: Response to the Government of Canada’s Proposed Approach to Address Harmful Content Online

September 2021

Rebuilding Canada’s Public Square


Sam Andrey

Sam Andrey


Alexander Rand

Mohammed (Joe) Masoodi

Mohammed (Joe) Masoodi

Karim Bardeesy

Karim Bardeesy


  • Nour Abdelaal
  • Sumit Bhatia
  • Charles Finlay
  • Stephanie Tran
  • Yuan Stevens



Executive Summary

Social media is in many ways the new public square — where most Canadians now connect with friends and family, and engage in civic discourse. It has become increasingly clear that this new square is having a toxic influence on our society and democracy: hate speech and harassment targeting marginalized people; disinformation enabling extremism and conspiracy theories to flourish; and online activities fueling real-world violence and exploitation.

Over the past three years, we conducted national representative surveys with Canadian residents on these important issues. Key findings include:

  • More than one in three Canadian residents report encountering harmful content online at least weekly, such as hate speech and violent material.
  • That figure rises to about half of those who regularly use social media for news and current events.
  • Racialized Canadians are 50% more likely than non-racialized Canadians to encounter racist content online and report content to platforms for being hateful.
  • Canadians do not trust social media platforms to act in the public’s best interest. In fact, they are less trusted than oil companies, telecommunication providers and news media.
  • 71% of Canadians want the government to intervene in social media companies in 2021 — up from 60% in 2019.
  • 75% of Canadians support requirements for platforms to delete illegal content in a timely manner such as hate speech, harassment and incitement to violence.

These results underscore that Canadians are concerned about what they experience on social media, and are looking for action to help address the harms produced. The unique reach and speed of social media platforms call for unique regulatory solutions aimed at countering the spread of online harms, while at the same time protecting Canadians’ rights and freedoms, including our right to free expression. The Government of Canada has announced its intention to introduce new legislation to address some of these harms, namely: hate speech; terrorist and violent content; child sexual exploitation; and nonconsensual sharing of intimate images.