Anyone who’s turned on a TV or opened a social media feed in recent years already knows that hateful, divisive rhetoric is all around us. But this type of messaging can signal more than an increase in partisan polarization or the kind of cruelty that’s easier to deploy from behind a screen. It can also be a warning sign for real-life violence—even genocide.
The Dangerous Speech Project, a fiscally sponsored initiative at the New Venture Fund, has its eye on just this sort of incendiary messaging. Its goal is simple: to understand what dangerous speech is, what it can lead to, and what we can do to stop it.
What Is Dangerous Speech?
The term “dangerous speech” comes from the project’s founder, Susan Benesch, who observed in her research of genocide and mass atrocities that eerily similar rhetorical patterns tended to emerge before outbreaks of mass violence. Narrower and more context-dependent than the umbrella term of “hate speech,” dangerous speech refers to any form of expression that can increase the risk of its audience condoning or participating in violence against members of another group. The Dangerous Speech Project has a five-point framework to determine whether speech is dangerous:
- Speaker: Is the speaker of the message influential?
- Audience: Is the audience of this message susceptible to inflammatory content?
- Message: Does the message dehumanize others, assert that the audience faces a serious or mortal threat from the target group, claim that the target group has threatened women and girls, or use other forms of coded language?
- Context: Has social or historical context lowered the barriers to violence or made it more acceptable?
- Medium: How influential is the medium used to deliver the message?
“We produce research and tools that on-the-ground groups can put into practice to mitigate dangerous speech,” said Tonei Glavinic, the project’s director of operations. “We believe that if we can define what dangerous speech is and center the conversation on violence prevention, we may be able to drive more consensus that this needs to be addressed.”
Changing the Conversation
Given that social media has rapidly become the primary vehicle for public discourse, the Dangerous Speech Project has focused much of its research and interventions on the tech sector. It builds relationships with tech companies and advises them on policies that can mitigate the harmful effects of dangerous speech. The project also belongs to and is a founding member of the Coalition for Independent Technology Research, a group of academics, civil society, and journalists who work to ensure that researchers can independently study social media and tech platforms without fear of repercussions from those companies.
The conversation about how to handle dangerous speech (and other harmful speech like disinformation and harassment) on social media often focuses solely on blanket censorship, but Glavinic emphasized that censorship is only one possible response of many. “We are just as committed to freedom of expression as we are to preventing violence,” they said. “In some cases, removing dangerous speech from a platform is effective, but in many others, different tactics are needed.”
One of these alternate tactics is counterspeech, which involves directly responding to harmful speech in order to undermine it. The goal of counterspeech is not necessarily to change the mind of the person who originally shared the message, though on occasion this may happen. Rather, counterspeakers aim to influence bystanders who also see the message, demonstrating an alternate way to engage with the content.
In 2020, the Dangerous Speech Project published the first-ever ethnographic study of a group of counterspeakers on social media, called #jagärhär (“I am here” in Swedish). This group—which now has chapters in roughly a dozen countries—responds collectively to misinformation, hate, and harassment on social media, countering this harmful speech in real time. Thanks in part to the Dangerous Speech Project’s work, academic researchers and institutions around the world are beginning to coalesce around counterspeech as a field of study.
The task of understanding dangerous speech and researching actionable solutions is massive, and the Dangerous Speech Project does not do it alone. It belongs to numerous coalitions and partnerships working on issues related to speech and violence, including the Change the Terms Coalition, the Global Alliance Against Digital Hate and Extremism, and the Christchurch Call Advisory Network. It also maintains relationships with individual researchers all over the world, including through its Global Research Initiative, which invites international researchers to study dangerous speech and share findings based on their own contexts and expertise. Dangerous speech depends heavily on context, and these global partnerships help ensure that marginalized voices, so often the target of dangerous speech, are instrumental in efforts to address it.
Even with global partners to amplify its efforts, the Dangerous Speech Project’s work is still extraordinarily ambitious, leaving its four-person team little time to devote to the operational requirements of running a nonprofit. It joined the New Venture Fund as a fiscally sponsored project in 2016 to relieve some of that operational load. NVF provides back-end support—including employee benefits, finance and accounting services, and legal infrastructure—to ensure the Dangerous Speech Project can focus on its important research. Access to NVF’s legal team has been particularly valuable for the project in recent years, especially as it enters into complex contracts with major technology and social media companies.
“If it weren’t for NVF, my entire job would be doing these back-end tasks,” said Glavinic. “With the support NVF provides, our small team can achieve so much more.”
The wave of dangerous speech and other harmful content filling social and traditional media does not seem likely to relent anytime soon, but the Dangerous Speech Project continues to enhance the toolbox at our disposal to understand and counter it. The project is currently writing a book on the topic of counterspeech, and it plans to launch an ambitious research project focused on dangerous speech connected to political ads for the 2024 US elections.
While the consequences of dangerous speech remain present, severe, and troublingly timely, Glavinic finds hope in the increased amount of attention the global community is now paying to the issue, drawing more funders and organizations into the work. “There’s interest here in a way there hasn’t been before,” they said. “With enough momentum, this is a moment that can really lead to something big.”