VANCOUVER — Noor Fadel says most people assume that the night she was attacked by a racist man on a SkyTrain in Vancouver in 2017 was the worst night of her life.
In fact, the nights that followed were even more harrowing, as her social-media post about the assault went viral and she received a torrent of hateful and threatening messages.
"People think that hiding behind a screen and saying something won't have an impact. It does. It has a huge impact on people," she said.
"That one message that you may think could not hurt someone, it's just a simple message, it can actually be the message to ruin someone's entire day, if not someone's life."
Fadel, 22, is sharing her story in support of a campaign launched by the Canadian Race Relations Foundation and YWCA Canada to highlight the consequences of social-media hate.
The #BlockHate campaign coincides with a separate, unrelated survey by the Association for Canadian Studies, which sheds new light on racism in Canada both online and offline.
To mark the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on Sunday, the association commissioned Leger Marketing to ask Canadians about their views on racism.
The survey found that seven in 10 respondents are worried about the degree of racism in the country, a concern held by three in four participating women and people between 18 and 34.
One in two survey participants who identify as visible minorities have felt attacked by hateful comments on social media, and nearly six in 10 said they have witnessed hatred online.
Those who were exposed to hateful internet comments were more likely to be worried about racism, said association president Jack Jedwab.
"It's not so much the violent incidents that we've seen over the past year, which have attracted considerable media attention, that are fuelling people's concerns about racism," he said.
"It's also the extent to which people are witnessing this phenomenon expand in social media."
The survey also suggested that one in three Canadians admit to holding a negative view of Muslims, one in five have a negative view of Indigenous people and one in seven state a negative view of Chinese people, Jews or immigrants.
People who have never met any members of those groups are more likely to think negatively of them, suggesting that social media is playing a role once again, said Jedwab.
"They get information from social media about these groups ... and the outcome, unfortunately, is that they hold negative or prejudicial views."
The survey of 1,514 Canadians was conducted online between March 12 and 14 using web panels. The polling industry’s professional body, the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association, says online surveys cannot be assigned a margin of error as they are not a random sample and therefore are not necessarily representative of the whole population.
It also suggested Atlantic Canadians and Ontarians are most worried about the degree of racism in Canada, and that Canadians are more concerned about racism in the country and province than in their neighbourhoods.
The findings ring true for Fadel, who said she encountered racism many times in Vancouver before the incident on the SkyTrain in December 2017, when she was 18.
She said a man approached her and yelled that he was going to kill her and all Muslims before grabbing her head and forcing it toward his crotch.
He then struck her across the face, prompting another transit rider to push him off her.
Pierre Belzan, 46, received a suspended sentence and two years probation in 2018 after pleading guilty to assault and threatening to cause death or bodily harm.
Fadel said she took to social media after the incident because she was sick of hearing that racism in Canada doesn't exist. While her Facebook post received thousands of supportive comments, the hateful ones stood out to her the most.
The messages included comments telling the Canadian-born woman to "go back to her country," calling her sexist and racist slurs, accusing her of lying and threatening to kill her.
She said she only realized while isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic that she is still traumatized by the messages, years later, and she is still working on healing.
The #BlockHate campaign launches Monday and aims to encourage regulation to minimize the volume and frequency at which online hate speech and racism is spread.
Online hate is often a precursor to violent, in-person attacks against marginalized people, noted Mohammed Hashim, director of the Canadian Foundation for Race Relations.
People with hateful views will likely always exist, but social media has handed them the biggest microphone they’ve ever had, Hashim said.
“What we’re looking to do is to constrict that. We understand that it’s going to exist, but let it remain in the fringes of society,” he said.
Regulations must ensure that hateful posts can be taken down quickly to decelerate their spread, and include deterrents so posters experience consequences, he said.
Hashim also pointed out that logging off is not an option for victims of online attacks now that everyone's personal and professional lives are increasingly virtual, especially during COVID-19.
"If we don't deal with this now, this is only going to get worse," he said.
"If we leave it the way it is, I want people to think about: what is the world that we're creating for the next generation?"
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 21, 2021.
Laura Dhillon Kane, The Canadian Press