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Boston Tech Experiments Are Trying To Burst Our Social Media Filter Bubbles06:18
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Henry Tsai (front) and Yasyf Mohamedali created Hi From The Other Side, a website that connects people with opposing political views online and then gets them to meet in real life. (Asma Khalid/WBUR)
Henry Tsai (front) and Yasyf Mohamedali created Hi From The Other Side, a website that connects people with opposing political views online and then gets them to meet in real life. (Asma Khalid/WBUR)

Alison Lu, a Harvard Business School student from California, was in shock on election night. Lu had voted for Hillary Clinton, and she couldn't fathom how Donald Trump had managed to win the presidency. So she opened her Facebook page searching for answers, but she didn't find any.

"None of them [Trump voters] showed themselves on my Facebook feed," said 27-year-old Lu. In other words, none of her Facebook friends were supporting Trump.

Lu, like many Americans, was living in a self-selected social media world of like-minded people. The Pew Research Center has found that about two-thirds of adults get news from social media. Analysts have blamed technology for creating an online echo chamber.

But if technology created this problem, can it also help fix it? That's the question a couple of local tech entrepreneurs and researchers are trying to answer; they're experimenting with ways to break through the echo chamber.

Connecting To Find Civil Offline Conversation

Henry Tsai had worked in Silicon Valley for the past few years before coming to Harvard Business School. He said the valley taught him that when you see something that doesn't jive with your understanding — you should try to change it.

"The day after the election, it was clear that discourse in this country was maybe not where we want it to be," said Tsai. "There’s a lot of either demonizing or dismissiveness of the other side from both sides."

So he had this idea of bringing people together from opposing political views. In a burst of late-night inspiration, along with some help from a friend studying computer science at MIT, he created Hi From The Other Side.

The goal is to take two people from different sides of the political spectrum — a Donald Trump supporter and a Hillary Clinton supporter — match them up, introduce them, and allow them to talk to each other in real life.

"It's not only to bring people together, but, more importantly, bringing them together in a way that's productive or civil," said Tsai.

And that's exactly what Lu wanted as she tried to make sense of things after the election.

"At that time, there was a general sense of helplessness on my end," Lu said. "I just wanted to do something to try to help me just understand."

Lu was one of the first Hi From The Other Side users.

She was matched up with Dennis O'Brien, a 26-year-old in New Hampshire working in IT security.

O'Brien had voted for Trump, in part, because he hates the Affordable Care Act — also known as Obamacare.

But after the election, he remembers seeing young women crying.

"All these people were legitimately terrified," said O'Brien. "And, I couldn't quite wrap my mind around why."

The next day, he saw a blurb about Hi From The Other Side on Facebook, and he clicked on it.

O'Brien figured "what the heck" — he could meet someone new and learn what's going through their mind.

Lu and O'Brien were introduced to each other over email and agreed to meet up in person on a Tuesday night at a burger joint in Cambridge.

"We were there for like two hours," O'Brien recalled.

The entire experience was kind of akin to a going on a blind date to discuss politics. O'Brien didn't know what to expect.

"I was really hoping that I just wouldn't get an extremist to talk to, someone who's like 'Hillary or death,' " he remembered.

But luckily, he said, Lu "wasn't crazy."

"There was never a moment where I felt stupid or I felt like I was an idiot, and likewise, toward her — I never thought she was anything more than a normal person," O'Brien said.

Lu laughed and recalled her first impression of meeting O'Brien.

"He’s not like a racist, bigoted [person] like I think the stereotype of some Trump supporters are," she said. "I think what helped was also we were able to find a little bit of common ground."

The two found a bit of common ground on climate change.

But, ultimately, O'Brien said he realized they value different priorities.

Lu agreed. "I really wouldn’t say that our conversation changed each other’s minds at all, but it was valuable to have that new perspective," she added.

About 4,500 people have signed up to be matched, according to Tsai; and, recently, his nascent startup formed a limited collaboration with Starbucks.

Tsai's project is essentially an online platform, but he admits — for it to work — people have to move the the conversation offline and meet in real life (or at least via video chat).

Lu and O'Brien agree.

"I think social media just helps reinforce the hate, it just pushes everybody apart," O'Brien said. "Because when I see something [online] I’m not talking to a person, I’m just typing a bunch of letters in a message."

'Flip' Your Feed To Find Common Interests

But while Tsai wanted to move the conversation off social media, Deb Roy and his team at the Laboratory for Social Machines in the MIT Media Lab were intrigued by the possibility of creating a more tolerant world within social media.

In addition to his MIT job, Roy is the chief media scientist at Twitter. During the election, Roy had access to the entire fire hose of Twitter data, meaning he tracked essentially every tweet about presidential politics in the country.

"One of the things that we found was tribal networks that formed around the public conversation around the elections," Roy explained. He noticed clusters of people, self-segregating based on their politics.

Deb Roy and his team at the MIT Media Lab created FlipFeed, a Google Chrome extension that allows you to see the social media world of other users in order to find common ground. (Asma Khalid/WBUR)
Deb Roy and his team at the MIT Media Lab created FlipFeed, a Google Chrome extension that allows you to see the social media world of other users in order to find common ground. (Asma Khalid/WBUR)

Roy wondered if there was a way to use Big Data not just to analyze information and assess patterns, but to help build bridges.

And so his Media Lab team came up with this quirky research idea: What if you could flip your Twitter feed and see the social media world through someone else's eyes?

"How might you airdrop in somewhere else and get a sense of what it’s like?" Roy asked. "And, what if some of the things you experience actually aren’t so different, aren’t so foreign, aren’t so disconnected from your interests?"

To answer some of those questions, Roy and his team created an online tool: a Google Chrome extension called FlipFeed.

I downloaded it, and I concede, you feel a little nosy, but it's also fascinating. I was teleported to Pike County, Pennsylvania, and saw the same tweets that this anonymous person was theoretically seeing — Fox News updates, the Senate Republicans' latest move and even the local concert in town.

"That was one of the goals, to show that people are not defined by political views, but [there are] many other things that we may have in common," Martin Saveski said. Saveski is a Ph.D. student working on the project with Roy.

FlipFeed has a collection of accounts that span the political arena.

"We didn't want to pigeonhole you," Roy said. "So if you flip your feed a few times, you'll just naturally start sampling different parts of the political spectrum."

Plus, he wasn't sure whether to move people "10 degrees off of their point of view versus 180," so this gives users some variation.

Roy doesn't know what impact, if any, this MIT lab experiment could have. He acknowledged the entire experience could "be really alienating to people." To date, he said FlipFeed downloads are "in the thousands," but he points out — it wasn't created as a consumer product, it was a "tiny little lab project."

Still, he's optimistic that technology like FlipFeed can be used to create empathy.

Of course, the major hitch is that all these tech experiments take effort: The user has to download a Chrome extension, send an email, or even physically meet someone at a coffee shop.

And it's plausible a lot of us are perfectly content to passively roam around our own social media bubble without any interruptions.

This segment aired on April 3, 2017.

Related:

Asma Khalid Twitter Reporter
Asma Khalid formerly led WBUR's BostonomiX, a biz/tech team covering the innovation economy.

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