A Facebook experiment with California liberals and Alabama conservatives suggests beliefs, not facts, are what really divide us

Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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Just over a year after voters placed Donald Trump in the White House, the country remains more divided than ever. After initial overtures, many voters and pundits have sprinted farther away from one another. On one side are essays like Frank Rich’s “No Sympathy for the Hillbilly.” On the other, is the ongoing vitriol of Trump’s online legions.

But going into mid-term elections later this year, one group thinks there is common ground. It’s bringing together Democrats and Republicans from the Deep South and coastal California. And it’s using the same platform that helped tear apart these two groups in the first place: Facebook. In December 2016, the journalism non-profit Spaceship Media launched a month long project called Talking Politics. Fifty women from Alabama and California agreed to join a Facebook group dedicated to discussing everything from immigration reform to the Affordable Care Act to the details of their daily lives.

It wasn’t a free for all. Journalists from (Alabama’s largest media group) and Spaceship joined the forum. They supplied real-time statistics and information during key moments (and moderation when tempers flared). The project generated 10,000 comments and three feature stories before ending in January 2017. A spin-off Facebook group with women from the project, Cali-Bama Connect, remains active.

This year, Spaceship Media is doubling down. “The Many” will launch on Feb. 26 with 5,000 Democratic, Republican, and independent women from across the US. Spaceship co-founder Eve Pearlman says this “dialogue journalism” can rebuild trust in media, and in one’s fellow citizens. Rather than passively relying on media to supply facts, journalists supply facts at key times while discretely tamping down hostility as needed (Spaceship said such interventions happened about half a dozen times during last year’s month-long pilot). Partnering media organizations publish feature stories that spring from these conversations.

“Our model relies on responding with information in response to conflicts that arise in the groups,” says Pearlman. “We used journalists to get [the participants] out of their information bubble to provide some common ground, and they trusted us.” Pearlman credits this approach with creating a “personalized, journalism-supported experience built around the needs of the conversation participants.”

Trump vs. Hillary

But what does putting 50 strangers in a Facebook group with a few journalists actually achieve?

It certainly doesn’t change how they vote. Quartz surveyed 33 women in the original group about why they joined, and whether it was useful. Most gave Talking Politics high marks ranking it extremely or fairly valuable. No one admitted to switching their votes for president or party.

But changing people’s minds isn’t the point, says Pearlman. It’s more important that people just hear one other, rather than demonize each otherMost participants agreed. The women described their motivation for joining the project as “understanding.” Some were fearful of Trump and  his supporters (as well as vice versa for Hillary’s camp), but most responded as one Trump supporter from Alabama did when she wrote “I wanted to understand and be understood.”

That theme repeated itself again and again on both sides, often defying regional stereotypes. Republican Sue Ann of Alabama wrote she was seeking “dialogue with people who think differently than me but are willing to listen.” Susannah of Oakland wrote “as a white woman, a progressive, and a follower of Jesus….I couldn’t wrap my mind around voting for [Trump]. I needed to understand on a deeper level beyond the headlines.”

People did soften their stance on some issues thanks to information supplied by journalists. Participants who learned about immigrants’ contributions to the economy and tax revenue, as well as sky-rocketing insurance premiums in Alabama (because of the state’s rejection of Medicaid expansion), said different personal experiences had shaped some of their assumptions and lead to deeper,  more sympathetic understanding of the other side.

“We all care about making sure the poor are taken care of,” wrote Jane, a Trump supporter from Alabama. “We disagree about how to accomplish that…I saw regional differences that may necessitate different solutions to the same problems.” Only about 10% of women felt they couldn’t envision becoming friends with their counterparts on the other end of the political spectrum.

Yet many hit a wall when it came to their beliefs. Their values about how to achieve even shared goals, such as lowering poverty, simply could not be reconciled. Californian’s opposition to Trump tended to center on character and competence—his attacks on women, minorities, his narcissism and hypocrisy—while the Alabaman’s defense of Trump sprang mostly from policy and a rejection of the current system. Clinton supporters saw race and misogyny as a major factor. The other virulently rejected that possibility. ”That kind of history doesn’t just change because of a month-long Facebook conversation,” wrote Swaicha Chanduri of California.

Several women dropped out of the project. Cynthia Pollock of San Francisco said she left Talking Politics in frustration. “I grew up in rural Arkansas. I have friends who have very different backgrounds, who grew up in other countries and states, who are poor and wealthy,” she wrote. I can’t commit to holding the Alabama women’s hands through understanding structural racism and how their politics are racist, classist, and ableist. But god bless the women in the group who are finding these conversations hopeful. I can’t.” When reached this Jan. 24, Pollock said although her outrage has ebbed, and she is focused on supporting upcoming candidates rather than convincing Trump supporters. That’s probably realistic. The regretful Trump voter may be largely a myth: only 3% of Trump supporters reported wishing they could change their vote last year.

Rushing into ruin

But changing minds, at least in the short term, may not be necessary to improve the state of politics. Convincing  your fellow citizens you’re both on the same team may be more important. One of the best hopes for US democracy could be as prosaic as not holding each other in contempt despite our disagreements. That’s the lesson opponents of Hugo Chávez belatedly learned in Venezuela after failing to resist a dictatorship that plunged the country into ruin (a country with world’s largest known oil reserves is now racked by food shortages and violent protests).

Venezuelan journalist Andrés Miguel Rondón warned (paywall) last January that lessons of Chávez are being lost on Americans. When Venezuelans became convinced that their society was split between treacherous oligarchs and gullible masses supporting populism, extreme polarization meant all issues were boiled down to “us” against “them.”

“The only one who benefited was Chávez,” Rondón writes.

Americans, he writes, must assure Trump’s supporters they “belong in the same tribe as them — that you are American in exactly the same way they are.”  The opposition in Venezuela eventually went into the slums and the countryside, played dominoes, and danced salsa to show they were more than merely caricatures of the elite. After ten years, it was too late.

Trump’s opponents have a different choice. ”Recognize that you’re the enemy Trump requires,” writes Rondón. “Show concern, not contempt, for the wounds of those who brought him to power. By all means, be patient with democracy and struggle relentlessly to free yourself from the shackles of the caricature the populists have drawn of you. It’s a tall order. But the alternative is worse. Trust me.”

Correction: A previous version of this post mentioned Starship Media. It is Spaceship Media.