Scaling The Commons

An intervention to depolarize political conversations on Twitter and Facebook in the USA.

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In 2017, we piloted an approach to depolarizing conversations on social media in the USA. Throughout 2019, we scaled and improved this approach to have thousands of conversations across some of the most polarized and polarizing topics discussed on Twitter and Facebook in the USA.

We think it worked: an analysis of behaviors we directly observed on Twitter signals that our interventions had a positive effect on people we engaged in conversation. Our facilitators corroborate this in their qualitative assessments, and indicate they saw similar dynamics on Facebook. And we think we can do more: based on these results and impact, we plan to scale up this work to reach more people, with an explicit focus around topics, events and geographies relevant during the 2020 election year.

A full report on The Commons 2019 is available here, or read on for a summary. If you have questions or are interested in supporting our work in 2020, you can contact team@howtobuildup.org

What is The Commons?

The Commons project is a response to the current, challenging political and social climate in the United States. Many people are observing and experiencing a decrease in constructive conversations, respect and open-mindedness in their everyday interactions, in the media, and in politics. Among the different factors contributing to this are the ways that social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, are built and shape our communication and interactions.

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The core premise of The Commons is that we believe a majority of people in the USA are not actively driving polarization. Rather, polarization is happening to us. In the USA, a plethora of initiatives that leverage ICTs to encourage constructive dialogue and engagement online have emerged over the past few years. However, many of these initiatives reach very few people, and mostly people who already predisposed to depolarized behaviors.

That’s the gap we are trying to fill: finding people who don’t realize polarization is happening to them. The Commons identifies people engaged in political discussions about the USA on Twitter and Facebook, analyzes the likelihood that they are at risk of polarization, and engages them in conversation. Our facilitated conversations seek to help people understand and make different choices in their interactions, online and offline, particularly around political differences, and offer skills and resources to promote constructive conversations, listening and respect.

“Another gentleman I spoke with acknowledged how he used Twitter. Something to the effect of ‘I’m an old man shouting at the sky.’ It so perfectly captured the single hashtag tweets that I saw over and over again. I so appreciated his self awareness. He went on to explain that he lived in a state and worked in a job environment opposite of his own personal political beliefs. Twitter allowed him a voice where he couldn’t otherwise speak up.” — The Commons Facilitator

How does The Commons work?

In order to find people who are at risk of polarization on Twitter, we curate a list of core group of content creators and trendsetters that are at the center of political conversations in the USA. We also curate a list the top hashtags (by tweet count) used by this core group of content creators and trendstters in the previous two weeks, and assign each hashtag an ideology score. We target people who both follow our core group and have used one of the hashtags that appears to be most polarized. Facilitators are then assigned a list of handles to reach out to, and notified if anyone responds to their first message.

In order to find people who are at risk of polarization on Facebook, we post ads on the same topics identified through the hashtag selection on Twitter, targeted at people in a list we curate of counties across the USA identified from four databases related to polarization factors. Facilitators are then assigned a Facebook post, and notified if anyone posts a comment.

Once someone responds to a tweet or post, facilitators enter into a conversation with them. Facilitators have a core mission to model constructive conversations online and encourage their conversation partners to take further action towards depolarization. Concretely:

  • Facilitators serve as guides that help people move into uncomfortable and traditionally conflictual territory to explore their own and others’ worldviews.
  • Facilitators act as bridges, connecting people together in conversation that otherwise couldn’t or wouldn’t be.
  • Facilitators are citizens that care about remediating polarized communities and are actively working to practice what they preach.
  • Facilitators are multi-partial process leaders; they model, support, facilitate, and create the conditions that allow others’ conversations to succeed.
  • Facilitators act as a coach; they support candidates in an ongoing practice of constructive dialogue through online communities and their own pages.

“One of the most memorable conversations I had was with a man who I believe had used the hashtag #MAGA, and in my original engagement tweet I had asked him what it meant to him. He replied with what it meant to him and then said, ‘You may be the first person in 2 years to actually ask me what it means to me.’ ” — The Commons Facilitator

Can we really make a difference?

The ultimate objective of The Commons is to affect the overall polarization of political conversations on social media in the USA by eliciting a change in the behavior of social media users that encourages more critical reflection on how they are engaging online, productive strategies for healthy conversations, and identification of shared values of civility and respect. We believe this objective can be achieved by modelling conversations on Twitter and Facebook and using these conversations as an entry point to provide further resources and avenues for action towards depolarization. In addition, they become cross-cutting conversations that adjacent users on social media are exposed to.

A healthy political system and society benefit from the active involvement of people who have different backgrounds, experiences and opinions — so long as we can find respectful, non-violent ways to understand one another and find solutions together. In The Commons, we aim to strengthen a “multi-partisan” or “multi-partial” culture online and offline, in which people can be more skilful in how they express their views, communicate and work together with others. Our theory of change is that if we can elicit a change in the behavior of individual social media users that encourages more connection across the political spectrum, exposure to a diversity of views, and identification of shared values of civility and respect, then we will contribute to a healthy political system and society in the USA.

Our theory of change is strictly focused on behavioral change at the individual level, and we are aware this has limitations. The current political and social dynamics in the United States are complex, involving different institutions, media outlets, leaders, movements, communities, and issues. These can all be seen as “entry points” for efforts to create positive change. The Commons project targets individuals, because we know that many are either unaware that polarization is happening to them or stumped about what to do differently to lessen divides. This is just one approach; we follow, support and are inspired by others’ efforts that use different strategies to create positive change.

