Popping the Filter Bubble

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Joan Blades was an entrepreneur co-founder of MoveOn.org.

John Gable (also a tech entrepreneur) was a Republican operative — helping elect politicians like Trent Lott and Mitch McConnell.

Joan and John are the unlikely duo behind a viral TED talk on the problem of political polarization, and the founders of a technology-based solution.

AllSides.com is your one-stop shop for headlines from across the political spectrum. Like a bulldozer for bias, All Sides conveniently aggregates stories from around the web along with a rating — left, right, center, or left- or right-leaning.

Screenshot of AllSides.com. Try switching your morning news source from Drudge Report or Huffington Post to AllSides.com and see what it does to your blood pressure.

I’ll admit — it’s fun to get mad at the idiocy of the “other side” and the internet offers an endless supply of confirmation bias for whatever opinions you hold.

But the danger of such extreme political polarization is that our government may not function the way it’s supposed to.

In my book Power to the States: How Federalism 2.0 Can Make America Governable Again, I theorized that anger in politics is a result of too much power being given to Federal government.

John and Joan, however, see something else — namely, that the advent of digital communities allows us to select our news sources to fit our narrow beliefs (rather than forming our beliefs from the same set of facts).

John and Joan joined me to discuss the nature of these “filter bubbles” — our self-made echo chambers — and how their platform works to “pop” these bubbles of bias.

Be sure to catch the full conversation.

Transcipt:

Bob Zadek: Welcome to the Bob Zadek Show, the longest running live libertarian talk radio show on all of radio for 12 years and counting.

Thank you so much for listening to this end of summer Sunday morning.

My regular listeners and friends out there know that I have spent a lot of time and intellectual energy worrying about trying to solve the problem of polarization in America. Many observers have expressed the view that polarization is worse than it has ever been. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I don’t even know how to measure it. I doubt that it is if you look back over the span of American history, but perhaps it is, in any event. Whether it’s the worst or second worst or third worst is hardly the issue. It is nevertheless bad.

Disagreement on political issues is healthy. That is how we produce a better political product and a better life in America. When polarization creeps over to the personal, ad hominem attacks, and the splitting up of friendships and relationships, even possibly family members, then it is not healthy at all.

While many people, politicians, pundits, media darlings, and the like, seem to thrive on polarization (it is the fertilizer for their money and influence), it is profoundly unhealthy. Nobody has offered very much by way of a solution. This morning’s guests, Joan Blades and John Gable–an odd couple of sorts politically, but that is besides the point–have found what I think is the first really sensible solution to the problem of polarization.

Now, it may not be the solution, maybe that is a bit grandiose, but it certainly is an enormous step in the right direction. It is an approach that everybody listening to this show and everybody in America who cares can participate in. They have found a way to turn down the rhetoric, turn down the heat, and actually get people who may have differing or profoundly opposite political beliefs to still, in Rodney King’s words, “All get along.”

So with that introduction, I’m happy to welcome to the show Joan blades and John Gable. There are two concepts that they will explain to you: Living Room Conversations and AllSides.com.

Joan and John, thank you so much for joining me this morning.

Joan, why don’t you start, tell us a bit of the story about how you found your way to living room conversation. How did it all start?

The Premise of Living Room Conversations

Joan Blades: Well, thank you for asking and thank you for having me. I am also a cofounder of MoveOn.org and I am a resident of Berkeley who was actually born here. I’m a mediator by origin and inclination, and many people have forgotten that MoveOn was started midway during the Clinton impeachment scandal, and my husband and I put out a one sentence petition to congressmen to immediately censure the President and “move on” to the pressing issues facing the nation.

We were astounded when we got 100,000 people signing that within a week. In 1998, that was extraordinary. And that’s when I started really learning about politics.

Bob Zadek: Joan, one question: When those 100,000 people were signing on to your one sentence petition –in your judgment, if this is answerable — were they signing on because they liked the censure Clinton piece or “Move On” piece?

