It’s Possible To Fix The Problems Of Partisanship and Fake News. Here’s An Educational Approach.

As American civil society devolves into a pit of partisanship, rumor and violence, there is one thing that leaves me incredibly optimistic that we can fix our democracy: there is strong evidence that most voters can be politically moderate, curious, tolerant towards outsiders and deeply knowledgeable.

I know this because I witnessed firsthand a few years ago when a popular media outlet used a Stanford-designed process known as “deliberative democracy”, which brought a representative group of citizens together to discuss immigration reform. After around 10 hours of moderated discussion, we saw large shifts in political moderation, topic knowledge, tolerance towards immigrants and trust in institutions. It’s the very same dramatic improvement that Stanford has produced again (and again) over the decades through these deliberations all over the world.

So, readers may ask, if this process is magical, why hasn’t it saved the country from the current mess? Well, it’s really expensive, costing between hundreds to thousands of dollars per participant in direct financial incentives, or upwards of billions of dollars for the entire country on a single topic.

So, I and others are going to spend the next few years figuring out how to dramatically reduce the cost. We’ll be working with cities to reach out to citizens, foundations to fund research, and corporations for in-kind donations. Most importantly, we’ll be working with tech companies to figure out how to scale deliberations through the websites and apps that voters are already using for political discussions.

Our evidence runs counter to the popular social science narrative that fact checking and political dialog just hardens people’s existing beliefs, leaving them more partisan, angry and closed-minded.

Deliberations work for one very simple reason: participants are genuinely learning a lot of new information in a way that holds up in conversation. Some of the best evidence suggests that partisanship is the product of the illusion of knowledge: people think they understand a topic, but their beliefs crumble when asked to talk about them at length (what researchers call “the illusion of explanatory depth”).

Conversation and fact-checking do work, but participants need to really understand a topic well and have experience talking about a subject in a way that holds up to criticism, especially the kind they’ll encounter back home surrounded by their familiar circle of like-minded friends.

I cannot overemphasize this point enough: the minimum dosage time for information to change minds is somewhere between 20 minutes to 10 hours — orders of magnitude longer than the 30 seconds most people spend reading an article.

Just reading articles won’t work; commenting on social media won’t work; fact-checking a friend over email wont work. All the usual ways we convey information usually just makes the problems worse.

For centuries, democracies have relied on intensive institutions to sew together the civic fabric. Switzerland has mandatory national service, which helped a diverse nation of Germans, French and Italians weather World War II through a common cultural bond. American political life used to be filled with parades and social clubs, where people of diverse viewpoints would spend hours talking with one another.

Technology has upended the traditional way we get information. Reversing this trend will take time, cost a lot of money and require an unprecedented commitment to civil dialogue as a matter of national security.

But, a better democracy is possible.

If you are interested in helping, please email me at greg at greg ferenstein dot com.