A civil community

Appraising our fledgling Facebook Group debating American politics

Donald Trump accepts the Republican nomination for president in Cleveland, Ohio (Aryn Braun)

I’ve seen people respond in two ways to America’s volatile political climate. They either avoid political discussion altogether — the “ignorance is bliss” approach — or they engage to the hilt. Those who choose the latter can easily find spaces where they can discuss or argue about the news of the day. But all too often these spaces become poisonous or unwelcoming to those who want to engage in truly civil debate. This is the golden age of internet trolls, after all.

We don’t accept the notion that it is impossible to create a place for thorough, orderly and reasoned debate. We’re The Economist: it’s what we were founded to do.

So in June my colleague Adam Smith and I began to plan how we might create our first Facebook Group. We decided to use our special report on Donald Trump’s America to stimulate and inform debate. In a perfect world the group would be a place to analyse policy and provocative ideas without fear of partisan or personal attacks — a kind of modern-day digital dialectic.

Because we wanted to start with a small, highly engaged bunch, we created a survey asking prospective members what kinds of things they’d like to see in a Facebook Group. We received just over 1,500 responses. We had assumed respondents would be most keen on chatting with our editors and journalists online, and that concept did make the leaderboard (77% of respondents said they’d like it). But more than anything else, people told us they craved a bipartisan forum where they could debate ideas rationally, without the vitriol that proliferates in an unchecked environment (88% of respondents). An Economist journalist’s dream, really.

We turned these intrepid survey-takers into “founding members” of the group — after all, they’d helped us to develop the idea. So the survey not only yielded us intel on what the community wanted, but also provided a pathway for people to join. The founding members also had more skin in the game in wanting to keep the group civil. At the outset, keeping the group to just a few hundred founders helped us to create an engaged community and test the principle of civility that its own members had influenced. We began to post articles from the special report and pose questions.

It worked. Here is an example of one of our first discussion posts…

And some of the replies…

Thanks Graham and Michelle for the permission to reproduce these comments here

Once the group reached a healthy number — around 700 members — and we were satisfied with the level of debate, we began to promote it. Naturally, Facebook requests flooded our inboxes (thanks for the “unsubscribe from these e-mails” button). As it stands, the group boasts around 1,300 members and is growing every day.

When requesting to join, prospective members are prompted to answer three questions:

1. Do you subscribe to The Economist? (We’re just curious)
2. Do you affiliate with Democrats, Republicans or neither? (There is no right answer)
3. Are you willing to engage in friendly political discussion with people you may disagree with?

The requirement to answer these questions is one way we are trying to ensure prospective members are committed to the principles we lay out in our guidelines: rational argument, analysis and civility. It’s become clear over the past month that some inquiring internet passersby think a robot reviews their answers. Alas, no. It is yours truly.

Because of the political nature of the group, we review applicant requests closely, marking new members’ political affiliation as we go to keep track of the ideological balance of the group. A perfect split of conservatives and liberals is impossible. But striving for balance and bipartisanship is important. We’ve even asked our group members to help out. Because the community skews Democratic or independent, we requested that our members invite their conservative friends or family members to join. They happily obliged.

Not only does this promote transparency on our end, it helps to improve the breadth of discussion.

Similarly, we pride ourselves on being a publication for the “globally curious”, which means that even a group devoted to debating American politics is open to members from all around the world. There are pros and cons to this. Such a variety of viewpoints inevitably spices up the conversation, and offers observations that an American-only group may lack. On the flip side, if our American group members are vastly outnumbered by those abroad, the group risks becoming a bit voyeuristic. Our goal is a happy medium. On Monday we asked whether post-industrial towns such as Detroit can thrive again; a member who lives close to Detroit itself gave his view, mentioning sights he’s seen — including the opening of a Whole Foods.

In just under a month, we’ve already delved into the nature of partisanship, gerrymandering, health care, foreign policy and the future of political parties. Sounds intense, right? But there’s a lot more where that came from.

Our group members are talking to each other, discussing big political issues, sharing their personal stories and working with moderators to keep the group civil. If you’d like to join Democracy in America click here. We’ll see you there.

Aryn Braun is a social media writer at The Economist.