What if you could start an international political dialogue, that would help societies around the world connect around issues that divide them?
That is exactly what Die Zeit did with My Country Talks. Known for its innovation, Die Zeit is often referred to as the world champion of brand differentiation. My Country Talks (MCT) is a shining example of this innovative spirit.
“We bring together political opposites for one-to-one conversations,” Sara Cooper, technical project lead for MCT, explained in a Webinar for INMA members on Tuesday.
“We have a participant, and we match them with someone who thinks exactly the opposite from them on really core, controversial political and social issues — and those two people have a very simple one-on-one conversation.”
This is accomplished with a proprietary software of Die Zeit that includes a unique matching algorithm.
“Our goal is really to empower media to engage with your readers and fight polarisation around these really complex and controversial issues,'' Cooper said.
She clarified that MCT is not a social media platform but rather a conversational engagement tool around important topics. The platform has quickly grown into impressive numbers, with 200,000 registrations, and has matched 40,000 people in more than 30 countries.
“It started with just one simple question, in 2017,” she said. “How can we make people speak to each other?”
Die Zeit felt this was imperative, especially at a time when highly divisive events were occurring such as the Trump presidency, Brexit, and contentious German elections.
“It felt like there was a failure of communication,” Cooper said. “People just weren’t talking to each other enough, and as a newspaper [Die Zeit] was in a really key position to do something about it.”
The power of dialogue
My Country Talks operates various events in countries around the world, as well as connecting people one-on-one. Some of the issues addressed include climate change, refugees, gender equality, and universal basic income.
The way MCT works is through a series of yes-or-no questions that are asked directly inside an article. Answering a question leads to additional questions that are expanded within the article.
“The idea is that it looks native on your page, and it catches readers’ attention with just one question that they really want to answer,” Cooper explained.
If the reader goes on to answer all the additional questions (typically seven to nine), they are then invited to give some information about themselves. At that point they are in the matching pool.
“I think personally this works really beautifully because, as you can see from the example questions here, someone can very easily say yes or no to any of these questions and hold those views within their minds,” Cooper said.
The questions are also formed in such a way as to elicit the personal opinion, experience, and/or viewpoint of the reader, independent of strict political ideology or party. A pair of matched, opposite readers then have the opportunity to explore each other’s thinking and find understanding and common ground outside of the polarised political party space.
All of the communication between two matched MCT members happens via e-mail. Both sides of the match must agree to virtually meet each other before the e-mail contact information is exchanged. Partners can keep the conversation online or can meet in person at MCT events. This, of course, has varied drastically during pandemic lockdowns.
“For media, the value [of MCT] really is in covering the stories of these conversations,” Cooper told INMA members. “You can look for interesting stories that highlight the complexity and the nuance of real personal opinions on these wide, and sometimes vague, social problems.”
Highlighting these stories is a great way to bring readers into the focus of these issues, Cooper added. The initiative also intersects with solution journalism.
In most countries, polarisation is a big problem. The typical narratives around issues in such a situation can make it seem as if a one-to-one dialogue is irreparably broken. But featuring MCT coverage in journalism can counter those narratives with a solution-focused approach.
In addition, it’s an effective tool for not only engaging readers but also restoring trust in journalism. During MCT events, readers connect directly with each other as well as with journalists, building a community beyond the comments section and building trust in media.
“It also puts journalists back in touch with the community,” Cooper added.
It’s personal, and it works
In feedback collected after MCT events, participants largely expressed satisfaction with the event, and some even reported having changed their opinions.
Many studies, including one conducted on Germany Talks, show the importance of face-to-face conversations for overcoming polarisation and finding common ground. Empathy is a core driving factor in this, which can only be achieved when two people listen to each other, share experiences, and strive to understand one another.
“The act of conversation creates empathy,” Cooper said. “Every My Country Talks event that we have had has been a positive experience. It really does have quite a strong impact to just sit two people down and have them speak face-to-face.”
The platform is also accessible and scalable. Participants arrange their conversations independently on the platform of their choosing or in person. There’s no app to download and no need to create an account.
Data storage is maintained securely, and all media partners are the owners of their participants’ data. This ensures security and privacy for both the media company and its audience.
2021 MCT events included America Talks, Youth Talks in the Ukraine, The Netherlands Talks, Britain Talks, and Germany Talks. There are also Thailand and Europe Talks upcoming.
MCT operates three distinct event models: My Country Talks, My City Talks, and My Community Talks. National media outlets would gravitate more towards My Country Talks, while local and regional publications might benefit more from My City. My Community Talks are typically organised by non-profit organisations but can also be useful for very niche publications.