Six ‘solutions’ that won’t fix polarization

There are no quick, scalable or easy answers to the deepening fault-lines in politics.

Alice Thwaite Alison Goldsworthy
19 December 2019, 12.33pm
Pixabay/Peggy_Marco. Pixabay licence.

2016 was a year of reflection. Many were caught off guard by the American Presidential Election and the EU referendum in the UK. The three years since have entrenched our allegiances with our own sides, but solving polarization will not be as easy as Boris Johnson indicated on the steps of 10 Downing Street the day after last week’s landslide with his call to ‘unite and level up.’ This much is apparent from last night’s impeachment vote in the House of Representatives - almost all Democrats voted to impeach Trump and all Republicans voted against.

For those of us already campaigning and working against polarization these developments have brought an injection of interest and passion in the subject. However, they have also given rise to a wearying pattern of people certain that they have ‘the answer,’ but who don’t know that what they propose has already been tried, and has already failed.

Our combined experience equates to over a decade’s work on how to reduce polarization in developed democracies. Alison Goldsworthy is a senior political campaigner and the Executive Director at the Conflict and Polarization Lab at Stanford University. Alice Thwaite is the founder of the Echo Chamber Club and was a graduate student at the Oxford Internet Institute. She also worked at a start-up which developed a ‘Software as a Service’ solution to combat echo chambers. So we’re a natural sounding board for some of the brightest (and well funded) brains who are looking to make an impact in this space.

Typically a well meaning engineer or academic gets in touch to declare, breathless with excitement, that they ‘have the solution to polarization.’ They are often certain that it will be scaled up to a large group of users. The expectant, supportive pauses we leave in the conversation are then filled with a proposal to develop…a bot, a news aggregation site with a special algorithm, or a platform to randomly match different people to chat online. The problem is, whilst these solutions are well intentioned, they don’t work. In fact, they can make things worse.

Endemic to the problem is the fact that few of these enthusiasts have truly considered what it means to be polarized. For political scientists, polarization means that two people have different opinions (or party affiliations) on a topic along a potential spectrum. If you say ‘tomAto’ and I say ‘tomAHto,’ and we are both convinced that we are right, then in the strictest sense we are polarized.

Polarization on its own is not the real problem - a divergence of views and a little agony over them is part of a healthy, well-functioning democracy. So we’d like to add a critical rider: the problem comes when we cannot get along with the other side; when we feel so hateful, fearful and angry with one another that we are unable to be neighbors or work with someone because they hold different political views. It is that problem we need to tackle.

In both the UK and the USA, there is increased hostility to those of different political viewpoints. Anecdotally we see it in ‘send her back’ chants directed at Congresswomen or MPs who are subjected to Nazi taunts as they go about their work. Statistics reinforce this observation. In the US, ‘affective’ polarization (that is, polarization along partisan lines) nearly doubled from 1982 to 2016. In the UK, polling from Ipsos Mori shows that 85% of the population thinks that society is divided, and is getting worse.

Some believe that these problems are the result of people not encountering different points of view, or perhaps that they lack ‘education’ in a particular area, or some other superficial explanation. As a result, we are often approached with fruitless initiatives. Here are six common ones, and if you are thinking of implementing any of them we hope that what we say will act as a cautionary tale to use your skills and enthusiasm more wisely.

First, a ‘political chatroulette - a lucky dip approach to introductions to strangers where you briefly spend time with those from a different community. That doesn’t reduce tension. How often has your mind been changed by someone saying that you are wrong? (Try telling an American they are pronouncing ‘tomato’ incorrectly). Evidence shows that if Ali tells Alice facts that contradict her opinion, then Alice may actually hang on to her original view even more strongly, and is certainly unlikely to change her core beliefs. This is called the ‘backfire effect.’ So instead of a brief and aggressive debate, we should help people who are polarized to find something they have in common and solve a challenge together. Producing these empathy-generating connections is tough; it doesn’t happen through chatroulette introductions.

