As strange as it may sound, above a Dorothy House charity shop in the shabbier end of central Bath, a handful of people are quietly trying to push the world – or at least a small part of it – away from the polarisation that currently defines politics, and towards something a bit more open and empathic. To compound the unlikeliness of it all, they are led by a man called Jim Morrison: not the reincarnated singer of the Doors, but the 40-year-old founder of a new online platform called OneSub, whose strapline is “Break the echo chamber”.
I have come to OneSub’s HQ as part of a week-long quest to push my reading habits and general soaking-up of information out of my usual left-inclined social media bubble, get some much-needed perspective, and try to use the internet as it was originally intended – not to confirm my prejudices, but to reintroduce me to the confounding, complicated, surprising realities of the world as it actually is.
By presenting people with the chance to read news that goes against their political prejudices, OneSub claims to “help you manage your bias”. As I discover by using it, what this means in practice is winningly straightforward. Investigating the mess around the Brexit negotiations brings up a piece from Sky News headlined: “Jacob Rees-Mogg hints at Brexit compromises”, which fits my belief that the reckless Tories trying to take us out of the EU are colliding with reality – but which is followed by an article from the Daily Telegraph titled: “Fury as EU demands more Brexit concessions.”
Similarly, a piece that tells me what a reckless idiot Donald Trump is tends to be followed by something that attempts to be more neutral, and another item written from a supportive perspective – after which I get a message that says: “You have read three different viewpoints of the same story and have a balanced perspective!”
OneSub is short for “one subscription”, which encapsulates the eventual aim of charging users for a service that will include news hidden behind some outlets’ paywalls. On the first floor of the company’s HQ, six or so employees are crammed into a compact office, compiling the pieces that are accessible on a website and an app, and overseeing the machine-learning systems that incessantly comb about 15 English-language news outlets and grade articles’ levels of political bias. Upstairs, Morrison sits in an even smaller meeting room, takes delivery of a cup of tea and explains what everyone here is trying to do.
Morrison is an internet specialist rather than a political anorak, which partly explains why, to a political journalist such as myself, his take on current affairs seems so unorthodox. He says one of his central fears about modern Britain is that “they’ve managed to privatise the health service and education system without even discussing it”, but he voted Tory at the last election, partly because he thinks Jeremy Corbyn is “quite an extreme leftwinger”. If the election system was fairer, he says he would favour the Lib Dems, but he also voted leave in the 2016 referendum. When I probe him about what he and his colleagues are trying to do, he often meets a question with another question, or leads the conversation towards qualifications and contradictions.
By way of a simple illustration of what OneSub is all about, he draws a bell curve – the stereotypical line indicating that when it comes to politics, most people are still somewhere in the middle. “But if you take any topic, the way that newspapers and politicians speak is that everyone is distributed that way” – he points at the far right and left – “so everyone is either leave or remain, or Labour or Conservative, or Republican or Democrat. And I call bullshit on that, I suppose. I don’t think it’s the case.”
His alternative, he explains, is about encouraging “moderate conversations”, and alerting people to basic facts. “Most issues are not binary, simplistic things,” he insists.
They may not be, but why does he think a small setup such as his can push back against the might of Facebook, Twitter and all the rest, and subvert the logic of polarisation that seems to have gripped billions of people across the planet? “Facebook is addictive – it’s a dopamine addiction, the same as gambling and porn and everything else, right?” he says. “But, you know, oxytocin is a pretty rewarding chemical. That’s the chemical that you get when you do something you’re proud of. And so we’re trying to focus on that. We send you an email at the end of every week that says: ‘Here is what you’ve read. And this week, you read all this stuff that you wouldn’t normally read.’ That’s a reward mechanism too.”
Morrison and his team are not the only people trying to offer a viable alternative to online polarisation. In Berlin, a small team has been working for two years on a news aggregator called Nuzzera – taglined “Burst your bubble” – whose German-language model was released on Apple and Google’s app stores this month (an English version is in the pipeline). One of its co-founders is Janine Perkuhn, who tells me Nuzzera was sparked into being not just by Brexit and Donald Trump, but also the rise in Germany of the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), whose online hyperactivity is jaw-dropping. One recent study found that 85% of all shared posts originating from German political parties came from the AfD.
Perkuhn says Nuzzera’s aim is simply to “allow people to be better informed”, and that there are signs of hope that, however popular the big platforms might be, this is what at least some people want. “What we see, and what a lot of studies show, is that a lot of people mistrust social media,” she says. “They often think it’s not even the right place to read news. But a lot of people are used to it, and it’s hard to break patterns. That’s one of the biggest challenges we have.”
In the US, among a handful of initiatives with roughly the same aims, there is AllSides, a news site that – like OneSub – presents different versions of stories rated for bias, and takes its users to such wildly diverse outlets as the New York Times, the far-right website Breitbart and the left-leaning Mother Jones. Founded in 2012, its dedication to flagging up the biases that sit behind the news extends even to its own staff – who, like the articles AllSides aggregates, have ratings for their political leanings: two Ls and two Rs that represent left, “lean left”, right and “lean right”, and a single C that puts them in the political middle.
