Stop Hate Speech: alliance F and ETH Zurich set up Switzerland’s first foundation for online public discourse

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Alliance F and ETH Zurich are launching the Public Discourse Foundation (PDF), which will take an in-depth look at hate speech and its impact on democracy. The aim is to explore and promote public discourse on the internet. The foundation’s first project will support media companies with comment moderation and empower civil society to effectively deal with hate speech through an interactive knowledge centre.

Hate speech - that is, toxic language, insults and vilification specifically directed at people because of the way they look or how they identify - has become a widespread problem. alliance F launched the external page Stop Hate Speech project in 2020, made possible by the Migros Pioneer Fund, to recognise and research hate speech on the internet and to develop effective counterstrategies. Now alliance F and ETH Zurich are establishing the non-profit Public Discourse Foundation (PDF), which aims to examine and encourage public discourse on the internet. Mercator Foundation Switzerland is supporting the establishment of the foundation with a contribution of CHF 300,000 over two years.

"Hate speech is a threat to our democracy. We cannot have people being intimidated by a loud minority. The Public Discourse Foundation helps ensure that everyone can take part in fair debates, thereby strengthening democracy." - Sophie Achermann, new Managing Director of the Public Discourse Foundation.

Science-based strategies and scalable solutions should help to reduce toxic language and promote constructive engagement, as Dominik Hangartner, Professor of Public Policy at ETH Zurich and Chair of the Foundation’s Board of Trustees, explains: "Today, we have the scientific and technical knowledge to be able to make a decisive contribution to this complex issue. However, it will only be possible for us to successfully share our findings if we work in close cooperation with civil society and media companies, with the Public Discourse Foundation acting as bridge builder."

Strengthening freedom of speech and variety of opinion in comment sections

In order to reinforce this practical approach right from the start, the foundation is striving for close cooperation with media companies in German-speaking Europe and in French-speaking Switzerland. The comment sections of media websites are filled with a lively exchange of opinions, but regular moderation of these comment sections is a major challenge for media companies. This is where the foundation would like to make its first contribution in a project involving transparent algorithms to support the media companies in this difficult task.

The Public Discourse Foundation will begin its work on 1 April 2023 and will be based in Zurich. ETH Zurich is supporting the foundation through targeted research in this area and is contributing CHF 100,000 to its establishment. Stop Hate Speech’s ongoing project work will be incorporated into the foundation. Dominik Hangartner, Professor of Public Policy at ETH Zurich, will become Chair of the Foundation’s Board of Trustees, and Sophie Achermann will leave the office of alliance F at the end of March 2023 and become the new Managing Director of the Public Discourse Foundation.