In the past month, more than 10 European news media companies have launched a widget called “My Country Talks.”
By answering seven questions about poignant societal topics, a participant shares his or her point of view. Some of the statements visitors to the news Web sites have to agree or disagree with include:
- Is Islam compatible with Western values?
- Are we tolerant toward migrants?
- Should driving cars be discouraged?
- Are you prepared to give to save the climate?
The widget logs the answers and creates a profile of the participant.
In the near future, the profiles will be matched with each other. An algorithm will detect “good matches,” meaning participants who disagree on four out of seven statements will be matched.
After this matching, participants will receive an e-mail inviting people to get in touch with each other to rendezvous and discuss the topics and why their opinions differ.
It works like Tinder, but for political convictions.
Since its launch on March 5, tens of thousands of European readers have registered their statements and indicated they are willing to start conversations with people who have different opinions.
This idea comes from Die Zeit in Germany, which launched “Deutschland spricht” (Germany talks) in 2018. In this first edition, Die Zeit teamed up with the German public broadcaster ZDF and several local news media to build outreach for the initiative. In total, 20,000 Germans completed the form and 8,000 of them actually engaged in a live discussion with their pendant. They were ecologists and climate negationists, extremists and moderates, Islamophobes and the co-called “Gutmenschen” (‘good people’), gay rights activists and homohaters.
They exchanged phone numbers and took time to sit down and listen to each other. All of them were ready to burst out of the social media bubbles and leave their poisonous comments intended for their opponents behind. Instead of fighting each other from behind a keyboard, they preferred to talk to each other face-to-face.
Die Zeit also organised a venue for 200 of the participants to start the conversation under the parentship of president Walter Steinmeier.
These were some of the comments from the participants after the debate:
- “Both of us were conscious of the fact that there are two sides to every story.”
- “Finally I could put a face to the opposition.”
- “There is more like-minded in us than we think at first glance.”
- “A wonderful experience.”
And this noteworthy paraphrase: “Probably the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Of the 4,000 discussions that took place throughout the country (Die Zeit plotted them on the German map), all took place in a friendly and courteous manner. It was as if the trolls of the Internet went on strike and made way for a civilised discussion between equals.
This year’s edition of “My Country Talks” involves engagement from The Financial Times (United Kingdom), Der Standard (Austria), HuffPost and La Republicca (Italy), Morgenbladet (Norway), Gazeta Wyborcza (Poland), and De Standaard and Knack & Bruzz (Belgium). Almost 10,000 Belgians took the test and indicated they wanted to have a live discussion — and that’s not the biggest country of the pack!
Why is it so important for news media to support such an initiative? Are we so alienated from our neighbours that we need help finding ways to communicate?
In my opinion, news media with great online reach are well placed to spark discussion. “My Country Talks” is innovative in creating awareness of polarisation and in mobilising large crowds to participate. In doing so, these brands take political problems from the angle of the silent masses. In addition to offering a stage to opinion leaders and thinkers from the left and right, news media ask readers themselves to bring their arguments to the table. We are a couple of weeks out from national and European elections. There is no better timing to for these news brands to spark the discussion.
What can we expect from these thousands of live discussions coming May? I quote Bert Bultinck, editor in chief of Flemish news weekly Knack and one of the drivers of the project in Belgium: “Let’s not over-expect anything. Scientific research shows that people almost never change opinions after a discussion — and even less after speaking to someone who thinks the opposite. That’s not the intention of ‘het grote gelijk’ (‘My Country Talks’ in Belgium) … We’re not looking for compromises or ideological centricity. But maybe it will just help a little not to lose the art of having a good conversation.”
On Saturday May 4, a couple thousand conversations will be held throughout this country. People will meet in pubs, public places, coffee shops, and even private homes. I’m quite convinced the debaters will prove themselves worthy performers of this art.