By Alissa Black

Why We Invested: Center for Technology and Society

In the past 18 months there has been an alarming rise in incident of hate speech, intimidation and violence around the world targeting virtually all ethnic, racial and religious minorities, as well as refugees, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, those with disabilities, and women.

We are being pushed towards a dangerous tipping point where hateful rhetoric is becoming normalised -- targeting specific groups and painting them as threatening, unwelcome, or abnormal. This is fuelled not only by some political and public leaders who advocate for and exploit these harmful and divisive acts, but also through technology which disseminates, amplifies and gives false legitimacy to this hateful content.

In particular in the United States:

  • 18% of Americans (ages 18+) have been subjected to particularly severe forms of harassment online (e.g., physical threats, prolonged harassment, sexual harassment, or stalking)

  • Young adults (ages 18-29) are especially likely to encounter online harassment; 67% have been subject to some type of online harassment and 41% have experienced severe forms of harassment

  • 21% of women ages 18-29 report being sexually harassed online, more than double the number of men in the same age group

  • It starts young. 28% of students (ages 10-18) report being cyberbullied 

And while the prevalence of Identity-based hate speech is emblematic of the renewed debate about national identity -- who belongs and who does not, who is American and who is not -- this is not limited to the US. It is a global epidemic that requires global solutions and action today.

At Omidyar Network, as we are the philanthropic investment firm established by Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, we believe that technology and market forces can be powerful levers for positive change. At the same time it has become apparent that technology, and specifically social media platforms that are such powerful engines of communication, are being corrupted by those who would use them to divide us.

The Omidyar Group has spent the last few months exploring the role that technology is now playing in society, focusing on the unintended negative consequences that social media has created for public discourse and civic participation. Last month we published our initial findings, which identified six ways in which media platforms are having a dangerous impact on society and raised questions about echo chambers, polarization, dark ads, algorithms, bots, and hate speech.

In particular we are concerned about the extent to which the spread of online hate has a silencing effect and is directly impacting people's ability to participate in public debate and civic life. A Pew Research study this year found that  27% of U.S. adults say they have refrained from posting something online after witnessing the harassment of others, and 13% of the population has elected to stop using an online service due to the harassment of others they observe.

Earlier this year we supported the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) -- one of the world’s leading civil rights organizations fighting anti-Semitism and hate -- as it proposed to roll-out a new Center for Technology and Society (CTS) to address formidable challenges to our democracy and society created by the Internet and social media.

Under the leadership of the unparalleled Brittan Heller, CTS’s progress over the last year has been remarkable. They have deeply examined the landscape of people and organizations working at the intersection of dangerous and hate speech, technology, and society; taken a careful look at their own organization’s comparative strengths and gaps; and formulated an ambitious and impressive plan to found a center at ADL with deep partnerships across the ecosystem that is poised to make a real difference on these issues in the U.S. and around the globe.

Just a selection of achievements to date include Control-Alt-Delete, a report on the online harassment of journalists that led to a collaborative response effort from Twitter reducing attacks on journalists by 80%. ADL also recently established a cyberhate problem-solving lab with tech giants such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Twitter that will be managed by CTS. And, at the second annual Never is Now conference today, ADL will announced the Online Hate Index, a partnership between CTS and University of California at Berkeley’s D Lab to use AI to automatically detect hate online.

Given the critical nature of this work in stemming the tide of online hate by enabling greater collaboration between the tech companies, civil society and many others working on these issues, we very pleased to announce that we have committed a further $1.5m of funding to continue our support for the work of the Center over the next three years.

ADL was founded in 1913 with a dual mission “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all.” We are inspired by the steps ADL is taking to build on its rich history, recognize the ways in which these longstanding problems require new solutions, and take bold steps -- such as establishing the Center for Technology and Society -- to continue to lead the field.

Under the inspiring leadership of Brittan and leveraging the deep passion, knowledge and expertise that ADL always brings to bear, we are looking forward to their continued future leadership on these critical issues.