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Aug. 8, 2018, 10:42 a.m.
Audience & Social

In Germany, a news site is pairing up liberals and conservatives and actually getting them to (gasp) have a civil conversation

And apparently without incident! “The ultimate goal is a less polarized debate and a less polarized, more open, and plural public…But we also want to raise people’s awareness of the value of joining in on the same conversation, and not splitting into different atoms.”

If only online dating could go as smoothly.

As an attempted antidote to sociopolitical polarization in its country — particularly all the hateful logjams that play out online — the German national news site Zeit Online has developed a seemingly simple mechanism of matching up people who live near each other but have different views on policy, and encouraging them to meet offline to hash out their disagreements. The site, the digital home of national weekly paper Die Zeit, likened its My Country Talks initiative to “political Tinder.”

The idea of trying to temper animosity through in-person interaction isn’t entirely original, but My Country Talks successfully seized a moment. In its inaugural edition, about 12,000 people completed Zeit Online’s short survey of yes-or-no questions around politically divisive issues (such as the number of refugees the country was accepting, or whether the West was treating Russia fairly). Of those, 1,200 — 600 pairs, well-distributed geographically — actually met in person in June 2017, apparently without incident, leading to stories that complemented Zeit Online’s other more traditional 2017 federal elections coverage. Three-quarters of those pairs gave positive feedback to Zeit Online and made suggestions for potential future iterations — a response that convinced the organizers there would be bottled up interest enough for a second round.

“We wanted a way to make sure we could bring together people who think differently about things that happen in politics and in society, so that they would still be able to talk to each other, and not just turn their backs on each other or scream at each other on Twitter,” Maria Exner, a deputy editor-in-chief of Zeit Online who was part of the earliest ideas stage for My Country Talks, told me.

“Almost everybody told us ‘it was so interesting that I was able to meet someone in my area that I wouldn’t have met otherwise, and that although this person has this different view on a political topic than I do, I came to understand why he or she thinks that way,” she said. The idea, she told me, came after she and her colleagues were discussing a New Yorker story about the limits of people’s capacity to change their minds. Some research showed personal context and one-on-one meetings had an effect on curbing extreme views. “I remember clearly one of the responses. The person told us they met up with a woman who was a fan of Vladimir Putin, and in her answers to Zeit Online’s questionnaire had said the West was not treating Russia fairly. Before this, the person said, I couldn’t understand why anybody would think that — but then I heard her story. She was born in a country of the former Soviet Union, her family still has strong ties to the area, and they see the whole relationship between the West and Russia through the lens of their own biography.”

Other respondents suggested partnering with other organizations to increase the diversity — many people wanted to meet people with even more divergent worldviews than their own, according to Exner. The first time around, Zeit Online had tried reaching out to organizations from the German Red Cross to fireman’s associations to spread the word further, knowing its own core audience was limited.

Zeit Online took the feedback to heart. This year, it’s running My Country Talks with a dozen other media organizations scattered throughout the country, each soliciting new participants, culminating in what all hope will be thousands more safe, productive meetings on September 23. News partners are asking seven yes-or-no questions of people who want to sign up, such as “Should German city centers be car-free?” and “Can Muslims and non-Muslims live well together in Germany?” (Partner news organizations can see the responses from the participants they sign up through their own sites.)

About 20,000 people in Germany have registered in the past month. Jochen Wegner, Zeit Online’s editor-in-chief, told me the team was expecting about 100,000 people to sign up across Germany. There will likely be some attrition: Some people won’t have anyone different close enough to them to be matched, some will get informed of a match but decline to be connected, some will exchange emails but leave it at that (there’s no rematching in such a case). There’s a chance My Country Talks could end up with too many people who answer similarly.

Zeit Online also spent the past year ironing out the platform it used to sign up and match people and, funded by Google, is developing My Country Talks into an open-sourced tool that any interested organization can use to facilitate in-person meetings of opposites. The matching “algorithm,” as it’s called, is really a math problem with two basic parameters: It will only pair people who answered several questions differently on the screening questionnaire and who live within 20 kilometers of each other (based on the postal codes they provided). Participants who are matched each get a separate message to confirm whether or not they wanted to be introduced to a stranger before they’re connected via email.

