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← What happened when we paired up thousands of strangers to talk politics

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Showing Revision 11 created 09/03/2019 by Oliver Friedman.

  1. Now, this is Joanna.
  2. Joanna works at a university in Poland.
  3. And one Saturday morning at 3am,
  4. she got up, packed her rucksack
  5. and traveled more than
    a thousand kilometers,
  6. only to have a political argument
  7. with a stranger.
  8. His name is Christof,
    and he's a customer manager from Germany.
  9. And the two had never met before.
  10. They only knew that they were
    totally at odds over European politics,
  11. over migration, or the relationship
    to Russia or whatever.
  12. And they were arguing for almost one day.
  13. And after that, Joanna sent me
    a somewhat irritating email.
  14. "That was really cool, and I enjoyed
    every single minute of it!"
  15. (Laughter)

  16. So these are Tom from the UK
    and Nils from Germany.

  17. They also were strangers,
  18. and they are both supporters
    of their local football team,
  19. as you may imagine, Borussia Dortmund
    and Tottenham Hotspurs.
  20. And so they met on the very spot
    where football roots were invented,
  21. on some field in Cambridge.
  22. And they didn't argue about football,
  23. but about Brexit.
  24. And after talking for many hours
    about this contentious topic,
  25. they also sent a rather unexpected email.
  26. "It was delightful, and we both
    enjoyed it very much."
  27. (Laughter)

  28. So in spring 2019,

  29. more than 17,000 Europeans
    from 33 countries
  30. signed up to have a political argument.
  31. Thousands crossed their borders to meet
    a stranger with a different opinion,
  32. and they were all part of a project
    called "Europe Talks."
  33. Now, talking about politics
    amongst people with different opinions

  34. has become really difficult,
  35. not only in Europe.
  36. Families are splitting,
    friends no longer talk to each other.
  37. We stay in our bubbles.
  38. And these so-called filter bubbles
    are amplified by social media,
  39. but they are not,
    in the core, a digital product.
  40. The filter bubble has always been there.
  41. It's in our minds.
  42. As many studies repeatedly have shown,

  43. we, for example, ignore effects
    that contradict our convictions.
  44. So correcting fake news
    is definitely necessary,
  45. but it's not sufficient
    to get a divided society
  46. to rethink itself.
  47. Fortunately, according to
    at least some research,
  48. there may be a simple way
    to get a new perspective:
  49. a personal one-on-one discussion
  50. with someone who doesn't
    have your opinion.
  51. It enables you to see
    the world in a new way,
  52. through someone else's eyes.
  53. Now, I'm the editor of "ZEIT ONLINE,"

  54. one of the major digital
    news organizations in Germany.
  55. And we started what became "Europe Talks"
    as a really modest editorial exercise.
  56. As many journalists,
  57. we were impressed by Trump and by Brexit,
  58. and Germany was getting divided, too,
    especially over the issue of migration.
  59. So the arrival of more than
    a million refugees in 2015 and 2016
  60. dominated somewhat the debate.
  61. And when we were thinking
    about our own upcoming election in 2017,
  62. we definitely knew that we had to reinvent
    the way we were dealing with politics.
  63. So digital nerds that we are,
  64. we came up with obviously
    many very strange digital product ideas,
  65. one of them being a Tinder for politics --
  66. (Laughter)

  67. a dating platform for political opposites,

  68. a tool that could help get people
    together with different opinions.
  69. And we decided to test it
  70. and launched what techies would call
    a "minimum viable product."
  71. So it was really simple.
  72. We called it "Deutschland spricht" --
    "Germany Talks" --
  73. and we started with that in May 2017.
  74. And it was really simple.
  75. We used mainly Google Forms,
  76. a tool that each and every one of us here
    can use to make surveys online.
  77. And everywhere in our content,
    we embedded simple questions like this:
  78. "Did Germany take in too many refugees?"
  79. You click yes or no.
  80. We asked you more questions, like,
    "Does the West treat Russia fairly?"
  81. or, "Should gay couples
    be allowed to marry?"
  82. And if you answered all these questions,
    we asked one more question:
  83. "Hey, would you like to meet a neighbor
    who totally disagrees with you?"
  84. (Laughter)

  85. So this was a really simple experiment
    with no budget whatsoever.

  86. We expected some
    hundred-ish people to register,
  87. and we planned to match them
    by hand, the pairs.
  88. And after one day,
    1,000 people had registered.
  89. And after some weeks,
    12,000 Germans had signed up
  90. to meet someone else
    with a different opinion.
  91. So we had a problem.
  92. (Laughter)

  93. We hacked a quick and dirty algorithm

  94. that would find
    the perfect Tinder matches,
  95. like people living as close as possible
    having answered the questions
  96. as differently as possible.
  97. We introduced them via email.
  98. And, as you may imagine,
    we had many concerns.
  99. Maybe no one would show up in real life.
  100. Maybe all the discussions
    in real life would be awful.
  101. Or maybe we had an axe murderer
    in our database.
  102. (Laughter)

  103. But then, on a Sunday in June 2017,

  104. something beautiful happened.
  105. Thousands of Germans met in pairs
    and talked about politics peacefully.
  106. Like Anno.
  107. He's a former policeman who's against --
    or was against -- gay marriage,
  108. and Anne, she's an engineer who lives
    in a domestic partnership
  109. with another woman.
  110. And they were talking
    for hours about all the topics
  111. where they had different opinions.
  112. At one point, Anno told us later,
  113. he realized that Anne was hurt
    by his statements about gay marriage,
  114. and he started to question
    his own assumptions.
  115. And after talking for three hours,
  116. Anne invited Anno to her summer party,
  117. and today, years later,
  118. they still meet from time to time
    and are friends.
  119. So our algorithm matched,
    for example, this court bailiff.

