Last October, the students in Sarah Candler’s seventh-grade English class in rural Tennessee were discussing the presidential election, echoing everyone’s pro-Trump sentiments. One student challenged the others: “Who is a Democrat, anyway?
A lonely girl raised her hand. “I saw stares of dismay from the other kids,” Candler recalls. Then Candler raised his hand as well.
The closed dialogue confused Candler. She began to search online for resources beyond her traditional sources of information, such as The New York Times, to help him understand the politics of others. She found All sides, a site founded by former Netscape director John Gable, which features headlines on the same stories from left, center and right outlets.
Candler is one of a small but growing number of Americans trying to break out of information silos. They look for sites like AllSides; the Opposite side, which summarizes every day conservative and liberal news on a political issue; and News on the ground, which shows how various stories are covered by left, center, and right-facing outlets. For the video, Their hit displays mock YouTube feeds for conservatives, liberals, conspiracy theorists and climate deniers.
“We are in a country where people are either polarized or apathetic,” says Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at NYU who founded Heterodox Academy, a non-profit organization that seeks to encourage diversity of viewpoints, especially on college campuses. Adds Gable, the founder of AllSides, “We need to get people out of their information bubbles, but also their relationship bubbles.”
The majority of American adults say one-sided information on social media is a major problem, although many can only mean information that goes against their own beliefs.
Visitors to sites like AllSides seek views that contradict their own; they like to discuss political disputes more than the fleeting satisfaction of tribal disputes on Facebook. Some are confused by how their circles of friends and social media followers reflect their own beliefs. A few, like Candler, seek to understand friends or acquaintances with different political positions.
Alan Staney, an unemployed graphic designer in Tallahassee, Florida, voted twice for Obama, then twice for Trump. “Being politically heterodox just seems to make enemies for me,” he says. “I have always felt politically homeless. This sentiment may extend to his family, where he navigates the tensions between his liberal wife, a supporter of Biden, and his conservative parents.
He visited the Flip Side and Ground News. “The more I looked at things like the Flip Side, the more I could understand his parents’ arguments,” he says. When he jokes about politics, half the room turns on him, depending on which side he’s teasing. They resisted his advice to check out sites like the Flip Side.
Saira Blair was 18 when she was elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates as a Republican, making her at the time the youngest person in the United States to ever be elected to a state office. After leaving office in 2018, she tried reading six newspapers and magazines each morning to get a full range of perspectives. But finding the time was difficult – now that his job no longer focused on the news – and subscription fees were piling up. She became frustrated with the prejudices in what she was reading.
“I started to go my own way,” she says, researching the Flip Side and AllSides. She “fell in love” with Divided we fall, another site that aims to bridge political divides. These resources helped her piece together what sounded like true stories behind important events.
Today, Blair thinks his positions are more nuanced. Recently she enjoyed a item on Divided We Fall on the benefits of transgender women exercising with cis-gendered women, before learning about West Virginia legislation banning their participation. If she was still in office, “I would do things differently after reading this article,” she said. Overall, she would have “a more balanced and educated platform.” These sites weren’t there when I first ran, and I really wish they had.
She also checks regularly blind observer, a tool offered by Ground News that classifies a user’s Twitter actions as asymmetric left or right, based on the person’s tweets, retweets, and other interactions with liberal or conservative news sources. Blair strives for a gymnastic balance: 50% interactions with sources on the left and 50% on the right.
“What is needed is a way to organize and find the best left-to-right thinking,” says Haidt, who created a library therefor with videos, books and essays. To better understand the perspectives on the left, for example, the library offers sources such as Edmund Fawcett’s essay “Reclaim liberalism. “Choose the library door on the right, and you’ll find pieces designed like Yuval Levin’s.”A vision of a conservative government. Haidt also reads the Flip Side and AllSides daily.