“I have great respect for the people who are building real dating apps,” said Sebastian Horn, a deputy editor-in-chief who’s also overseeing the platform-building side for this expanded edition of My Country Talks. (The team worked closely with a Berlin-based design agency to build the platform.)

Yannick Dillinger is the head of digital and deputy editor of Schwäbische Zeitung, an independent daily based in southern Germany. His publication signed on shortly before this year’s initiative kicked off, and he says the participants that registered through Schwäbische Zeitung seem so far evenly split between left and right.

But what about trolls? What about the possibility this puts some of the participants in danger?

“Yes, there are some people where when you read their answers, you might imagine that this could be one of those commenters from Facebook,” Dillinger said. That’s why the matching system requires phone numbers and first requests text consent from each participant before setting them up, with instructions to exchange some emails before meeting and to meet in a public place. “I think most people who sign up are genuinely curious.”

“In order to keep trolls out of the event as much as possible, we also check every participant in advance,” Birger Menke, managing editor of Spiegel Online, another German partner, said. “In our experience, the personal entries show clearly whether someone is serious or just out for trouble.”

The project added complexity as it crossed into other countries and languages beyond German. La Repubblica and HuffPost Italia hosted a test run in Bologna this past June, where about 70 pairs of opposites met. A version of the event in Switzerland required the platform to accommodate French and Swiss German. In some regions, postal codes may not be enough to narrow down people living reasonably close to each other, so the platform might need to accommodate information on specific addresses as well, Horn told me. Then there were the privacy considerations, which the team prepared for in light of the General Data Privacy Regulation that went into effect in Europe at the end of May. Discussions with other news organizations “from Alaska to Australia” to host similar events within their own countries are ongoing, according to Wegner.

“One of the most interesting aspects to me is that in our discussions with different media organizations about what they think is polarizing their countries,” Horn said. “Then, there are some questions that are the same wherever you go — the question of open or closed borders, for instance.”

“Whenever we speak about this, the most exotic thing to others that is a very heated topic is whether or not there should be wild wolves. It’s very exotic of a question even for my paper, which generally has a highly educated readership, many of whom are based in urban areas, many of whom have never seen a wolf in the wild, ever,” said Anna Jenssen, editor-in-chief of the Norwegian weekly Morgenbladet. “Norway is geographically large. It’s got a lot of wilderness. The question gets at a classic line in Norwegian politics: urban versus rural populations, the elites versus others.”

Morgenbladet, which Jenssen said has a readership in Norway similar to Die Zeit’s in Germany, will be running a pilot version of My Country Talks later in the fall in partnership with a sibling business newspaper and the country’s public broadcaster NRK. NRK worked with an outside institute to survey people across Norway to get a sense of what the most divisive topics in the country seemed to be, and organizers are still deciding which questions to ask for the pilot event.

“The ultimate goal is a less polarized debate and a less polarized, more open, and plural public, but whether that’s an achievable goal is of course still an open question,” Jenssen said. “But we also want to raise people’s awareness of the value of joining in on the same conversation, and not splitting into different atoms. We want to try to fight tendencies towards extremism.”

People working in government in different countries have also reached out to the My Country Talks team for advice on the approach.

“We have had a hard time thinking about how we can work with government, because we are journalists. We can answer questions and recommend things, and as the platform will be open source, everyone will have access to the product anyway,” Wegner said. “But we’d be really reluctant to work directly with governments. Our journalists have to be neutral when it comes to the debate itself — we serve as polite hosts you can trust not to use your data for anything other than to facilitate these conversations.”

“The thing that made this successful, I think, is in part because we do not advertise it as a meet up at all,” Exner said. That, and the ease of the system — the way the questions are not framed along the lines of “Which candidate did you vote for?” “We start by asking people’s opinion about something, not by asking them to meet with somebody to talk politics. That’s just my gut feeling.”

Pairs from Deutschland spricht, Germany’s My Country Talks.

POSTED     Aug. 8, 2018, 10:42 a.m.
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