Joan Blades: I’d say the answer is both, but particularly “move on.” You could love Clinton or you could hate Clinton, but fundamentally the feeling was, “Enough of this, we’ve got to get back to doing the important work of having a functional country.” It was polarized and at that time I thought polarization was really bad. Now is this as polarized as America to ever be? Well, I don’t know, but in my lifetime I’d say it is, and I find that something we really as citizens have to address.

What Exactly is Polarization?

Bob Zadek: Now Joan, when you say polarization, help the audience understand what you mean by that phrase. There will always be people on opposite sides of a question factually. So when you say polarization, I think you mean more than that, something far more troubling.

Joan Blades: When I say polarization, I mean getting into this sport where you just disagree with the other side because they are the other side. I think of magnets. There are magnets that attract and magnets that push each other away. Even when you agree in many ways, because you know they are on the other side, you’re not going to work with them. It’s really a very dysfunctional way that we are feeling towards each other right now.

The Birth of Allsides.com

Bob Zadek: Now John, your background is tech . As you have explained in the mini interviews you have given, you grew up in very conservative coal country in Kentucky, you found your way to the West Coast, and you’re a techie. I say that obviously in the most respectful, just purely factual way. You’re a techie in Silicon Valley, which is where you spent most of your career, and you’ve had a political background as well.

So tell us a bit about your background to the extent relevant to this mornings talk and specifically tell us about allsides.com which is incredibly exciting.

John Gable: The whole idea of AllSides originated during my work at Netscape. Netscape was the first popular web browser and I was the lead product manager for that product. Back then, the internet was young, and we were working so hard that literally the CEO locked the doors one weekend to keep us away so we would actually take a break, because we were working so hard one weekend. We actually believed in the really libertarian ideal of incredible connection. You’d have all this information at your fingertips and therefore could make better decisions and be empowered with information, while being connected with people all around the world to be able to understand who these people were, and this was the kool-aid I drank when I got up in the morning.

I believe that the internet has done that to great extent but I also saw the downside to it. 22 years ago I gave a speech saying that I thought the internet might also train us to discriminate against each other in new ways. And that has gotten a lot worse than I ever imagined and in ways I haven’t imagined. But I do think the extreme level of polarization that we have today is driven by technology, media, and online technology in its current state. It is changing and it can change for the better. When you think about polarization, and there are ways to measure it, and want to understand it, you have to understand the cause. And so I’m very cause oriented, starting with what caused it, and that’s what led us to all-sides.

Technology and the Confirmation Bias

Bob Zadek: Tell us a bit about the causes because that interests me a great deal.

You have a particular wealth of knowledge because you have watched technology grow and the media along with it. They are clearly contributing forces.

John Gable: There’s one thing that we know from scientific study after scientific study, including a recent one at the University of Colorado, that when individuals only see their perspective and only hear what they already believe, and if they only are around people who are just like them, two very fundamental things happen. 1) We become much more extreme in what we believe and 2) we become much less tolerant of anyone who thinks differently than I do or any ideas that are different than mine.

That’s what we are seeing worldwide, whether it’s Brexit in England or in United States or in other parts of the world. You can measure that polarization and see it is increasing as technology is adopted. We can’t prove a causal effect but the correlation is insane. I see that as a major cause. As we get so much information in this incredibly crowded world of so many voices and so much information, then we use this technology in other ways to kind of filter it out. At its current state, the filters are just basically clickbait.

At its current state, the filters are just basically clickbait.

They’re filtering to give you what you want to see and what you already agree with or people just like you, whether it is through sorting and society as we look at people just like us or anything else and by itself and that is not bad.

The problem is that we’re cut off from each other. We are cut off from people who think differently or are different from us and all the business models and the technology, and I did not anticipate this becoming so brilliant, encourages us to click a certain way or spend money or vote in a certain way in order to get us to do what they want. All of this makes us focus on listening to people who are similar to us. As a result we are becoming less tolerant and we are much more extreme in what we believe.