Its founder and chief executive is John Gable, who has a “lean right” rating, and an affinity with the Republican party. Nearly 25 years ago, his internet career began at the trailblazing company Netscape. “Like everybody else, I drank the Kool-Aid back then,” he says. “I completely believed in the possibilities of the internet to connect people. But I was concerned that the internet might also train us to discriminate against each other in new ways. The main thing I saw was that it would encourage us to think in terms of metaphor, or category: ‘This is similar to that.’ I thought that it might also train us to stereotype people, and think less of them. It got a lot worse than I ever thought it would. But I had my first concern back then.”
What AllSides does is clearly intended to be an antidote – and when I suggest that he is trying to reverse the march of forces far stronger than his somewhat niche website, Gable tells me that history may eventually favour his view of things. “We think of the printing press, and we think about the Enlightenment, and reformation,” he says. “We forget that for the first 100 years or so, there was great social chaos, before people created new things: libraries and publishers that were credible, so you could start distinguishing the better materials from the not-so-good materials.” He says the internet is stuck in “that early, chaotic stage”, but that AllSides and similar initiatives have a chance of “taking the 100 years of chaos from the printing press, and shortening it to about 15 years”.
AllSides, he tells me, has about 2 million users a month. The site also has a schools initiative that has taken it into all 50 US states, and that allows teachers to talk to their pupils about current affairs while swerving allegations of bias. But the intentions of this work, he says, are even more ambitious. “We actually have a whole programme about how teachers can train their kids to talk to each other, and listen, even when they disagree.”
What else, aside from visiting his site, does he think people trying to push beyond polarisation should change about their online habits?
“There are two things, really,” he says. “One is to create a friendship with somebody on the other side, politically. The way that change happens is person to person. The other thing is, with anything you believe, work at it so you can make a fantastic argument for the opposite point of view. Until you can really argue the other side, frankly, you don’t understand the issue.”
H aving spoken to Gable, I blow the dust off my Facebook account and make a few changes. On a whim, I decide to follow the Conservative party and a campaign called Brexit means Brexit, and send a couple of friend requests to prominent rightwing columnists, to no avail. I then spend the next couple of days flipping between OneSub and AllSides.
AllSides takes me to a rather nasty piece about homelessness in northern California that essentially says living on the street is a matter of personal choice; a piece about the Democratic party’s position on LGBT rights that tells me these things “are best handled locally and not by the inhabitant of the White House” (the lessons of the struggle against racial segregation, it seems, have rather dwindled); and different takes on Trump’s policy towards the Kurds that all serve to make me feel very bleak indeed. OneSub, meanwhile, continues to encourage me to see things – Brexit, conflict the Middle East, Trump’s possible impeachment – from three different perspectives and congratulates me when I do so. In so far as I am newly aware of views very different from my own, this all seems worthwhile. The problem is that I seem to remain stranded in a world of polarisation and mutual loathing, when I would like to be somewhere very different.
Which takes me to Cathy Deng, who lives in San Francisco and works for the crowdfunding platform Patreon. Three years ago, she was at the research-and-development wing of the online news outlet BuzzFeed, working with people who were reeling from Trump’s victory, and worrying about what it said about the internet’s effects on politics. “When I joined, it was right after the 2016 election,” she says. “And a lot of people were talking about filter bubbles: ‘Oh, we are only getting information from people like ourselves.’ There were a lot of discussions about getting more things into your information feeds.”
Most of these conversations, she says, revolved around the division between Democrats and Republicans and so-called red and blue states. “But I felt like that was really reductive, because it reduces all the information in the world and all the different kinds of things you can be exposed to into one axis, and two sides. What you end up with is really just another kind of personalisation: ‘I am on the right, so I want more information from people on the left.’ That’s the same problem. The only true way to reject it is to go for randomness and serendipity. So that’s what I tried to do.”
Her answer was a gloriously simple Chrome plugin called Noisify. Once in place, it puts random nouns into Facebook’s search bar, presented in block capitals. “Aren’t you curious about … AIRCRAFT?” it asks me at one point; a few moments later, it is suggesting I search for TUITION, COMMAND, FACES and ARMENIA. Pursue these things, and then like or follow some of what comes up, and you begin to gently subvert Facebook’s algorithms, and your feed becomes smattered with stuff you might not previously have thought about. After two days of using Noisify, among other new sources of interest, I have started reading the local news in Tucson, Arizona, and been alerted to the dire effects of the climate crisis in the Maldives. Stranger still, the sense of dread with which I usually approach Mark Zuckerberg’s platform and my usual expectation of being greeted with either the mundane flotsam of people’s everyday lives or a great cacophony of anger have slightly subsided.
“Being exposed to new things is good for people’s brains,” Deng says. Whether the resulting pleasure is down to oxytocin, dopamine or some other brain chemical remains unclear – but the internet feels better than it has in ages.