Last October, students in Sarah Candler’s seventh-grade English class in rural Tennessee were discussing the presidential election, echoing each other’s pro-Trump sentiments. One student dared the others: “Who’s a Democrat, anyway?”
A lone girl raised her hand. “I saw looks aghast from the other kids,” recalls Candler. Then Candler, too, raised her hand.
The closed-minded dialog troubled Candler. She began searching online for resources beyond her go-to mainstream news sources, such as The New York Times, to help her understand others’ politics. She found AllSides, a site founded by former Netscape director John Gable that displays headlines on the same stories from left-, center-, and right-leaning outlets.
Candler is among a small but growing number of Americans who are trying to break out of information silos. They are searching for sites like AllSides; the Flip Side, which summarizes conservative and liberal news on one policy issue each day; and Ground News, which shows how various stories are covered by left, center, and right-leaning outlets. For video, TheirTube displays simulated YouTube feeds for conservatives, liberals, conspiracy theorists, and climate deniers.
“We’re in a country where people are either polarized or apathetic,” says Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at NYU who founded Heterodox Academy, a nonprofit that seeks to encourage viewpoint diversity, particularly on college campuses. Adds Gable, the AllSides founder, “We have to get people outside of their information bubbles, but also their relationship bubbles.”
The majority of US adults say one-sided information on social media is a major problem, though many might mean only information that counters their own beliefs.
Visitors to sites like AllSides seek out views at odds with their own; they enjoy discussing political differences more than the fleeting satisfaction of tribal disputes on Facebook. Some are troubled by how their friend circles and social media followers mirror their own beliefs. A few, such as Candler, are looking to understand friends or acquaintances with differing political stances.
Alan Staney, an out-of-work graphics designer in Tallahassee, Florida, voted twice for Obama, and then twice for Trump. “Being politically heterodox just seems to make me enemies,” he says. “I’ve always felt politically homeless.” That feeling can extend to his family, where he navigates tensions between his liberal wife, a Biden supporter, and her conservative parents.
He’s visited the Flip Side and Ground News. “The more I looked into things like the Flip Side, the more I could understand her parents’ arguments,” he says. When he jokes about politics, half the room turns against him, depending on which side he’s teasing. They’ve resisted his advice to check out sites like the Flip Side.
Saira Blair was 18 when she was elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates as a Republican, which at the time made her the youngest person in the US ever elected to state office. After leaving office in 2018, she tried to read six newspapers and magazines every morning to get a full range of perspectives. But finding the time was a struggle—now that her job didn’t focus on current events—and the subscription fees added up. She grew frustrated with the biases in what she read.
“I started going down my own path,” she says, searching out the Flip Side and AllSides. She “fell in love” with Divided We Fall, another site that aims to bridge political divides. These resources helped her piece together what felt like the true stories behind important events.
Today, Blair thinks her positions are more nuanced. Recently she appreciated an article on Divided We Fall about the benefits of transgender women playing sports with cis gender women, before learning about West Virginia’s legislation to ban their participation. If she were still in office, “I would do things differently, having read that article,” she says. Overall, she’d have “a more balanced, educated platform. These sites didn’t exist when I first ran, and I really wish they had.”
She also regularly checks Blindspotter, a tool offered by Ground News that classifies a user’s Twitter actions as skewing left or right, based on the person’s tweets, retweets and other interactions with liberal or conservative news sources. Blair aspires to gymnast-like balance: 50 percent interactions with sources from the left, and 50 percent from the right.
“What’s needed is a way to curate and find the best thinking from left and right,” says Haidt, who created an online library for this purpose with videos, books, and essays. To better understand perspectives on the left, for example, the library offers sources such as Edmund Fawcett’s essay “Reclaiming Liberalism.” Choose the library door on the right, and you’ll find thought pieces like Yuval Levin’s “A Conservative Governing Vision.” Haidt also reads the Flip Side and AllSides daily.
