Civics Connection

Civic engagement indicator No. 2: Understand all sides of the issues

John Silva

John Silva, NBCT

Director of education


Americans head to their polling places in less than two weeks — and in each election cycle, it’s becoming more and more difficult to make sure that we actually know what we need to know before casting our ballots. (Check out our “Double-Check Your Facts” PSA to see how people did on The Easiest Quiz of All Time.)

To be active, engaged participants in the civic life of our communities, we all must take proactive steps to better understand the issues we care most about — especially since Facebook, Twitter and other social media have become, for many of us, our primary sources of information. By relying on these platforms for news, we’re likely to become encased in a filter bubble — a phenomenon that, in essence, limits what we read, watch and hear.

We end up inside these bubbles when the algorithms used by these platforms attempt to select content that they feel we want to see and that aligns with what they perceive as our personal preferences. And when our online friends and connections share our opinions, we’re trapped even more: We become insulated from opposing viewpoints, making it increasingly difficult to understand all sides of the issues. (Another description for this is the “echo chamber” effect — meaning that our beliefs are repeated and amplified by our connections.)

How do we pop these filter bubbles? We can’t expect any of the platforms to do it for us. We have to be proactive by engaging with new sources of information. Here are a few that will help.

Blue Feed, Red Feed

This site, from The Wall Street Journal, was launched several months before the 2016 presidential election. The concept is simple: Click on one of eight pre-selected topics (such as health care or immigration) and scroll through a series of Facebook posts that have been shared from sources that a study by Facebook has identified as “very liberal” or “very conservative.” Each post in the feeds has at least 100 shares, and the sources for the posts have more than 100,000 followers.

The strength of this tool is that it allows users to see the latest arguments for their selected issues side by side. People from across the political spectrum can consider their own beliefs against opposing viewpoints to come to a clearer understanding of their position — or perhaps change it to a new view.

ISideWith.com

This site was started in 2012 by Taylor Peck, a political analyst and marketing expert, and Nick Boutelier, a web designer and developer, who wanted to find ways to increase voter engagement and knowledge. Users can choose from more than 30 countries and select from 22 languages (including several variations of English).

For U.S. voters, the site has a 2018 midterm voter guide that asks users to rate their beliefs on a wide range of issues — economic policy, foreign policy, education, health care and more — and then presents information about candidates whose views concur with the users’. There are also guides to candidates for Congress and state legislatures. In the Polls section, users can see how others have answered the questions about their beliefs on issues, with both sides represented on the same page.

This site has an almost overwhelming amount of information — but it’s this comprehensiveness that makes ISideWith an excellent resource.

Vote Smart

Originally known as Project Vote Smart, this nonpartisan organization was founded in 1992 by Richard Kimball, a former Arizona state senator who had run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate against John McCain in 1986. Users can enter their ZIP code to see who currently represents them (federal, state and local offices) and who is running for office; when they click on a name, they can learn more about the official’s or candidate’s voting record, positions, speeches and funding. Similar to ISideWith, Vote Smart created Vote Easy, which allows users to explore candidates running for federal office (in 2018, the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House) and their positions on key issues.

Other resources

The challenge with sites such as Vote Smart and ISideWith is that they tend to focus on enabling voters to find candidates whose political beliefs reflect their own. This actually serves to reinforce the filter bubble. If we look only for candidates with positions that agree with ours, we’re not really learning about opposing viewpoints.

ProCon.org focuses on the issues, not individual candidates. Users choose from an extensive list to see arguments for and against specific topics. Examples include:

  • Should student loan debt be easier to discharge in bankruptcy?
  • Should the drinking age be lowered from 21 to a younger age?
  • Should marijuana be a medical option?
  • Should bottled water be banned?

The site provides citations for all sources listed in the results. The arguments are listed side by side for easy comparison.

BalancedPolitics.org also lists arguments for specific positions side by side and provides background and links to additional resources. Finally, Debate.org is an online community (free to join) where members can vote and contribute their own opinions to current issues.

Civic engagement is more than voting. We must find ways to increase our knowledge and understanding of the issues that affect us and our communities. To do so, we first must be aware that we are inundated with information through our social media feeds and that we must critically evaluate everything that we encounter. Next, we need to seek out content that shows us opposing positions and ideas. What we find can either reinforce what we already believe or allow our positions to evolve.

When we burst our filter bubbles and are ready for our positions to be challenged, we’re taking an uncomfortable but important step. It’s one we have to take, though, if we want to become active and engaged participants in civic life — and informed voters.

More Civics Connection Posts

Curate a list of local journalists

ProPublica Illinois (@ProPublicaIL) regularly uses Twitter to answer questions about journalism. Recently a reader asked: “How do you go about finding those new ideas? Is it by brainstorming? Or following on tips?” Here’s the response from ProPublica journalist Jodi Cohen: “Reporters are always on the lookout for ways to inform the public about the world…

News literacy and conspiracy theories

Misinformation spreads rapidly on social media following natural disasters, mass shootings, terrorist attacks and other dramatic news events. In addition to seeing doctored photos and patently false “breaking news,” we’re also likely to be bombarded with conspiracy theories — another subset of misinformation. Since many of these involve alleged actions by the government, we need…

Civic engagement in the 21st century

As civics education is increasingly part of the national conversation, and as school districts and state legislatures increasingly call for more of it, we need to have a good understanding of what civic engagement looks like for young people in the 21st century. How many civic actions from previous generations remain unchanged? How many have…