  120. He's also a spokesperson of the right-wing
    populist party AfD in Germany,
  121. and this counselor for pregnant women.
  122. She used to be an active member
    of the Green Party.
  123. We even matched this professor
    and his student.
  124. (Laughter)

  125. It's an algorithm.

  126. (Laughter)

  127. We also matched a father-in-law
    and his very own daughter-in-law,

  128. because, obviously, they live close by
    but have really different opinions.
  129. So as a general rule,

  130. we did not observe, record,
    document the discussions,
  131. because we didn't want
    people to perform in any way.
  132. But I made an exception.
  133. I took part myself.
  134. And so I met in my trendy Berlin
    neighborhood called Prenzlauer Berg,
  135. I met Mirko.
  136. This is me talking to Mirko.
    Mirko didn't want to be in the picture.
  137. He's a young plant operator,
  138. and he looked like
    all the hipsters in our area,
  139. like with a beard and a beanie.
  140. We were talking for hours,
    and I found him to be a wonderful person.
  141. And despite the fact that we had
    really different opinions
  142. about most of the topics --
  143. maybe with the exception
    of women's rights,
  144. where I couldn't comprehend
    his thoughts --
  145. it was really nice.
  146. After our discussion, I Googled Mirko.
  147. And I found out that in his teenage years,
    he used to be a neo-Nazi.
  148. So I called him and asked,
  149. "Hey, why didn't you tell me?"
  150. And he said, "You know, I didn't tell you
    because I want to get over it.
  151. I just don't want
    to talk about it anymore."
  152. I thought that people with
    a history like that could never change,

  153. and I had to rethink my assumptions,
  154. as did many of the participants
    who sent us thousands of emails
  155. and also selfies.
  156. No violence was recorded whatsoever.

  157. (Laughter)

  158. And we just don't know
    if some of the pairs got married.

  159. (Laughter)

  160. But, at least, we were really excited
    and wanted to do it again,

  161. especially in version 2.0,
  162. wanted to expand the diversity
    of the participants,
  163. because obviously in the first round,
    they were mainly our readers.
  164. And so we embraced our competition

  165. and asked other media outlets to join.
  166. We coordinated via Slack.
  167. And this live collaboration
    among 11 major German media houses
  168. was definitely a first in Germany.
  169. The numbers more than doubled:
    28,000 people applied this time.
  170. And the German president --
  171. you see him here
    in the center of the picture --
  172. became our patron.
  173. And so, thousands of Germans met again
    in the summer of 2018
  174. to talk to someone else
    with a different opinion.
  175. Some of the pairs we invited
    to Berlin to a special event.
  176. And there, this picture was taken,
  177. until today my favorite symbol
    for "Germany Talks."
  178. You see Henrik,
    a bus driver and boxing trainer,
  179. and Engelbert, the director
    of a children's help center.
  180. They answered all of the seven questions
    we asked differently.
  181. They had never met before this day,
  182. and they had a really intensive discussion
  183. and seemed to get along anyway
  184. with each other.
  185. So this time we also wanted to know

  186. if the discussion would have
    any impact on the participants.
  187. So we asked researchers
    to survey the participants.
  188. And two-thirds of the participants said
    that they learned something
  189. about their partner's attitudes.
  190. Sixty percent agreed
    that their viewpoints converged.
  191. The level of trust in society
    seemed also higher after the event,
  192. according to the researchers.
  193. Ninety percent said that
    they enjoyed their discussion.
  194. Ten percent said they didn't
    enjoy their discussion,
  195. eight percent only because,
    simply, their partner didn't show up.
  196. (Laughter)

  197. After "Germany Talks," we got approached
    by many international media outlets,

  198. and we decided this time to build
    a serious and secure platform.
  199. We called it "My Country Talks."
  200. And in this short period of time,
    "My Country Talks" has already been used
  201. for more than a dozen
    local and national events
  202. like "Het grote gelijk" in Belgium
    or "Suomi puhuu" in Finland
  203. or "Britain Talks" in the UK.
  204. And as I mentioned at the beginning,
    we also launched "Europe Talks,"
  205. together with 15
    international media partners,
  206. from the "Financial Times" in the UK
    to "Helsingin Sanomat" in Finland.
  207. Thousands of Europeans met
    with a total stranger
  208. to argue about politics.
  209. So far, we have been approached
    by more than 150 global media outlets,
  210. and maybe someday there will be
    something like "The World Talks,"
  211. with hundreds of thousands
    of participants.
  212. But what matters here are not the numbers,

  213. obviously.
  214. What matters here is ...
  215. Whenever two people meet
    to talk in person for hours
  216. without anyone else listening,
  217. they change.
  218. And so do our societies.
  219. They change little by little,
    discussion by discussion.
  220. What matters here is that we relearn
  221. how to have these
    face-to-face discussions,
  222. without anyone else listening,
  223. with a stranger.
  224. Not only with a stranger
    we are introduced to
  225. by a Tinder for politics,
  226. but also with a stranger in a pub
    or in a gym or at a conference.
  227. So please meet someone

  228. and have an argument
  229. and enjoy it very much.
  230. Thank you.

  231. (Applause)

  232. Wow!

  233. (Applause)