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Tinder for Politics

The political climate in the U.S. is marked by ugliness and divisiveness. How are things in Europe, home to our closest allies?

In recent times, public opinion in many European countries has been more divided than perhaps ever since before World War II. Technological advances and globalization have led to changes in the job market with new opportunities for the highly educated in the cities but unemployment for people in blue collar jobs and in rural areas. While changes in social mores and laws have improved the lives of women and sexual minorities, they have also sharpened tensions between liberals and conservatives. Climate change, along with unpalatable actions that may be required to combat it, is a contentious topic in many European countries.

Perhaps the biggest issue, however, is immigration. With the eastward expansion of the European Union in 2004 and 2007, the borders of all EU countries became open for legal immigration for plumbers from Poland to work in the UK, for example, or beggars from Romania to beg on the streets of Helsinki, Finland. In addition to these legal migrants, over one million refugees entered the EU from the Middle East in 2015 alone, creating a crisis in member states  unequipped to deal with the assimilation of new ethnic and religious groups into their societies.

As a result of these major changes and subsequent perceived threats to long-familiar lifestyles, the public in many European countries has lost confidence in traditional political parties, and new populist parties with racist and nationalistic rhetoric have emerged and entered parliaments. Countries like Hungary, Poland, and Italy are now led by populist governments while others—including Sweden and France—have only narrowly managed to keep their populist parties from power. Public debate has become polarized and increasingly ugly, with people dividing themselves into “us” and “them” and viewing each other as enemies.

Sounds familiar? Yes, the political climate in Europe is as polarized as in the U.S., and many of the issues are the same.

In the aftermath of the highly divisive Brexit vote in the UK and Trump’s election in the U.S., the staff at Zeit Online, the web version of the German national newspaper Die Zeit, brainstormed on new ways to break the deadlock in political discourse, to prevent further fragmentation of their society. How could they bring people out of their bubbles of like-minded people and information sources that keep confirming what they already think, and restart an open, respectful conversation about the issues that divide them?

Their answer was “Germany Talks”, a project that would pair up people of maximally opposing views and bring them together for one-on-one talks in a face-to-face setting. To do that, Zeit Online developed a survey of half a dozen yes-or-no questions on key divisive topics for registrants to answer. They then hired a software firm to develop an algorithm that would work like Tinder for politics, except that it would match people in the same zip code with someone whose answers on the survey questions were as different as possible.

The response was enthusiastic: Thousands of people registered within hours, and by the time registration was closed four weeks later, a total of 12,000 people had signed up. Some who initially registered eventually dropped out, and the number of matches that met the criteria was limited by the homogeneity of opinion among those who wanted to participate. Nevertheless, the number of people who met in person to discuss their opposing political views in June 2017 was an impressive 1,200.

In the last two years, Zeit Online and its media partners have taken the “My Country Talks” initiative to numerous European countries and brought together more than 30,000 participants. Google has taken over the funding for the software platform.

This year alone, ten more country-specific discussion events are being planned. Also, with the EU parliamentary elections coming up in late May, Zeit Online and its partners have launched “Europe Talks”, a cross-border initiative that on May 11th will bring together people in person in Brussels and via video calls everywhere in Europe. The project was launched earlier this month by prominent news outlets in Austria, Belgium, Britain, Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Norway, and Poland.

Feedback from participants has been overwhelmingly positive. For many, the initiative has made possible a discussion that may never have happened otherwise—after all, most of us do not interact with anyone outside of our bubble and would not know how to arrange a meeting like this in a safe setting.

Many reported that meeting someone with a different life experience and seeing things through his or her eyes helped them see things in a new light. They now understand the other person’s views even as they do not agree with them. An important realization was that “they” are not so different from “us”, and that as people we all have a lot in common. Meeting people with opposing views gave the enemy a face, and made them human again.

These kinds of realizations provide a good foundation for the kind of productive, less polarized public debate that is essential for a well-functioning democracy.

Outi Papamarcos is an engineer, a sociolinguist, and a grandmother. She grew up in Finland.

3 thoughts on “Tinder for Politics”

  1. This is a fascinating concept. I like it. Would there be rules, like no bashing of the “opposition” party/ideology or of specific elected officials or whatever? So you could just listen to their view, then share your own? No judgment, no attempt to “recruit” or “win over” anyone?

  2. The different life experience and seeing things through his or her eyes is not a problem. It’s not about different opinions. It’s about facts and “alternative” facts.
    When people use “alternative” facts as the base for their opinion the problem is created.

    There is no solution to it in the world of Fox News, Putin’s trolls, Tweeter, Facebook and etc.

  3. I love this idea. I wonder if the experience led to any changes or softening of viewpoints? I strongly feel the more we gather and get to know each other as humans and individuals, divisive rhetoric will lose sway.

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