March 26, 2023

How Some Americans Are Breaking Out of Political Echo Chambers

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.

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