Second, the ‘magic bot’ - a close cousin of chatroulette with the added ‘bonus’ of no human interaction. The idea is that a bot will challenge your views through automated discussion. Leaving aside the limitations of bots in appreciating sarcasm or minority voices, Harvard academic Sherry Turkle tells us that spending more time with machines will not help us to empathize with other humans. You aren’t able to listen and reflect when engaging with machines, as opposed to a human being telling you a point of view. We know a bot may be easy to scale up, but scaling up a poor solution just aggravates the problem.

Number three is the ‘filter bubble busting app’ - another cousin of chatroulette but likely to fall at an even earlier hurdle. We’ll often be approached by an entrepreneur who has created an app which will notify people of articles which present different points of view, but very few people download apps, and fewer still go on to use them (just over 3% use a new app regularly after 30 days). In order to persist with an app you have to get immediate benefits, and you’re unlikely to feel good reading articles that don’t make sense to you. Different communities have different values and languages which you can’t just tap into by reading an article penned by one of their members. So this technique also carries a risk of backfiring. At the Echo Chamber Club, Alice has had to spend time translating different points of view into a language and value-system that makes sense to her subscribers. This requires human intervention.

Fourth, a ‘digital Citizens Assembly.’ Citizens’ Assemblies can be effective in helping the public to find solutions, but done badly they risk undermining democracy. They are particularly tricky to run well where people are already polarized. Stanford University professor Jim Fishkin highlights the importance of ‘equal consideration’ as a critical characteristic of deliberative democracy, in which views are considered on their merits. It is harder to be reflective and open to changing your mind about a view you already hold strongly - which is why we question the Archbishop of Canterbury’s calls for people to question whether the UK should leave the European Union on the one hand, but have more faith in the joint select committee initiative into climate change on the other. People need to be able to accept a recommendation that could be very different from their starting point. There is scant suggestion that this about to happen, and even less so that this would be easier online.

Fifth, a ‘new social media platform.’ Many people have posited the idea of creating a new Facebook, Youtube or Twitter, but none of them have gained mainstream adoption. This is because these social media giants take advantage of their network affects - too many people are currently on their platforms, and that gives them their desirability. 2.41 billion people use Facebook every month. It’s very hard to compete with that, and it’s highly unlikely that someone would join a new social media platform to reduce polarization alone.

The final entry on the list is ‘more democracy.’ Sometimes we’ll be approached with initiatives to improve direct democracy, grounded in the view that if people had more power over policy-making, then they would be less divided. Not only is the implication that it is politicians who are playing the population against each other, but this also seems to suggest that the information environment through which citizens make political decisions could ever be perfect. In fact, the less politicians intervene in helping to shape public opinion, the more likely it is that this role will be taken by what Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartells call ‘political entrepreneurs.’ These are non-official lawmakers who become agenda-setters in the public sphere, and there are few regulations to ensure that they spread factual content. Stating that we need ‘more democracy’ is too simplistic.

If the record is so bad, what do we see as solutions that would help to address polarization? Unfortunately there are no quick, scalable and easy solutions. This is a complex and wicked problem, so technologists and leaders should spend their time listening and testing ideas as they develop them. That’s also because critical examination of the effects of interventions is woefully lacking in this space. So we recommend that you think about how to promote curiosity as a type of engagement, examining the multiple interpretations of different messages and scrutinizing the effects of technologies already in place. A handful of entrepreneurs are doing this. Icebreaker, for example, prioritizes depth of engagement by facilitating meaningful interactions and establishing areas of common ground before talking about zones of difference. Mismatch applies similar principles to those working in schools, and has already been piloted in 400 places.

Another US presidential election and more Brexit negotiations loom (despite Boris’ promises, it isn’t going away soon). Our aim is to help our community to pool resources and learn from each other’s successes and mistakes. It is important that we come together - both within our own growing community of activists and more broadly among our domestic and international citizenries.


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