Use of these sites is growing, but their numbers remain tiny compared with Facebook. AllSides has more than 190,000 Instagram followers, while the Flip Side has 250,000 subscribers. It’s far from clear that they’ll make a difference when social media behemoths create information silos and nudge many toward tribalism and extremism.
Other experiments aim to shift the social media experience away from outrage and virtue signaling. What if status on social media hinged on traits such as open-mindedness? The Flip Side and Duke’s Polarization Lab are each working on social platforms toward this end. The Flip Side’s version will elevate posts enjoyed by people with different ideologies; the more likes by conservatives for a liberal’s post, for example, the more often it will be displayed to other users.
Candler, the teacher, recently discovered the Reddit forum Change My View, where people share opinions and award points to others whose replies help them think differently. Brett Johnson, CMV’s lead moderator who describes his politics as “center left,” says the forum has enhanced his empathy for conservatives. Johnson, of Houston, disagreed with Trump’s support of coal miners in 2016; then he saw a thread on CMV that explored why coal miners feel left behind, lacking realistic work options. “I still don’t think coal is coming back, but it helped me realize they’re victims of this,” he says.
Others are relying on information and discussion to bridge divides. Haidt, the NYU psychologist, developed a tutorial, called OpenMind, for schools and businesses to help students and employees communicate across differences. It includes lessons on finding common ground, reframing “us versus them” thinking, and curbing emotions when sharing opinions. The training lasts just a few hours, but Haidt believes providing it to newcomers to an organization can change the internal culture. Rather than targeting individuals, he says, “You have to change norms within existing groups.”
Stanford’s Center for Deliberative Democracy brings together registered voters with different political beliefs—unlike the birds-of-a-feather effect of social networks—to talk through thorny issues in groups of about eight to 15 people. Participants are identified randomly and polled on their views before and after the deliberations. Before the meetings, participants are assigned readings summarizing arguments for and against the policies that will be discussed.
This approach can shift partisan attitudes. After a 2019 deliberation, Republican support for giving visas to low-skilled workers rose to 71 percent, from 50 percent, while the share of Democrats wanting to increase the federal minimum wage fell to 59 percent, from 82 percent.
Over the weekend, AllSides hosted an event featuring one-on-one video discussions pairing Democrats and Republicans. The hope is that these more personal interactions will lead to more respectful debate than faceless Twitter tirades. “Relationships are what lead to change,” says Gable. As we’ve seen with some social media sites, when groups expand in size, they often lose the intimacy that helped make them enjoyable and constructive. Both the Stanford center and AllSides hope to convene thousands of these small groups simultaneously on the same issues.
Sharon McMahon is bringing fact-based political discussion to another forum: Instagram. The former high school civics teacher saw her Sharon Says So account expand to 600,000 followers after the January 6 attack on the Capitol. She taught for years in liberal Silver Spring, Maryland, before moving to more moderate Duluth, Minnesota, fostering an appreciation for different political climates. “Until you can passionately make arguments for both sides,” she says, “you don’t understand the issue.”
Her account offers overviews intended to be factual and neutral on controversial topics like Georgia’s recent voting law changes; shares strategies for having more nuanced, productive debates; and polls her followers of all political stripes. “It’s interesting to see others’ opinions and realize, most of the time, we want the same thing,” says Lea Henley, a right-leaning graduate student in Neosho, Missouri. Results of McMahon’s poll on gun control showed Henley that, while many liberals want to improve background checks, they don’t necessarily want to take all guns away, as she had believed. “I was truly shocked,” she says.
Primary sources help, too. McMahon frequently points her followers to all relevant sections of the Constitution, not just the ones they agree with. “What does it mean for citizens to keep and bear arms?” she asks them. “We can’t pretend the Constitution doesn’t say what it says.”
Candler is bringing McMahon’s influences and AllSides’ classroom materials to her students. She’s asking them to summarize others’ viewpoints before their own, and proudly trumpeting examples of their reflection and empathy on Facebook.