“I had a fun and challenging conversation where two people were arguing. I inserted myself in mid-argument, and in a series of threads and sub threads, needed to play several different roles. In one thread I was a conversationalist, on another a mediator, on another offering resources, on another scolding for language. It was a bit dizzying, but overall positive I believe.” — The Commons Facilitator

Our theory of change is translated into a core strategy to model conversations that offer civility and respect on Twitter and Facebook. This is the strategy that we use to engage our target candidates, providing them with an opportunity to experience a new way to have conversations about issues and values that are important to them and in society. Through these conversations, candidates begin to see others and themselves more clearly, and in a new way: as reasonable, multi-faceted, and value-driven. After a conversation with The Commons, candidates are more likely to in turn model civility and respect on Twitter and Facebook. We therefore define the impact of our engagement with candidates in three ways:

  • Experience of a more positive conversation
  • Interest in taking further action to promote civility
  • Change in the way they engage with people on social media

And by these metrics, we made a difference in 2019.

From April to November 2019, we ran six interventions for The Commons. At the end of each intervention, we paused for one or two weeks to monitor results. Each intervention tested a slightly different targeting, content and conversation strategy, allowing us to use A / B testing to iterate our strategies. The results are aggregated across all interventions, and demonstrate that our targeting strategies and monitoring system enable facilitators to engage in conversations on Twitter and Facebook at scale, and at a reasonable cost.

Overall, approximately 500,000 people were exposed to the initial reflection prompts — tweets from our facilitators or Facebook posts. Building on these prompts, facilitators had 2122 conversations, at an average length of 6 to 7 replies back and forth. An analysis of behaviors we can directly observe on Twitter shows that our interventions had a positive effect on people we engaged in conversation. Specifically, a comparison in the retweet behavior of control and treatment groups for Intervention 5 shows that connections across groups with different ideologies increased more for people who we engaged in conversation, and that this increase is clearest for those we invited to action. We cannot perform a similar evaluation of impact on Facebook, but a qualitative assessment by our facilitators suggests that the conversation experience was similar on Facebook and we might expect a similar impact.

“For those I engaged with online that were positively impacted, I’d say that the impact is largely that they have polarization on their radar and understand that there is something they individually can do to combat the phenomenon.” — The Commons Facilitator

Finally, 991 people accessed resources for further action that our facilitators recommended at the end of a conversation with them. This measure is likely incomplete (we rely on a combination of link-tracking and self-reporting) and is not disaggregated by platform (Facebook vs. Twitter). However, it allows us to draw some further conclusions about the impact of The Commons interventions: 48% of the conversations we had resulted in people accessing resources for action recommended by our facilitators.

We now have a playbook.

Based on regular monitoring and A / B testing throughout the project, we have identified a fairly clear playbook for targeting, content and conversation strategies on both Twitter and Facebook that can be replicated and scaled.

How to target with the intention to depolarize

On Twitter, hashtags about the general state of political affairs work best for engaging people in a conversation about polarization. There is no obvious difference between hashtags used predominantly by liberals and those used predominantly by conservatives, although facilitators report that they were interacting most with liberals. Some hashtags used by both sides also had long and deep conversations — most of these hashtags appear to have “middle” ideology scores not because they are used by moderates, but because they are contested (i.e. used by both conservatives and liberals). Over multiple iterations, facilitators honed in on strategies for initial tweets that all revolved around making the person they contacted feel they were truly being heard, in a personal way.

“Beginning by recognizing the value in an original tweet or message appeared helpful in reducing the walls that a user had up and lead to a reply. More often than not I would rely on general questions (i.e. ‘Do you talk about this often? How do those conversations go?’) to provide a space for a user to take the conversation where they’d like to, to encourage responses.” — The Commons Facilitator

On Facebook, geography type — conservative, liberal, most prejudiced or match of conservative-liberal — does not appear to make a difference in the number of conversations, although facilitators reported they were having more interactions with conservatives (and with older people). Targeting to “likely to engage with political content” had a strong impact on performance by comment and conversation counts. All-time controversial topics result in more conversations than time-specific topics. Although we tried dozens of ad topics, 8 of the top 10 best performing ads (by number of conversations) were all on the topics of immigration, gun control, and Trump / Make America Great Again. These three topics systematically outperformed any other ad topics, throughout the year. Ads on abortion, Mueller and Recession / Trade War also performed well during specific time periods. Ads on healthcare and international issues performed very poorly. That said, there is a balance to be struck between using controversial topics as a hook and garnering conversations that can go deep.

How to hold constructive conversations

Over the course of interventions, we identified six key principles that helped facilitators hold constructive conversations on both Twitter and Facebook:

  1. Good conversations fall into two broad categories: talking about how to have respectful discussions or modeling a respectful discussion.
  2. Affiliation and transparency about intent matters to constructive conversations.
  3. Bringing in personal experience and identity makes for more authentic conversations.
  4. Difficult conversations require commitment to go deep over a longer period of time.
  5. On Facebook, the nature of group conversations often breeds position-taking and polarization.
  6. Inviting people to action can be a natural way to end a conversation.

Next up: depolarizing conversations during the 2020 election

The 2020 election presents a unique challenge to polarization within the United States, and we believe The Commons is well positioned to make a significant impact on political conversations on social media that contributes to reducing the risk of further division (or even violence) around the election — and create space for much-needed nuanced engagement around political topics, events and actors. This engagement strategy, tailored for the 2020 elections, will also be replicable during other tense election years.

As we prepare for 2020, we’d love to hear your thoughts, comments and questions. Thank you for reading!

A full report on The Commons 2019 is available here. If you have questions or are interested in supporting our work in 2020, you can contact team@howtobuildup.org

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Build Up transforms conflict in the digital age. Our approach combines peacebuilding, participation and technology.

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