Tech Creates Our Political Echo Chambers. It Might Also Be A Solution | KERA News

Tech Creates Our Political Echo Chambers. It Might Also Be A Solution

Apr 12, 2017
Originally published on April 12, 2017 7:13 am

Alison Lu was in shock on election night. The Harvard Business School student had voted for Hillary Clinton, and she couldn't fathom how Donald Trump had managed to win the presidency.

She opened her Facebook page searching for answers, but she didn't find any Trump-supporting friends. "None of them [Trump voters] showed themselves on my Facebook feed," she says.

Lu, like many Americans, was living in a self-selected social media world of like-minded people. The Pew Research Center has found that about two-thirds of adults get news from social media. Analysts have blamed technology for creating an online echo chamber.

But if technology created this problem, can it also help fix it? That's the question the tech industry, including a couple of entrepreneurs and researchers, is trying to answer.

Connecting to find civil offline conversation

Henry Tsai had worked in Silicon Valley for the past few years before coming to Harvard Business School.

"The day after the election, it was clear that discourse in this country was maybe not where we want it to be," Tsai says. "There's a lot of either demonizing or dismissiveness."

He had this idea of bringing people together from opposing political views. In a burst of late-night inspiration, along with some help from a friend studying computer science at MIT, he created Hi From The Other Side.

The goal is to take two people from different sides of the political spectrum — a Donald Trump supporter and a Hillary Clinton supporter — match them up, introduce them and allow them to talk to each other in real life.

"It's not only to bring people together, but, more importantly, bringing them together in a way that's productive or civil," Tsai says.

And that's exactly what Lu wanted as she tried to make sense of things after the election. "At that time, there was a general sense of helplessness on my end," she says. "I just wanted to do something to try to help me just understand."

Lu, 27, was one of the first Hi From The Other Side users. She was matched up with Dennis O'Brien, a 26-year-old in New Hampshire working in IT security.

O'Brien had voted for Trump, in part, because he hates the Affordable Care Act — also known as Obamacare.

But after the election, he remembers seeing young women crying. "All these people were legitimately terrified," he says. "And, I couldn't quite wrap my mind around why."

The next day, he saw a blurb about Hi From The Other Side on Facebook, and he clicked on it. O'Brien figured "what the heck" — he could meet someone new and learn what's going through that person's mind. Think of it as going on a blind date to talk politics.

Lu and O'Brien were introduced to each other over email and agreed to meet up in person on a Tuesday night at a burger place in Cambridge.

"We were there for like two hours," O'Brien recalls.

O'Brien didn't know what to expect.

"I was really hoping that I just wouldn't get an extremist to talk to, someone who's like 'Hillary or death,' " he says.

But luckily, he says, Lu "wasn't crazy."

"There was never a moment where I felt stupid or I felt like I was an idiot, and likewise, toward her — I never thought she was anything more than a normal person," O'Brien says.

Lu laughed and recalled her first impression of meeting O'Brien.

"He's not like a racist, bigoted [person] like I think the stereotype of some Trump supporters are," she says. "I think what helped was also we were able to find a little bit of common ground."

The two found a bit of common ground on climate change. But they both realized they also probably just have different priorities.

"I really wouldn't say that our conversation changed each other's minds at all, but it was valuable to have that new perspective," Lu says.

About 4,500 people have signed up to be matched, according to Tsai, and recently, his nascent startup formed a limited collaboration with Starbucks.

Tsai's project is essentially an online platform, but he admits that for it to work people have to move the conversation offline and meet in real life (or at least via video chat).

Lu and O'Brien agree.

"I think social media just helps reinforce the hate; it just pushes everybody apart," O'Brien says. "Because when I see something [online] I'm not talking to a person, I'm just typing a bunch of letters in a message."

"Flip" your feed to find common interests

But while Tsai wanted to move the conversation off social media, Deb Roy and his team at the Laboratory for Social Machines in the MIT Media Lab were intrigued by the possibility of creating a more tolerant world within those platforms.

In addition to his MIT job, Roy is the chief media scientist at Twitter. During the election, Roy had access to the entire fire hose of Twitter data, meaning he tracked essentially every tweet about presidential politics in the country.

He noticed clusters of people, self-segregating based on their politics. And as he and his team looked at this big data, they wondered: What if you could flip your Twitter feed and see the world through someone else's eyes?

"And, what if some of the things you experience actually aren't so different, aren't so foreign, aren't so disconnected from your interests?"

To answer some of those questions, Roy and his team created an online tool: a Google Chrome extension called FlipFeed.