Bob Zadek: My listeners out there will know that the political concept that John is describing is called confirmation bias. People feel better when they, having had a certain point of view, have people who are purportedly smart and well known and speak with authority saying exactly what this hypothetical person believes. Then he gets to feel he is smart too. All these other people that I respect are confirming what I believe. So there is a feel good aspect to this when listeners tune in to their favorite pundits or read their favorite bloggers or columnists. It just reaffirms to the individual that they’re on the right track. So rather than being invited to rethink a position, it gets baked in even more.

Is that a pretty accurate description, John?

John Gable: It’s excellent and I love the fact that you said “feels good,” because it’s not just about information, it’s also about relationships and feelings. Despite how smart we are are as a species, we generally make decisions intuitively and emotionally. After that we rationalize our decisions. There’s lots of stuff you can do if you’re trained in critical thinking to combat that but in reality that’s how we generally do things.

It is one of the great things with AllSides is that we are really focused on information filter bubbles, to free us from being confidently ignorant, which is how I always refer to what happens today. We see one point of view and you only see 10% of the argument and you hear that 800 times. So you are really confident, but you’re ignorant about the other 90% of the issue. And that’s part of what AllSides started to work on. And then Joan Blades, with Living Room Conversations, focused more on the relationship side, and now we both do that together and it is the two together that really start to turn the tables.

The Polarization Problem

Bob Zadek: You seem to be describing a social problem rather than a political problem. But of course there’s no clear distinction. So tell us the problem that troubled you so much and this wonderful solution, Living Room Conversations that you have come up with.

So first, what troubled you the most about the situation as you saw it and how did you come up with this solution?

Joan Blades: Living in Berkeley and being a leader of MoveOn, I came to the understanding at a certain point that I was not getting the whole story because I didn’t know why, for instance, a lot of people on the right were not concerned about climate change. And way back in 2004 and 2005, I started being able to pass some really good conversations, intentional conversations with people on the right and I made friends and it was very productive. I was able to go to the Hill with a friend from the Christian coalition to talk about net neutrality and we had conversations about climate I had been wanting to happen. It was productive at that time.

By 2008 and 2009 it was less possible to have a productive conversation on that topic. I’m a real believer that leadership stands on the foundation of grassroots.

If our leadership is not what we want on very many levels, that is what we are responsible for. And so we have to create the change and start having relationships again and talking about politics with people with different political viewpoints and to do that in an intentional way. Living Room Conversations is a really lovely container so that those conversations are good. To have that kind of conversations be massively reproducible so that it could go viral, like I had experienced multiple times at MoveOn over the course of 10 years, we do not require a facilitator. These are small conversations with friends with different viewpoints. These conversations start with a set of agreements about how you are going to interact, which is basically what you learn in Kindergarten.

Take turns, be curious, be respectful on your part of the conversation.

Then it has three rounds, the first of which allows you to really get a sense of the deeper values of the people you’re sitting with. So that by the time you get to the second round, which is about the topic you have chosen, and we have a hundred topics, and they’re all reviewed by partners with diverse political perspectives so that it is as welcoming as it can be across the political spectrum.

Take turns, be curious, be respectful on your part of the conversation.

They range from guns and responsibility to free speech, to homelessness, to technology and relationships. It’s whatever people want to talk about because ultimately to be able to work on any issue successfully, we need to be able to work together. This has been a wonderful experience for the people doing it. But as things have gotten more polarized, it’s become harder for people to say, will you be my co host? People are anxious about asking a friend or a colleague or a neighbor to co host with them.

So that leads back to John and I and partnership. Mismatch is something that we are working on. And actually for our schools program, we have had to help students across the country talk to each other and it has been fantastic.

