In a new series of interviews, Andrew Brightwell talks to the innovators fighting the polarising force of social media filter bubbles. First up, Read Across The Aisle – an app that monitors the political bias of your reading habits.
“This was a problem created by apps, so it’s natural that it might be solvable by apps.”
Nick Lum is describing his latest venture, Read Across The Aisle, a smartphone app that he hopes will offer its users a way out of their politically partisan echo chambers.
Currently, on KickStarter, Read Across The Aisle promises to do for your politics what Fitbit has done for your health.
By colour-coding the political slant of the news sites you read, it will indicate the potential bias you’re getting from your news.
It will also monitor the overall political preference of your reading throughout the day, with a swing dial going from deep blue, for the very left wing, to light blue, for centre-left sites, and then through red and deep red for right-wing sites.
Bee Line Reader
Nick says the idea germinated for Read Across The Aisle from his successful start-up, Bee Line Reader, which uses changes in text colour to help people to read.
“Theoretically, this can be done with text of any colour, but it turns out in practice the most popular colour scheme around the world is red and blue.
“My wife suggested to me that since we have this app that brings red and blue together through this colour gradient wouldn’t it be neat, in this intense political season, if we could find a way to bring red people and blue people together.”
That led to the name Read Across The Aisle, a play on ‘Reach Across The Aisle’ – a US political term for a willingness to reach out and work with opponents. Nick checked and the domain was available.
“I thought: wow: I have this idea, I have the name for it, and I have nothing better to do this holiday season than to ignore my family and friends by launching a KickStarter.”
Starting in late 2016, Nick has already reached his $4,500 goal for Read Across The Aisle on KickStarter.
The KickStarter will run until Friday February 10, with a beta ready next week and the final version out by the 20th or 21st of February, hitting Nick’s target of launching within a month of President Donald Trump’s inauguration.
So how does Read Across The Aisle rate the political perspective of news sites? Nick explains they will use three different sources:
- ratings produced by publications, including the Washington Post;
- public polling data – including data from Pew Research into trust in media outlets by political affiliation;
- and, finally, crowd sourcing.
Nick says early users will be those who participated in the KickStarter – who have already been asked to nominate news sources and vote on the sources’ political affiliation. This will continue, allowing the system to correct over time.
As Nick acknowledges, filter bubbles are part of a bigger problem. Social media firms like Facebook are incentivised to favour agreeable, shareable content – while publishers are forced to play the same game.
“It’s very difficult to be a successful news outlet if you don’t have headlines that are shareable, which taken to the extreme becomes clickbait.”
In such an environment – and with forces now so firmly set by the economics of the social web – one might wonder what impact Nick and other entrepreneurs can have. Nick says:
“We have no illusions about the percentage of people who will use our app. Some people are completely happy with staying in their bubbles. Our role is not to convince people they are wrong. We’re here to serve people who have decided they want to see what’s on the other side.”
The hope is that the few who choose to use the app can help to illuminate alternative perspectives in their own bubbles.
“We have the ability to help these people turn into super persuasive lighthouses to spread the facts about the other side that can be the most persuasive – and are the most unknown on the other side.”
Nick explains that Read Across The Aisle will be offered for free, offered by Bee Line Reader – which itself is a social impact company, similar to social enterprises in the UK.
They are still figuring out how to make the project sustainable long term, but are encouraged by the response to the KickStarter.
“We have got some interest from some potential investors, one large media company that’s interested in making some of their resources available to us.”
If that or another opportunity comes off, Nick hopes to produce versions of the app for other territories.
“The main lift from our end is to figure out what sources to include and what their partisanship ratings would be – because we of course have no idea the difference between the different news sources.”
Fighting the good fight
Nick isn’t alone in taking on filter bubbles in the United States. He introduced me to some of a growing army of entrepreneurs, technologists and coders taking on echo chambers.
Cyrus Stoller is a coder and Harvard Business School graduate and college friend of Nick and fellow San Francisco resident.
Troubled by the polarisation he’d seen in the election cycle, Cyrus built EchoRemix to give users a chat experience that favours thoughtful conversation over the heated pileups you get on social media.
Users join EchoRemix anonymously, giving a handle of their choice. They are paired randomly with other users and encouraged to talk about pre-defined political topics, chosen by a group of ambassadors Cyrus has recruited.
While both Cyrus and Nick are relatively new to the field, John Gable of AllSides.com has been fighting filter bubbles for several years.
AllSides.com offers readers a full choice of political perspectives on the salient news stories of the day. John and the AllSides team have developed a unique, crowd-driven identification of political bias for news publications.
Users of the site can quickly assess the political perspective of different news sources and sample different political views.
In its first four years the site has had more than 2.2 million unique users and developed strong links with US schools and non-profits.
Rather than tackle bias, John Pettus started Fiskkit to offer a crowd-sourced, peer review of all news.
Currently in beta, Fiskkit is named after the blogging expression ‘fiskking’, which originates from the habit of taking articles from the journalist, Robert Fisking, and criticising them line-by-line.
Users can post articles they want to fisk, clicking each line to add comments and tags.
Fiskkit uses Bayseian statistical analysis to then offer a structured analysis of the veracity and quality of argument in the news.
Davis Filippell’s PolarNews offers a
weekly daily newsletter that provides opposing political views on news stories.
Picking from leftwing/liberal and right-wing/conservative publications, it gives readers the chance to weigh up political perspectives from trusted sources.
Stay tuned for more interviews with some of the names above, in the coming weeks.
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