February 23, 2021
As the problems of political polarization, extremism, and hate speech increasingly impact public life in the United States, various sectors have responded in ways unique to their own circumstances and institutions. Social media companies, in particular, have become contentious sites of debate over what constitutes the line between hate speech and free speech. Likewise, university campuses — long heralded as a pristine marketplace of ideas — are now facing increasing pressure from stakeholders on all sides to regulate faculty speech and guest speaker activity. Experiences from these sectors may help leaders in philanthropy and grantmaking as they navigate these debates in their own spaces.
Over the last five years, the technology industry has been propelled to the center of the hotly contested public debate over free speech, hate speech, and public safety. Operating in a largely self-regulated environment, tech companies dedicate extensive resources to this issue while continuously developing their own policies to address the problem. Likewise, government agencies both in the United States and abroad have explored legislative and regulatory interventions as a solution. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have taken various steps in formulating and updating policies and procedures to moderate content and increase user literacy, while also providing various levels of transparency to outside observers and advocates. Meanwhile, multi-stakeholder coalitions such as the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism and the Christchurch Call have brought actors from multiple sectors together to help manage the problems of violent extremism and hate speech online.
The university has long been considered the bastion of free speech and open debate. However, cultural politics and public safety concerns have tested this presumption in recent years. Observers point to attempts by fringe and extremist groups to provide a ‘scholarly’ veneer to otherwise hateful ideologies to normalize and mainstream them. As such there are increasing calls on academics to hold accountable their peers, publishers, and universities in order to protect academic integrity and scholarship in an era when free speech is misused to silence the pursuit of scholarly rigor and ethical engagement. At the same time, another set of critics are sounding the alarm of what they call “cancel culture” — the purported attempt to silence voices from the right as form of draconian censorship antithetical to democratic values.
How university officials and social media executives navigate these debates through actionable policies and practices may be illustrative for leaders in philanthropy and the grantmaking community.
In the News:
Ganesh, Bharath. “How Biden Plans on Countering Online Extremism.” Foreign Policy. January 28, 2021.
In response to the January 6 Capitol attacks, Bharath Ganesh contextualizes the incoming Biden administration position in the fight against online extremist ideology. Ganesh highlights the vital role of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT), a joint effort by Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, and YouTube to counter extremist messaging on their platforms. The author also points to the collaborative efforts that have taken place between governments and the private sector such as the Christchurch Call, a global network of stakeholders dedicated to combatting online extremism, formed in the wake of the 2019 massacres of Muslims in New Zealand. He urges the incoming administration to build on the momentum of these new initiatives to take aggressive action against online extremism.
Ghosh, Dipayan. “For Facebook, It’s All About the Bottom Line.” Foreign Policy. January 8, 2021.
Dipayan Ghosh, former Obama technology and economic policy advisor, dispels common myths about free speech used by tech companies such as Facebook. Rather than discussing content moderation policies and related user guidelines, the article points to the financial incentives and commercial goals of dominating the social media market as Facebook’s main priority. The author positions Zuckerberg’s engagement in public conversations on these issues as a calculated business strategy to keep Facebook at the center of the conversation while policy changes make very slow progress.
Paul, Katie. “Twitter Expands Hate Speech Rules to Include Race, Ethnicity.” Reuters. December 3, 2020.
This article reports on the latest expansion in Twitter’s policy barring hateful speech to include “language that dehumanizes people on the basis of race, ethnicity and national origin.” This update comes as a further definition to its previous rule on speech that generally dehumanizes others. The addition of these subcategories allows Twitter to advance their action against online hate speech, and ultimately creates a safer environment on their platform. Advocacy organization like Color of Change commended Twitter for this expansion.
Wang, Amy. “Spotify Is Officially Policing the Music It Hosts.” Rolling Stone. June 25, 2018.
This article reports on Spotify, an online music streaming platform, codifying new policy against content that “expressly and principally promotes, advocates or incites hatred or violence.” To better manage content on its platform and move past its previous hit and miss attempts of removing white nationalist music, the tech company partnered with rights advocacy groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center to identify hateful bands. Additionally, the policy allows Spotify to exercise editorial power over who demonstrate hateful conduct without extending that into their content.
Nonprofit and NGO Reports:
Facebook. “Facebook Civil Right Audit.” July 8, 2020.
This audit on internal civil rights practices was commissioned by Facebook in response to public scrutiny around organizational hate speech policies along with encouragement of the civil rights community and some members of Congress. Recognized by various actors as a benchmark document, the report is intended to help the company identify, prioritize, and implement sustained and comprehensive improvements to the way it impacts civil rights.
Muslim Advocates & Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. “Complicit: The Human Cost of Facebook’s Disregard for Muslim Life.” October 21, 2020.
This is a report by Muslim Advocates and the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism argues that Facebook has played an instrumental role in enabling anti-Muslim violence across the globe. The publication tracks cases of the platform’s support of anti-Muslim authoritarian regimes and its anti-Muslim senior staff. Additionally, it points to Facebook’s continued disregard of these issues regardless of various campaigns and compelling advocacy efforts.
Hankes, Keegan. “Move Slow and Break Everything.” Southern Poverty Law Center. February 20, 2019.
Pointing to countless instances of hate speech leading to violence, this piece by the Southern Poverty Law Center highlights the divide between tech company leaders, and the toxicity the users on their platforms have to endure. The advocacy group specifically points to numerous cases of inconsistent enforcement by social media platforms. Here, SPLC frames the matter as a public health issue requiring multi-sector and community-based solutions.
Badiei, Farzaneh. “Govern Fast and Break Things — A Commentary by Farzaneh Badiei.” Yale Law School. December 3, 2020.
In this commentary piece, law scholar and activist Farzaneh Badiei outlines solutions for the tech sector’s governance crisis. To combat hate on their platforms, the Director of the Social Media Governance Initiative encourages platforms to establish governance mechanisms, informed by various governance strategies, such as procedural justice. Her plan of action includes outcome-oriented solutions, a reform of previously recommended top-down approaches, along with an overall proactive method that avoids current tech reactionary trends.
Alkiviadou, Natalie. “Hate Speech on Social Media Networks: Towards a Regulatory Framework?.” Information & Communications Technology Law. 2019. 28-1.
Law professor Natalie Alkiviadou looks at the issue of tackling hate speech on social media networks. In this article, she notes the weakness of internal policies regulating illegal hate speech on platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Although these companies have signed a Code of Conduct on illegal hate speech with the European Commission, Alkiviadou explains that due to issues such as multiple jurisdictions, mirror sites, and other technical and legal complications, the actual task of regulating online speech is difficult to implement.
Schieb, Carla, and Mike Preuss. “Governing Hate Speech by Means of Counter Speech on Facebook.” 66th International Communication Association. 2016.
This article by communication scholars Carla Schieb and Mike Preuss explores questions around the efficiency of counter speech, understood broadly as the use of strategic and targeting messaging to refute, contradict, or otherwise diffuse the power of unwanted speech. To do so, the authors set up a computational simulation model that is used to answer general questions concerning the effects that hinder or support the impact of counter speech. Based on their findings, Schieb and Preuss argue that the defining factors for the success of counter speech are the proportion of the hate speech faction and the type of influence the counter speakers can exert on the undecided.
Prepared by Nagham El Karhili, Research and Program Manager at Horizon Forum