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May 15, 2024, 2:30 p.m.
Audience & Social

In an increasingly fractured Europe, this project is betting on one-on-one talks as a way to find common ground

“We get requests from all over the world, and everyone says that their country is experiencing unprecedented levels of polarization or a breakdown in social cohesion.”

This piece was originally published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

“The propagandist’s purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human,” wrote Aldous Huxley in this powerful essay on the use of language just before the Second World War. The fourth edition of Europe Talks is pursuing the opposite goal: helping thousands of Europeans meet someone who thinks differently about some of the most pressing issues in the news, understand their perspective and find some common ground.

Hosted by German news site Zeit Online in partnership with other 11 European news outlets, this edition of Europe Talks is taking place in the run-up to the European elections in early June 2024.

Here’s how the project works. Participants sign up by responding to seven questions on current events topics including security and defense, migration, climate change, disinformation, and the role of EU institutions. Based on their answers, they are matched with a person from another country who holds different views. These one-to-one conversations are conducted in English and take place via video call. More than 59,000 people from 37 countries have participated in one of these talks since the first edition of the project in 2019.

Europe Talks is based on Germany Talks, an initiative launched in 2017 to bring together Germans with different views. The idea gave rise to a global platform and a global dialogue program, which reached participants in more than 100 countries. As one of the millions of Europeans heading to the polls in a few weeks, I wanted to know more about the project. I talked to Sara Cooper, the project lead at My Country Talks, the platform behind the initiative. Our interview, below, is slightly edited for length and clarity.

Eduardo Suárez: This initiative started as a national dialogue in Germany. What did you learn from that experience?

Sara Cooper: Germany Talks started in 2017. It was a time of many political changes: Brexit was approved in a referendum, Donald Trump was elected and right-wing parties across Europe were getting more support, including the [far-right] AfD party in Germany.

I wasn’t part of Zeit Online at that time. But from what I understand, the editors were searching for a new program that would help our readers meet someone who thinks differently from them. There’s a picture from that time of a brainstorming session where someone has written “political Tinder” on a flip chart. So that’s really how it all started.

During the first year, the program was very simple: the editors just placed a short questionnaire in the articles of Zeit Online, with the promise that anyone who signed up would be matched with someone who answered the questions differently. In that first year, more than 1,200 people signed up, and there was a hugely positive response from the participants and our readership as a whole. It became clear that the project would require proper infrastructure if we wanted to scale it.

Suárez: After Germany Talks, you created a platform so news organizations in other countries could promote their own national dialogues. What did you learn from experiences in other countries?

Cooper: We learned so much when we expanded outside of Germany, especially when we went outside Western Europe. One thing that has had an impact on me over the past years is just how global the demand is. We get requests from all over the world, and everyone says that their country is experiencing unprecedented levels of polarization or a breakdown in social cohesion. We organized The World Talks in 2023, where people from more than 100 countries all wanted the chance to have a connection with someone who thinks differently.

The biggest difference from our experience in Germany is the way people use technology and different attitudes toward privacy. For example, in Germany, everyone uses email to communicate, but that’s pretty rare in the rest of the world — everyone is on WhatsApp. Also, thanks to GDPR, the software has many security and privacy features that aren’t common for platforms in other countries.

Suarez: Europe Talks was launched in 2019 and it’s now on its fourth edition in time for the European elections in June. What do you want to achieve this time?

Cooper: This year is the biggest election year in human history. More people than ever before will be voting in 2024. In Europe, we have the EU elections, but almost all countries in continental Europe also have some kind of local or national election as well. Our goal is to give people an opportunity to connect with someone in another country before they go to vote.

Today’s problems don’t stop at borders. If we’re going to solve issues like climate change, migration, and infrastructure, we need to work together. So we hope that these conversations can help participants get a better understanding of what these same problems look like in different parts of Europe, and what policies will create the best outcomes for us all.

Suárez: As this is a trans-national project, things are more complex and most conversations will take place online. In your experience, how different are these conversations when they are held between people from different countries?

Cooper: Cross-border conversations are different from our national programs because they always expand beyond political discussion. The magic of Europe Talks is that peek into the authentic, daily life of someone in a different context. When someone from Finland can chat with someone from Greece about their hobbies or what they eat for breakfast — who doesn’t want that?

In the past, language has always been the biggest barrier for Europe Talks or The World Talks, compared to our national programs. The language to participate is English, so that excludes quite a few people. This is the first year that we’ve been able to vet a selection of video chat platforms that offer simultaneous translation, so I’m excited to see that barrier get smaller in the future.

Suárez: How do you screen the participants and how do you match them with each other?