Bob Zadek: I have a couple of observations to start this part of the conversation. Number one, the polarization to me is quite interesting because when we have polls which are on the evening news every single night on a very wide range of topics that try to explain what the country believes. I always have the same reaction to those polls. And my reaction is the poll doesn’t really say what people think. It says what people listen to. Because most people sensibly are not going to spend a couple of months analyzing climate change graphs.

They’re not going to do it, nor should they do it. They have a life and therefore they use shortcuts, and I say this not in a judgmental sense. These are often the bloggers you read and the bloggers you follow. So polls reflect mostly what media people follow, because what they think is not a conclusion intellectually arrived, it is a solution. They were taught by whoever they chose to listen to. I think this is reinforcing what John said. The media really drives the polls, not what people sat around and thought about. Any thoughts about that? John, am I onto something? Am I understating or overstating that issue?

John Gable: I love the way you described it. I see it the same way and it has gotten a lot worse in terms of the filter-bubbles, if you will. So people are just seeing one point of view. So pure research says this thing where they actually do measure polarization by tracking where people stand from a left to right through a series of long questions, and if you look at that as a graph, it used to look like a big bell curve where there were mostly in the middle and fewer people in extreme sides. About 10 years ago, it began to look like a two humped camel. And today it’s just a big pit in the middle. What has happened is that technology is both the problem and the solution to the problem to what you just described.

It’s a problem to the extent right now that people see just one extreme point of view. Most of it is unintentional. It’s not people intentionally going one way. They just see this one extreme point of view. There are these old stories about how Time Magazine would sometimes do a poll to find out what people thought about something and they didn’t know there was actually a war in South America. They didn’t know how many people died.

So Time asked if people knew, and then there was an article about how a certain number of people died, and suddenly their experts said, “Oh, this is how many died because I read it in Time Magazine.” It’s a ridiculous loop. The only way to get through that, the only way to get past that, is to provide people the quick and instantaneous ability to able to see different perspectives on the same issue, on the same story. How it can be different even on factual stories on a daily basis is stunning. There are examples that we’ve seen where literally their reporters are probably standing within touching distance, reporting from the same scene and the headlines are so radically different that it’s hard to believe. The only way to get to what’s going on at the end of the day is to show people different perspectives.

We don’t want to have our perspective and bias driving things. We want you to empower people to understand what’s really going on and the best way to do that we know is be able to quickly give people different perspectives on what’s going on around the issue so they can have a broader understanding of what’s going on and be enabled and capable of thinking for themselves from deciding for themselves. That is what allsides.com is all about. That’s why we built it the way we did.

Bob Zadek: Joan, you started to talk about Living Room Conversations where you bring together two people probably with dissimilar political orientations and each of the two people invite others to join a total of six people. They sit around and have a conversation about a political issue. I had one question as I was thinking about.

Joan Blades: I should respond to some of that description first because it is in faith communities, it’s in libraries, it’s in bookstores and it’s being done by video online. We’re having these wonderful conversations that cross the country and they are not all political. I mean there are people that say it’s politics, I don’t want to touch it, but we have a conversation about food.

Living Room Conversations: A Political and Social Goal

Bob Zadek: Joan, food is very political. Unfortunately, too much is political. Is your goal social or political? Is your goal that people get along better and not let political differences spill over? Or do you want to change people’s minds on an issue? Or, is it both?

Joan Blades: I think it is to expand their viewpoints on an issue. Going in and trying to change someone’s mind tends to not be a good orientation. Once you have a connection with people, it changes your orientation and you start to see broader ways of looking at things. When I started talking to you about climate with my friend Jacob, it wasn’t a concern for him, and it became a concern for him first and foremost because he cared about me and he caused me to understand that my climate change theory is indeed a progressive story. I hadn’t thought about it that way.

I learned about his concern as faith-based conservative about being marginalized. And I don’t want my friend Jake to be marginalized. So it’s about gaining connections that deepen our understanding of the concerns of all the people that are part of this country. Once we care about each other, then we’re going to try and meet each other’s basic needs and we’re going to be far more able to work on the issues we all care about in a successful way.

