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Dec. 7, 2017, 10:39 a.m.
Audience & Social

Can 5,000 strangers have a productive Facebook dialogue? Spaceship Media is about to try

“We think this will be a beacon of civility as the year progresses toward the midterms in this really polarized time.”

Calling 5,000 women: Spaceship Media wants to seriously listen to you.

Spaceship Media, the one-year-old company focused on fostering conversations between folks of different political and socioeconomic viewpoints in Facebook groups through deliberate, journalism-supported dialogue, is now launching an ambitious project called The Many. They will gradually invite thousands of female Americans into a private Facebook group ahead of the 2018 midterm elections to participate in a national, moderated civil discussion aimed at breaking social media silos and geographic boundaries.

And they’re convinced it won’t become a dumpster fire.

“Women are subject to such vitriol and trolling in most online forums, especially around contentious subjects,” Jeremy Hay, Spaceship’s cofounder along with Eve Pearlman, said. “Women are approximately half the electorate and have a really important role in the voting bloc. Women are forming effective community networks. We’re interested in how that can happen to amplify the impact beyond the borders of the conversation itself.”

Spaceship Media has led half a dozen moderated social groups, but this will be by far its largest. Its effort gained broader recognition with The Alabama/California Project, a joint experiment between the two-person team and Alabama Media Group’s AL.com. That project was a month-long post-election moderated conversation, in a Facebook group made up of 25 female Alabama Trump voters and 25 female California Clinton voters; my colleague Ricardo Bilton wrote about it. But after the month ended, some of the women kept talking in a group they created on their own. And Hay and Pearlman kept thinking about how they could go further.

“This is a larger, more dynamic group. It’s much more ambitious,” Pearlman said. “But it will follow the same principles. We’ve learned that people are eager for and open to respectful conversations across differences. Given the opportunity for it and the parameters for it, they can and will engage respectfully.”

Starting in late February or early March, Spaceship Media and its to-be-decided national and local publisher partners will be bringing a seed group of 250 participants into the first wave of The Many. The project, supported with funding from the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust and the News Integrity Initiative, will run throughout 2018 up until the November elections, increasing in size steadily up to a maximum of 5,000 by mid- to late-summer.

Spaceship will focus in on politically contested areas (possibilities include Ohio, Arizona, and Pennsylvania) based on the local newsrooms they’re able to work with. Newsrooms can use this as an opportunity to build trust with their communities, Pearlman and Hay pitch, and also derive story ideas and potential sources from the group’s discussions. (AL.com published more than 15 stories related to the earlier project.) Journalists from the partners are also invited to step in for further reporting on a issue the group is discussing. The Many will also introduce a video component to the group with Purple States, a documentary group focused on bringing to life first-person documentaries and perspectives from “ordinary people.”

Still, 5,000 people — multiplied by however many posts and comments — is a tall order. The cofounders have brought another team member on board to lead The Many (Adriana Garcia, formerly of the New Orleans Times-Picayune) and plan to hire another project manager, as Pearlman and Hay hinted at starting additional dialogue journalism projects throughout the year, potentially internationally. And they’re keeping the conversations on Facebook, even though the platform has been much bemoaned for its echo chamber qualities. (When I asked if they’ve considered other options, Hay asked in jest if I had any ideas.) After his cross-country year of exploration, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has declared the social media behemoth’s new mission as “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Pearlman and Hay say they’ve been talking with the company about mechanisms that would help their groups better thrive.

“We’re not wedded to any particular platform, but most people know how to use [Facebook], have it on their phones, are used to the ebb and flow of conversation,” Pearlman added.

While Spaceship Media itself is a corporation, The Many is fiscally sponsored by the aforementioned foundations. NII is contributing $100,000 and the Einhorn Family’s amount is undisclosed, per the trust’s policy. The cofounders are “actively fundraising to deepen our work,” Hay said.

They may sound brilliantly optimistic, but Spaceship’s previous project participants (type that three times fast) are still savoring the experience. AL.com’s follow-up article as the state prepares to decide the contentious senatorial election between Roy Moore and Doug Jones:

AL.com recruited 25 Alabama women who voted for Donald Trump to participate in a closed Facebook discussion group with 25 California women who’d voted for Hillary Clinton.

The project was supposed to last about a month, leading up to the presidential inauguration. Spaceship Media encouraged dialogue on subjects like healthcare, immigration and abortion, while AL.com reporters wrote articles about how the women approached those controversial topics.

Discussions got heated. Friendships formed.

“At some point, at the heart of it, we realized we all wanted the same thing, but how we want to get there is very different,” said Lanier Harris, an advertising account manager who lives in Montgomery.

…Jaymie Testman is one of the independents of the group. A Marine veteran who now lives in Huntsville, she leans hard right on issues like gun ownership and the military, but is less conservative about social issues such as abortion.

She said she disliked Moore even before the allegations came out, but once he was the Republican nominee, she turned to the Cali-Bama group to talk about the pros and cons of voting for Moore or Jones.

There she found a more thoughtful discussion than she saw elsewhere on Facebook.

“On the other side of the ‘pedophile’ you have the ‘baby killer’ and I’m so tired of hearing those words,” she said of names she’s heard people call the candidates. “Why are we talking like that? It’s so rare you find somebody you agree with everything. You pick the best of two evils, or vote for the one who least repulses you.”

That’s the type of civil interconnectedness Spaceship aims for — even in a curated group of thousands of people.

“We are committed in these political times to doing the work to connect communities and to work to restore trust in journalism and journalists,” Pearlman emphasized.

“With the combination of a national partner and local partner and that many people, we think this will be a beacon of civility as the year progresses toward the midterms in this really polarized time,” Hay said.

POSTED     Dec. 7, 2017, 10:39 a.m.
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