sectors deal

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.


Prepared by Nagham El Karhili, Research and Program Manager at Horizon Forum

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