The Problem of Disagreements of Fact

Bob Zadek: One of the problems that I had or an obstacle that I saw within myself is how are those disagreements handled when one of the two disagreeing parties bases their disagreement on facts that are just plain wrong. It’s almost impossible for people to sit around in any civilized conversation and say, “it’s a known fact,” and the other person responds, “no, the fact is this?” Those two sides can never become any closer because one is relying on bad facts. How do you train people to deal with that?

Joan Blades: If you are following the conversation guidelines and answering the questions you are being asked, you’re not going to be fighting back.

Guns are one of those issues that are very hot politically. What kind of questions do we have in that conversation? We know we’re not going to solve the problem of guns in the conversation. The questions are, what role have guns played in your life? Where did you learn about guns and what did you learn? Are guns second amendment issue important to you? Is there anything you would change about current gun laws or regulation in your state at the federal level? So that is the conversation prompt. Your personal relationship with that topic. Because once people get into citing this fact or that fact, you kind of go back into what I sometimes described as a political trance, where you’re just having this argument that doesn’t tend to persuade anybody. And strangely enough it tends to get people more embedded in their own point of view rather than expanded.

Bob Zadek: So, the goal is to get people to get along better interpersonally rather than to affect the content of the political conversation?

Joan Blades:The goal is to soften the boundaries and to create some understanding and empathy for other points of view. For example, I had our climate change conversation in Utah. And we had our two hour conversation in a home and two of the participants had to be kicked out of the house two hours later because they hadn’t had that exposure with a really different viewpoint where they could have a really good conversation. So you have a living room conversation which keeps you in this container that is very much about listening and really getting other people’s views into your sense of awareness. And now you can talk to people about other things you are curious about. Then you can discuss the facts with these people because you like them and are comfortable with them.

Bob Zadek: Joan, I’m going to ask you a somewhat personal question. Not intimate, just personal. Let us assume that over a five year period, statistics show the public is less sympathetic to the progressive point of view on a certain issue than they were 5 years ago and the reason for that change was because of Living Room Conversations. Would that mean that you achieved your goal? Would you be disappointed or does that part of it matter at all?

Joan Blades: For me personally it matters that people are less polarized and are getting along. I am one of many partners at Living Room Conversations and ultimately I believe that we are not going to successfully address any of the big issues that we need to address unless we start effectively working with each other. And right now we are in this state of dysfunction for me. The homelessness situation around here is a physical manifestation of our inability to effectively address critical issues set up right in front of us.

Bob Zadek: Homelessness is of course a big issue in the Bay Area as everyone knows. When I have a conversation about homelessness with others, often it is a mind versus heart conversation. There is no disagreement that homelessness is bad and we need to find a solution. The problem is in what the solution is. There is no disagreement on the problem. The solution has to be based upon what is proven to work, which is often factual. So you have to have data, and if there is such disagreement on the data, any possibility of common ground disappears. I have tried to have these conversations. I am speaking from my heart. I crash into this famous battle between heart and mind.

When you have, sitting in the living room or in a church basement or online, a heart versus mind disagreement, it is so hard to get through. Does your Living Room Conversation offer tools to deal with that?

Joan Blades: It does. It’s, it’s not the destination. It’s an entryway you need to have, and it’s a way to invite in voices that are missing. Homelessness is a wicked problem. It is hyper-local, regional, national problem and it has to be addressed on multiple levels and in very many ways. And we have to have the agility to keep adapting as we start addressing that. Right now we have this wonderful program here and there but I don’t see sufficient mobilization that is seriously going to address it at the level that needs to be addressed. And that is going to take us having those voices in the room.

Bob Zadek: My last question is, is it your goal to collectively produce solutions to some of these vexatious problems? Or is it to get people to be more civil and less angry at each other, and to take it less personally? Or are both equally the goal? Which of these two goals are most realistic.

