To avoid the danger of filter bubbles and to really try and understand how people who have opposing political beliefs to ours think, our social media spaces should feature a mix of views from both friends, family and connections we agree with, and from those we don't see eye to eye with.
Often the easy way out after getting into an exasperated argument with someone who voted differently is to remove them from our Facebook feed, instead of trying to reach a common ground – but US non-profit Spaceship Media is trying to change that.
Longtime journalists Eve Pearlman and Jeremy Hay, both based in the San Francisco Bay Area, founded Spaceship Media in November 2016 – a crucial time in US politics which saw trust in media and civil civic dialogue decline. They mapped out a concept for bringing together communities of people who were not talking at all or at least not productively, by "recognising at the outset their differences and the gaps between them" and producing reporting based on the conversations and issues that came up in those groups.
We wanted to... see what we could do, not to change minds or convert people, but to find points of commonality and to restore civil civic dialogueEve Pearlman, Spaceship Media
"Instead of going, as journalists often have, to the hearts of divides and getting a spokesperson from each side that articulates the oppositional points, and sometimes serves to divide people further, we wanted to go to those gaps and see what we could do not to change minds or convert people but to find points of commonality and to restore civil civic dialogue," Pearlman told Journalism.co.uk.
Spaceship Media uses this approach, called 'dialogue journalism', to design 'conversation experiences' which are engagement projects that take place in Facebook groups, tackle various issues and run for a limited amount of time. The dialogue journalism process has seven steps, from working with newsrooms to identify groups of people who are in conflict or at odds, and asking people what they know about the opposing group and what they would like to know, to moderating these conversations and finding stories in them.
The conversations people have are off the record, however by being present in the groups, journalists can build trust with readers and approach them for quotes or comments, which Pearlman said "creates a much more intimate relationship with the media organisation and with Spaceship Media itself".
Partnering with newsrooms enables Spaceship Media to tap into their communities of readers and asking them to participate. Initially, those interested have to fill out a Google Form with a few details about themselves, before the founders arrange interviews to get to know people better before adding them to the groups. News organisations often choose to keep the Facebook groups running even after the projects conclude, she added.
So far, the non-profit has hosted seven engagement initiatives, on topics such as agriculture, the San Francisco Bay Area housing crisis and immigration enforcement. The organisation uses a variety of methods and tools to set the stage for productive conversations, from "arranging recorded conversations between participants to be shared with the group to hosting topical Q&A sessions with outside guests," Hay told Journalism.co.uk in an email.
Its pilot project for example, brought together students of colour in Alameda, California and officers from the Alameda Police Department, to talk and understand more about implicit bias, law enforcement practices, and the Black Lives Matter movement.
For its first initiative since the official launch, called 'Talking politics: The Alabama-California conversation', Spaceship Media partnered with the Alabama Media Group to design a month-long conversation in a closed Facebook group with 25 women from Alabama who voted for Trump and 25 women from the San Francisco Bay area who voted for Clinton.
They discussed issues ranging from immigration and healthcare to news-reading habits, and 32 of the participants decided to form their own Facebook group at the end of the project to keep the conversation going, Pearlman said, which they have done throughout the course of the year.
"It isn't that I want to go into a conversation and convince you that immigration laws should be this way, but being able to respect and understand the validity of someone who believes and thinks differently about an issue, and to treat them with respect, is essential to democracy."
The founders are now working on the next project called 'The Many', modeled after 'Talking politics', which is set to launch in mid-February and that will continue to grow and run until the mid-term US elections in November 2018. It will also have all-women participants.
"Journalism has always played a role in listening to the voices that are less represented in media and it's well documented how dominant male voices are in public life. There's also the problem of online trolling that we avoid by convening this conversation of all women," Pearlman explained.
The initiative aims to bring together 5,000 women from across the country into a moderated Facebook group to talk about political, social and cultural issues. 'The Many', like other Spaceship Media projects, is funded through a grant, this time from the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust and the News Integrity Initiative at City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, and Pearlman said they will be collaborating with a main national news organisation as well as some local partners.
Our aim is to show that we can engage and talk differently at scale, even though we disagree with each otherEve Pearlman, Spaceship Media
Moderation is done both by the partner outlets and Spaceship Media (although the latter takes the lead on it) and although the organisers start discussions and ask questions in the groups, the conversations "evolve from the interests and curiosities of the people in the group and what's happening in their particular communities".
"We're really interested in people as a whole, not just avatars of particular political positions. One of the great things we see in our groups is people talking about where they get their news, and people very often get a chance to look at how CNN frames a story versus how Fox and the Washington Post do it.
"The way we envision [The Many] is that as the electoral rancour gets deeper and deeper, we're creating this counterbalance to say that we can actually do this differently, and that's our aim with this project – to show that we can engage and talk differently at scale, even though we disagree with each other.
"Just bringing together people who don't talk to each other and who don't read the same news and allowing them to engage respectfully is a very impactful action," Pearlman said.
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