Here’s how technology can help reduce political polarization

The internet can be used to help reverse political and social divisions instead of pulling Americans farther apart.

“They voted for Trump, so obviously we can’t talk about anything.”

“There’s no use reasoning with them; they’re left-wing nuts.”

“Why can’t they see that THEY are the problem?”

This type of extreme political polarization feels ordinary in today’s America. Confident ignorance and self-righteous anger seem normal. Apparently bent on division, we dismiss the other side instead of valuing alternative viewpoints.

These problems are easy to see. The challenge is fixing them.

AllSides, a technology startup founded in 2012, is producing the systems, services and technology to reverse society’s divisive trends. Co-founded by the former product manager team lead for Netscape Navigator (the world’s first popular web browser), AllSides was born from the realization that the internet should help reverse polarization instead of driving it.

Our mission is to free people from filter bubbles so they can better understand the world — and each other. That begins with addressing flaws in how news and knowledge circulate online, but doesn’t stop there. In working to initiate dialogue across divides, we’re improving interpersonal relationships and strengthening our democracy at its most basic level.

Illustration of satellites orbiting the Earth

Let’s start with problems in today’s information flow.

Frequently, digital news producers deliver clickbait to garner traffic and ad revenue. And as users filter out content that doesn’t fit their point of view, news feeds can warp to only circulate trending stories or ideas that users already agree with — limiting the user’s ability to adequately comprehend a given issue.

Information bubbles divide us

As a University of Colorado study found, these bubbles have two major consequences: People become more extreme in their beliefs, and they lose tolerance for the “other” side.

This is where AllSides comes in. We help people to see a broader worldview and understand each other in spite of their differences.

Our patented, multipartisan media bias ratings system shows contrasts between news coverage on certain sides of the media; our Red Blue Dictionary works as a “translator” for political opposites to better interpret each other’s views; and our Balanced Search engine and expansive aggregation service show multiple perspectives on news and issues from throughout the political spectrum — an area where many sources fall short.

Instead of fueling groupthink and echo chambers, we provide a more complete picture of what each side is thinking and saying. And when people know the full story, they can appreciate opposing points of view and develop thoughtful, informed outlooks.

Nonetheless, as ideological battles rage on, AllSides knows that rising above polarization requires building awareness and collaborative skills at the foundation: the classroom.

Last year, AllSides founded AllSides for Schools (AS4S), a joint nonprofit initiative with Living Room Conversations and the Mediators Foundation aimed at preparing students with skills in news literacy, respectful dialogue and critical thinking.

Communicate outside comfort zone

Still, getting information from all angles is not enough. Unless people learn the importance of communicating outside their comfort zone, transformation is impossible.

Cue Mismatch by AllSides, an online video conversation platform that transcends distance and divides to connect classrooms for respectful, face-to-face conversations. Last March, Mismatch was piloted in schools across 14 states to foster informed discussions between students from different backgrounds and perspectives — exchanges that may never happen otherwise.

Take what happened when high school classrooms in Utah and New York were “mismatched” during the pilot. While the “colorful language” used by the East Coast students left their rural counterparts awestruck (the type of language that could get them kicked out of school), the city-bound students were amazed by the mountainous landscape visible through the Utah classroom’s windows. It was unlike anything many of them had ever seen.

Such positive results make these initiatives seem like common sense — a necessary product of a democratic republic. But recently, as ideological barriers appear to define our democracy, open learning and sensible conversations seem unattainable.

In truth, a silent majority sees these divides and wants to solve them. Fully 93% of Americans say incivility is a problem; 68% say it’s a crisis. Disagreement is fine and can even be fruitful, but not when simply out of ignorance or contempt.

For AllSides — and for all of us — the goal is to empower this majority to break through anger, overcome differences and truly understand the other side. Conquering this challenge will equip our democracy, and all of its beautifully diverse communities, with the tools to better serve everyone.

John Gable is the president of Henry A. Brechter is the managing editor at Reach him at