Joan Blades: Both of these are the goal and both are equally realistic. It has had really good impact on criminal justice because we found some common ground there and I think there are other places for that to happen too.

AllSides: The Goals of the Project

Bob Zadek: John, tell us about the concept of AllSides, what it is, how our audience can find it and what you hope to achieve.

John Gable: Okay. Well let me tie it together with your conversation. But first of all, it’s easy and free for everyone. It is AllSides.com and we do that, not behind a paywall or anything like that because we really are a mission-based company. We really are focused on enabling people to understand the world better and understand each other. Our mission is to free people from filter bubbles so they can better understand the world and each other. And for homelessness, I think that’s a perfect example. You were just talking about where the heart versus the mind because you see the news immediately and what happens when an individual sees news from different perspectives or receives coverage of homelessness from different perspectives is that they become less rigid and one world where otherwise they may just see one perspective and get stuck.

John Gable: It begins to loosen the barriers. It can broaden perspective. And when you can be connected with somebody from the other side and you recognize that your hearts are aligned, and you both want to solve the problem, then you can actually use your mind for the best solution.

Go to progressives if you want to know what the problem is, go to conservatives who want to know how to solve it.

I think that before you do that, some people may make decisions not just on what the problem is using their heart, but actually come up with the solution using your heart or intuition. As we know, sometimes the intuitive answer is not the best answer. It’s not the one that works the best.

A friend of mine frequently says, “Go to progressives if you want to know what the problem is, go to conservatives who want to know how to solve it.”

And that may not be true, but sometimes it is and it is really a combination of heart and mind that’s necessary.

Bob Zadek: Well, John, that sounds right to me. Tell us about the website itself. What does it do? How is it organized and how can our friends out there use it to help their understanding?

John Gable: So we basically report on what’s going on out in the world. So we have a way of using some technology we created to identify different perspectives on the latest news that just broke or any issue. So you just go there and see today’s news. Instead of seeing our interpretation of news, you see the biggest story today as it was covered on the left, maybe from the New York Times, or in the center, or on the right. So you will see headlines across political spectrums.

Frequently those headlines are very different. Just by reading those three headlines, you instantly come up with a better understanding of what’s really going on. It’s almost always a joke to look at the way different news organizations cover the monthly jobs report. The headlines are stunningly different and they all are looking at exactly the same data. I remember reading one article before the 2016 election that showed how a lot of people were hired and a lot more people got jobs and they had quoted several economists on how that’s about as good as we could do with our economic cycle right now.

And then I went to Washington Times and their headline was how the unemployment rate just went up. That there were actually fewer people hired now than there were before. And then I go to gallop and they actually showed how the numbers used in Government only refer to people who are looking for jobs. If you count the people who’ve given up looking for jobs the unemployment rate was closer to 10%. So all have the same data and yet show things very differently. At AllSides we enable people to instantly get a broader perspective of what’s really going on. You can see the news and you can search for specific topics.

If there’s a specific issue that you care about, like homelessness or criminal justice or immigration, we will actually introduce you to tools like living room conversation that enable you to have a conversation with somebody else about it. We run something called with living room conversations called Mismatch.org which where you have video conversations across divides. We actually test it in schools. We have rural students in Utah talking with urban city kids in New York City and when we’ve done this kind of thing, we actually measure a shift of attitude after just one conversation students are better appreciate the other person.

The kids in Utah couldn’t believe that the New York City kids were using colorful language because they could get kicked out of school for colorful language. And the kids in New York City were stern when the Utah students showed them the video of mountains.

They can discuss certain issues like homelessness. The way to solve the problem is to empower the people to better understand each other and what’s going on so we can make better decisions and force the politicians to do what we want them to do. That’s all.

Bob Zadek: Well Joan and John, I hope you’re happy because the whole organization of my life just changed. Now I’m going to become addicted to AllSides.com and I’m going to be spending every minute that I have in some conversation online or in person talking about politics. My life is like altered now as a result.