How Social Media Can Help, Not Harm, Purposeful Political Discourse

If you are one of the many people who feel strongly that we need to change the direction of our politics, remember how much power social media already has over our political process.

The special interests, donors, pollsters, consultants, partisan think tanks, corporate media, and lobbyists that support the existing two-party system are working hard to leverage existing social networks. They have proven to be very successful in these efforts, and often not to our benefit.

Shouldn’t we be working just as hard to have the kind of focused, purposeful discussions on social media that could alter the national conversation in a way that serves our own common interests?

Joel Searby, Sycamore Lane Company founder and seasoned political consultant, gave his readers a lot to think about with regard to the present state of discourse on social media in a recent article titled, “Social Media Is Killing Thoughtful Citizenship, But There Is A Solution.”

Mr. Searby identifies the dire need to make a new path for politics in America and proposes that we could start by questioning the nature of our engagement on social media. This path would need to be in the opposite direction of our current path, where “every argument, every disagreement, every valid concern devolves into an online outrage-fest devoid of nuance, thoughtfulness and, too often, the truth.”

Shouldn’t we be working just as hard to have the kind of focused, purposeful discussions on social media that could alter the national conversation in a way that serves our own common interests?
Jim Ragsdale, Founder and Director of Operations of PurpleState, LLC

There’s a lot we can do, on the social media platforms we use now, to raise the level of thoughtful and productive political discourse. As someone who is working to develop an alternative technological solution to this very real and dangerous problem, I am presently leading a team that is interviewing voters to ask what they think will help the most.

In partnership with our fellow founding members of the National Association of Nonpartisan Reformers, we are asking voters and candidates what features they would like us to build into PurpleState, the social network for nonpartisan politics that we are presently developing.

There has been a great deal of interest in such a network and several serious efforts to build something that addresses one or more of the problems we plan to solve. Those efforts raised millions of dollars but had limited impact on our elections.

We feel that one key to what has been missing is continuous involvement and feedback from the voters and reformers alike, as each feature is developed. We want to know what tools they feel they need to evaluate the posts they will read on our network and to make the kind of posts and comments that would be a valuable contribution to our national conversation.

Although our features will go through many changes based on our continuing customer feedback process, take a look at a few of the proposed features we are developing that might help answer the questions Mr. Searby suggests that we ask ourselves about what we hear and say when using a social network:

Question: “Is it true?”

Feature: Reviews

Just like we evaluate and rate the quality of a product on an e-commerce site such as Amazon, we propose that the validity of posts, policy proposals and candidates on PurpleState can be evaluated by reading reviews from other users and ratings with the following 1-5 star scale:

Objectivity Rating:

1 to 5 stars (partisan-1, highly partisan-2, moderately partisan-3, slightly partisan-4, nonpartisan-5)

Validity Rating:

1 to 5 stars (Poor-1, Fair-2, Good-3, Very Good-4, Excellent-5)

Question:  “How can I find out if a post is true?”

Feature:  References

When users make a post, they will have fields in the post form where they can enter links to supporting websites and offline sources and cite them for reference by other users. We are also considering a validity score for these references generated from the same kind of metrics that search engines like Google use to return quality results to their users’ website searches.

Question: “What is the other side of this issue?”

Feature: Opposing Views

This is being designed similar to a Google Search knowledge panel that will appear when posts, candidates or policies with a partisan rating are being read by a PurpleState user. Excerpts or summaries of posts with an inverse rating will be displayed in this window.

We will need to hear from many more potential users before implementing a feature like this one. It would require an additional rating for content on our network regarding ideological inclination.

In other words, each post, policy or candidate would have to be rated, perhaps on a 10-point scale, from the political left to the political right, similar to the scale measuring alkaline to acid. This could be extremely controversial, but the benefit of having the body of users on the platform giving their collective opinion of a content item (with regard to which side of an issue it is on) could also be very helpful with regard to Mr. Searby’s question.

This window could be closed after a “Bubble Warning” window appears, which would warn the user of insulating themselves against opposing viewpoints and undermining true nonpartisan consensus. Of course, a user could turn these messages off…but should they? This is exactly the kind of feedback we are looking for.

Question: “Does someone have an incentive to distort this for their own interests?”

Feature: User Ratings

We feel it is important for users to be rated also, and want to know if our potential users, as a group, believe they should be able to come to an identifiable conclusion as to whether one of their members is contributing or detracting from their attempt to reach consensus on the crucial issues they will be discussing. These ratings would employ the same 1-5 star scale as the content rating use:

Objectivity Rating:

1 to 5 stars  (partisan-1, highly partisan-2, moderately partisan-3, slightly partisan-4, nonpartisan-5)

Quality Rating:

1 to 5 stars (Poor-1, Fair-2, Good-3, Very Good-4, Excellent-5)

Questions: “Who do I know personally that understands this issue and will give me an honest view? Who do I know that disagrees with this and will share their reasons why?”

Feature: Share Menu

This feature allows users to invite fellow users to contribute on a specific post. In this way, a user will be able to reach out to those he feels are either particularly knowledgeable about the issue or will give an expansive response as to why they disagree.

Users will be able to share posts, candidates, policies with others in a menu including the following proposed options:

  • Member Invitation
    • A PurpleState user would choose this feature from the Share menu and select invitees from their Groups or contact list of other users on the platform. The invitee can accept and be taken directly to the subject post, refuse or delete them (with or without notifying the user who invited them). We have assumed that users will want to be able turn off the “Accept Invitations” setting in their profile, but this is something else that will be decided by feedback from potential users.
  • Social Media (from a list of the networks determined most demanded by users)
  • Email Invitation

Questions: “What is the value in my responding? How can I add constructively to this conversation?”

Features: Pop-Up Help or Placeholder Text

In the fields we provide to users on post and comment forms, we plan to place placeholder text, which is replaced as the user types text into the field, defining best practices for that field and how each field of the user’s post can affect that post’s rating. The same (or abbreviated) guidelines will be available in pop-up or baloon help by clicking an icon placed by each field.

I would like to commend Joel Searby for sharing his opinion and making important suggestions that we should all embrace. I hope his readers were inspired as much as I was by his call for a new path for our political conversation as we navigate the social media landscape.

I also encourage anyone who wants to see nonpartisan reform, common sense policy and fully-vetted independent candidates for offices at every level to join us in our interview process and make your voice heard as our own network enters the discovery phase of development in earnest. Let us know how we can help you leverage social media to make this kind of change happen.

Photo Credit: View Apart / shutterstock.com