February 14, 2020
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This tool can help get us out of our echo chambers

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

Polarization is crippling and inciting our nation — and it is getting worse. Politicians are getting more polarized in what they do and say. And voters are getting more polarized in how they feel about those in the other party.

Scholars are still debating the causes of polarization, but one that is widely considered to be important is the growth of partisan media and the echo chambers problem. We increasingly get our news from like-minded sources that mostly tell us why our “side” is right, and why the other side is wrong — and also dishonest, corrupt and outrageous.

Perhaps you are not in an echo chamber; many media consumers indeed are not. Echo chambers are still a problem that should concern you. Many other citizens out there are getting mostly one-sided information, including many who don’t share your political views.

So how do we get people out of their echo chambers? A good number of organizations, online and off, have been working on this problem, primarily by encouraging people to get out of their bubbles because it’s the right thing to do. This approach may persuade some media consumers, but perhaps a relatively small fraction, and perhaps those who are relatively nonpartisan.

We have built a tool, Media Trades, to fight echo chambers that we think will appeal both to media consumers who are not in echo chambers themselves — and to those media consumers who are not particularly interested in seeing the other side’s point of view.

Media Trades is a (free and nonprofit) website with a simple premise: to pair up people from the left and right to trade media content. This allows you to get someone on the other side out of their echo chamber — to show them the light! The price you pay for this service is that you must read something from their point of view. We think it’s a price worth paying if you want the other side to get important information they might otherwise miss.

Media Trades takes one of the most basic and important principles of economics — that voluntary exchange yields mutual gains — and applies it to politics. Trade is almost magical; it turns our differences into strengths.

Media Trades does require users to choose one of two sides. We know this is simplistic and we don’t want to encourage a false binary way of thinking about political views. But let’s be realistic, most of our political conflict occurs between two sides (the two parties). Strong partisans won’t mind identifying one way or the other. If you’re less comfortable with this, but mostly identify with one side and want to share information with the other side, go ahead and choose the side you mostly agree with.

The biggest challenge media traders face is verifying they read or watched the story their partner shared. To do this, we ask users to provide a short (tweet-size) review summarizing the main point or points of the story — just the gist of it, nothing elaborate. Users also have the option to provide a separate editorial response.

Users then read each other’s reviews and rate them, thumbs up or down. Users with more thumbs up ratings get prioritized for future trades (and perhaps additional rewards down the road). Users should want to give their partners accurate ratings — because if your partner did the reading, you want them to read additional stories shared by your side!

Research shows that exposure to the other side’s views indeed helps change views and depolarize. So, if you want to share information with “the other side,” please give Media Trades a shot, and share it with other people who would be interested.

Daniel F. Stone is an associate professor of economics at Bowdoin College in Brunswick.

 


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