Can political Tinder save democracy?

How can we protect democracy if we only speak to Siri or Alexa but not each other? Democracy is based on the premise that everyone can express themselves, but it also implies other people are listening. Maybe it’s time for a real-life conversation.

In the language of journalists, you might call this a scoop: getting the German President to preside over a project nicknamed “political Tinder” and conceived by Zeit Online, sister of the prestigious print weekly Die Zeit. The aim of the initiative, “My Country Talks”, which is now an international venture, is to help people break out of their ideological bubbles and talk to unlike-minded contemporaries. On Sunday, September 23, the event ran for the second time, and attracted not only President Frank-Walter Steinmeier — overall, eleven partner newsrooms and 8,000 citizens in Germany took part.

This is how it works: when people apply, they must answer a few questions. Then an algorithm is used to pair up participants possessing different viewpoints on several issues. Last Sunday, these pairs met (in person, as you have to emphasize these days) and talked to each other face to face. The responses were overwhelmingly positive. “Actually, we had a good conversation”, was the most common commentary on Twitter. Sherry Turkle, psychologist at MIT and author of the eye-opening “Reclaiming Conversation”, would have said “I told you so”.

What actually happened was that people engaged with people who could have been their neighbours, most would agree these tend to be a pretty diverse bunch. In the digital age, however, talking to one’s neighbours, fellow travellers on the train or coincidental pub acquaintances has gone a bit out of fashion. And urban dwellers are well-known to increasingly resort to noise cancelling headphones.  In this respect the concept is fantastic for it reminds people of who we actually are, not individual brands roaming through social networks on a quest for followers and friends, but members of a common society.

Critics could say this was not much more than a huge marketing campaign, where journalists try to impress other journalists. In a way, this is true. These kinds of initiatives will never catch people on the political fringes who are not interested in having their views challenged. Some initial openness is required to sign up for experiments like this. But even if this is the case, so what! I think journalism deserves and needs some serious marketing if it is to survive.

Trust in news organisations has stabilized a bit over the past year but is still severely challenged. Trust in social media and search engines is even lower, which wouldn’t hurt journalism that much if young people weren’t consuming so much of their news through these means. So helping people outside of the industry learn that journalism is actually on their side is much needed.

Apart from our own direct experiences and critical thinking skills, only journalism gives us the tools to understand the world and make informed decisions as citizens. It is this endeavor that investigates, is committed to accuracy and facts, that follows rules and procedures like verification, finding second sources and having a second and third pair of eyes going over copy.  Democracy cannot exist without it. Journalism is so much more than simply the freedom of expression. It is hard work, a team effort. It is far from the elite thing some observers try to portray it as.

As witnessed this week, attacks on journalism tend to hit close to home.  If a European democracy like Austria suddenly feels it can rid itself of the uncomfortable parts of journalism, and critical voices that hold power to account, beware, dear citizens. When those in power do such things, they are not acting  in your interest but solely in theirs. Better talk to each other about it, before it is too late. And then go and subscribe to a decent news product.

This text was published by NewsMavens on September 30, 2018