Cooper: Participants sign up by answering a series of discussion questions, which can only be answered with “yes” or “no.” We also ask a few open questions during the sign-up phase. For example, “What worries you about the future?” or “What would someone be surprised to learn about you?” A human does read each answer to make sure that no one has written anything hateful, or which would make their discussion partner feel threatened in any way. Once a participant has been let into the matching pool, we have an algorithm which will try to build pairs that have the most possible difference in their answers to the Yes/No questions.

Suárez: When joining, readers are asked to answer seven questions on seven different dilemmas. I imagine these are the basis of the conversations people have later on. What was the goal you had in mind when choosing these questions?

Cooper: The questions are created by our media partner network, which this year consists of 12 different media organizations. We had two kick-off meetings before the project launched, and each of the partners suggested topics and specific questions that are important and divisive in Europe right now. Then we worked together to narrow down the suggestions to the seven final questions.

Our goal is to choose questions that everyone can talk about. They should touch on issues that relate to people’s day-to-day lives, and should not be so technical that people feel intimidated discussing them with a stranger. Above all, we try to find questions that are polarizing, meaning that the answers are split 50/50 so that the algorithm can build good matches.

Suárez: You are hosting an in-person event in Berlin for first-time voters. How did this idea come up and what’s your goal?

Cooper: The idea for this event came from the journalists at Zeit Online, and it is being organized by the news site in the framework of Europe Talks. As I previously said, this is a big year for elections, and it’s exciting to focus on people who will be voting for the very first time. We have one or two participants coming from every EU country who are all between 18 and 23 years old and haven’t voted in the past European Parliament elections.

For a full day, they will work together to brainstorm solutions to Europe’s biggest challenges: climate change, migration, security, and European identity. Our goal is to understand how this generation, at the very beginning of their political journey, wants Europe and the world to look like in the future.

Suárez: You say that 90% of participants are happy with their conversation and would take part again and that 55% say their partner made a convincing argument about one or more of the discussion questions. Where do these figures come from?

Cooper: These numbers come from a feedback form that we send to participants after their conversation. The specific questions are aggregated from Europe Talks and Germany Talks over the past years.

Suárez: You match readers to talk to other readers with opposite views. Why do you think they have such a good experience when these conversations on social media often end up in harassment and bad blood?

Cooper: The biggest difference between our format and social media is that our participants have a conversation. Social media seems like a platform for dialogue and exchange, but it doesn’t recreate the experience of a conversation. You don’t know who you’re talking to, and it’s asynchronous, so by the time you’ve left your comment or answered a thread you never really know if the person you’re replying to is even there anymore.

I think people also feel emboldened to write things on social media that they would never say to someone’s face. The one-on-one format tends to bring out the best in people, and that’s why our participants have such a positive experience.

Suárez: You mention a paper that shows some evidence of these conversations reducing affective polarization in Germany. Could you share one story that illustrates this?

Cooper: Affective polarization is the feeling that people are less than human, evil, harmful, etc. simply because of their party affiliation. Our format helps to reduce affective polarization because it gives a human face to that “other” party or group of people.

I don’t have one specific example, but the most common feedback we get from our participants is that they were expecting to be matched with someone extremely different from them — the type of caricatured “other” they’re exposed to in the media — but it turns out their partner is a perfectly normal person with logical and sound reasons for their beliefs. That’s exactly the kind of experience we’re hoping to create.

Suárez: The project is funded by the European Union. How did you apply for this funding? And what would you say to critics who think it’s wrong for the news media to take any public funding?

Cooper: I want to clarify that My Country Talks is an independent nonprofit and is a subsidiary of the Zeit publishing house, so we have received funding from the European Commission but Zeit Online hasn’t. However, there are other examples of media in Europe that have received public funding and maintain journalistic independence and a high level of integrity. I know the funding landscape here, despite its flaws, is special in that regard. I hope this can provide a model for public funding to the media without compromise.

Suárez: Any plans for the near future (expanding the project to more countries, focusing on particular topics)?

Cooper: I already mentioned that when Germany Talks started in 2017, the AfD had received a surprisingly high share of the vote. This year, Germany has several regional elections again. In some places, the share of votes for the AfD is almost double what we saw in 2017. But many people have never really talked to someone who supports the AfD. Likewise, many people across the political spectrum have never had a human connection with someone who represents the other side on major election issues like migration or gender identity. So we’re planning a big round of Germany Talks in the late summer and early autumn, with a digital dialogue format and an in-person event.

Eduardo Suárez is head of editorial at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, where this story was originally published.

PAIRS FROM DEUTSCHLAND SPRICHT, GERMANY’S MY COUNTRY TALKS.

POSTED     May 15, 2024, 2:30 p.m.
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