When Nick Lum, tech entrepreneur and former corporate lawyer, scrolled through his Facebook feed in the weeks following the 2016 election, he saw what many of us saw: shock and confusion. His friends and peers and coworkers were, by and large, completely out of touch with the segment of the population that had voted for Donald Trump. It made Lum look into the way we as people in the digital age consume information, and he realized that people were not hearing voices from the other side.
“They might be seeing caricatures,” Lum said in an interview with VICE Impact, “but that’s not helpful.”
So he developed Read Across the Aisle, software available as an app or Chrome extension. It designates certain news sources as Red or Blue, or somewhere in between, and it actually alerts you if you’ve been binging on one side of the aisle.
“I built this as a way to balance their media diet,” said Lum. “Recognizing that if we only read stuff that we agree with, it’s like eating junk food all day.”
“We have more freedom than we’ve ever had to get the information we want. The problem is that, more and more, the technological system is set up to feed our biases."
It’s the kind of solution that Joel Searby of the Centrist Project, a grassroots organization that encourages independent candidates to run for public office, is always looking for to keep people from getting too entrenched in party politics.
“In American life, people feel tremendous pressure to pick a side,” Searby said to VICE Impact. “We need to reject that false narrative.”
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In the digital age, when people can follow independent journalists or bloggers as well as subscribe to publications, independent thought could be at is peek. But because of the way information is filtered and people are guided to read what they like reading, the opposite is often the case.
“We have more freedom than we’ve ever had to get the information we want,” said Searby. “The problem is that, more and more, the technological system is set up to feed our biases. The unfortunate reality is the media ecosystem is also dominated by the same ideology that there are two sides and two sides only. I make sure I have a regular news diet that comes from both sides.”
Social media specifically targets short attention spans, and gives people a tiny glimpse of what is often a complex argument. This phenomenon gives people less of a grasp of ideas and less ability to flesh out debates. In a New York Times op-ed, Jesse Singal points out that “the pernicious social dynamics of these online spaces hammer home the idea that anyone who disagrees with you on any controversial subject, even a little bit, is incorrigibly dumb or evil or suspect.”
“In American life, people feel tremendous pressure to pick a side. We need to reject that false narrative.”
For Tiffany Mueller, Executive Director of the political action committee End Citizens United, the seemingly irreconcilable divide can be traced back, at least in large part, to a 2010 Supreme Court decision that decided that corporations are, in the eyes of the court, humans. While humans can have conversations and nuance, disagreements and compromise, corporations have only one priority: profit.
“That is so much different than how a person understands the complexities of public policies and what government can do to address the common good,” Mueller told VICE Impact.
But when those corporations are funding elections, then our elected officials are beholden. They can’t use their human capabilities, like reason and empathy, to make decisions, because they are answering to the backers’ bottom line.
“Prior to Citizens United in 2008, there was $143 million in outside spending,” said Mueller. “In 2016 there was $1.4 billion in outside spending. That’s a 900 percent increase, and the amount of money and the way it’s coming in is a problem. It’s undisclosed, unlimited money going to influence policy issues like background checks for guns, or tax reform.”
So how does this contribute to the divide? Beyond dividing left and right, it divides us from the representatives who are supposed to speak for us.
“When public officials are indebted to mega-donors,” said Mueller, “you end up in a dysfunctional system where the two sides can’t come together to compromise on public policy.”
Ending Citizens United, she believes, would be a major step towards reconnecting the democracy to the individual citizen. Electing candidates who believe in campaign finance reform is another. So far this year, 33 candidates, all democrat, have taken a pledge that they will not accept money from corporate PACs.
“Voters blame both parties,” said Mueller, “but the difference is that Democrats are trying to fix the problem.”
End Citizens United has 3 million members: even though it doesn’t sound sexy, campaign finance reform and getting corporate money out of politics is an issue a lot of people care about. But if there’s really going to be any change, people need to understand the issues, not from a divisive political perspective, but from the perspective of an individual human. That’s where Read Across the Aisle comes in.
“It’s not about making people moderate,” said Lum. “Having the needle in the center means you’ve been reading on both sides. We want people to have fruitful conversations, and for that to happen, you need to know what they’re talking about.”
He says a lot of people suggest that he may just be preaching to the choir, but he doesn’t think so. Even if the people using this software are center right or center left, they’ll gain more perspective by reading across the aisle, and they’ll share it with their networks.
“We know there will be persistent disagreements,” said Lum. “But it’s helpful to realize the people on the other side are generally people who have goals that are valid as well, and they probably have views you can agree with.”
“Having the needle in the center means you’ve been reading on both sides. We want people to have fruitful conversations, and for that to happen, you need to know what they’re talking about.”
The media is supposed to be about telling stories – real, human stories. But often even those end up being politicized to the point of dehumanizing.
“Feelings of disgust have spiked about people in opposing political parties,” said Lum. “That makes it difficult to have rational conversation. Compromise can’t happen if the enemy is seen as the enemy in every respect.”
Get the app to find out what your media diet consists of and how you can balance it.
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CORRECTION: This article previously stated that Read Across the Aisle had received a Microsoft grant of $50,000, when in fact it was another app from Nick Lum. We regret the error.