FlipFeed has a collection of accounts that span the political arena.

"We didn't want to pigeonhole you," Roy says. "So if you flip your feed a few times, you'll just naturally start sampling different parts of the political spectrum."

Roy doesn't know what impact, if any, this MIT lab experiment could have. He acknowledged the entire experience could be "really alienating to people." He says FlipFeed downloads are "in the thousands," but he points out — it wasn't created as a consumer product, it was a "tiny little lab project."

Still, he's optimistic that technology like FlipFeed can be used to create empathy.

The major hitch is that all these tech experiments take effort from users. Maybe a lot of us are content to passively roam around our own social media bubbles.

Copyright 2017 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

About two-thirds of adults get their news on social media. That's according to the Pew Research Center. During the presidential campaign, we saw how easily tech can polarize our country. But can it also help bring people together? From WBUR in Boston, Asma Khalid reports on some experiments trying to do just that.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Alison Lu had voted for Hillary Clinton, and she was in shock on election night.

ALISON LU: Confusion as to, you know, what was going on, why it was happening.

KHALID: She opened her Facebook page searching for answers. But she couldn't find any Trump-supporting friends.

LU: You know, none of them showed themselves on my Facebook feed.

KHALID: To figure things out, she joined this new online platform her Harvard Business School classmate had created. It's called Hi From The Other Side. The goal is to take two people, one Donald Trump supporter, one Hillary Clinton supporter, match them up, introduce them and allow them to talk in real life.

LU: Because at that time, I think there was, like, a general sense of helplessness on my end, I just wanted to do something to try to help me just understand.

KHALID: Lu was matched up with Dennis O'Brien, a 26-year-old working in IT security. She came to our studios. And together, we gave O'Brien a ring on skype.

(SOUNDBITE OF RINGING)

DENNIS O'BRIEN: Hey, it's been awhile. I'm in a Dunkin' Donuts. I just got out of work.

KHALID: O'Brien had voted for Trump. After the election, he remembers seeing young women crying.

O'BRIEN: All these people were, like, legitimately terrified. And I couldn't wrap my mind around why.

KHALID: He wanted to know why. And so when he saw something about Hi From The Other Side on Facebook...

O'BRIEN: I just clicked it and said, all right, you know, what the heck? I can meet someone new, and I can learn about why - you know, what's going through everybody else's mind a little bit.

KHALID: Think of it as going on a blind date to talk politics. On a random Tuesday night, Lu and O'Brien met up at a burger place in Cambridge. Here's how they both remember it.

O'BRIEN: We were there for, like, two hours. She wasn't crazy. There was never a moment where I felt stupid or I felt like, you know, I was an idiot. And, you know, likewise towards her.

LU: He's not, like, you know, racist and bigoted, like I think the stereotype - right? - of some Trump supporters are. And I think what helps was also we were able to find a little bit of common ground.

KHALID: Common ground on climate change. But they both also realized they probably just have different priorities.

LU: I really wouldn't say that our conversation really changed each other's minds at all. But it was valuable to have that new perspective.

O'BRIEN: You know, we were both very open to what the other one had to say when. No one got mad.

KHALID: And that is the goal for Henry Tsai. He created High From The Other Side.

HENRY TSAI: The day after the election, it was kind of clear that discourse in this country was not maybe where we want it to be. There's a lot of demonizing or dismissiveness.

KHALID: Tsai says about 4,500 people have signed up. It's an online platform. But he admits for it to work, you have to take the conversation offline and meet in real life - or at least via video chat. Lu and O'Brien agree.

O'BRIEN: I think social media just helps reinforce the hate. It just pushes everybody apart because, you know, when I see something, I'm not talking to a person. I'm just typing a bunch of letters in a message.

KHALID: And those online messages tend to polarize us politically. That's what Deb Roy noticed. During the campaign, he and his team at the MIT Media Lab tracked every tweet about presidential politics in the country. And as they looked at this big data, they wondered, what if you could flip your Twitter feed and see the world through someone else's eyes?

DEB ROY: And what if some of the things you experience actually aren't so different, aren't so foreign, aren't so disconnected from your interests.

KHALID: Roy and his team created a way to do this, an online tool called FlipFeed. Roy says downloads are in the thousands. But he also insists this was not designed as a consumer product. It's a lab experiment. Still, he's optimistic that tech can be used to create empathy. Of course, the major hitch is that these tech projects take initiative from users, and maybe a lot of us are just content to passively roam around our own social media bubbles. For NPR News, I'm Asma Khalid. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.