Depolarizing for BBC Radio 4

Ali Goldsworthy did a piece for BBC Radio Four on their Four Thought series examining the role important and legitimate movement building techniques can play in catalysing polarization. 

The transcript of Ali's talk is below. 

Two decades ago, I stared blankly at a university application form - uncertain how to show I was worth admitting to the course I was applying to. The internet, then a new fangled tool, rescued me.  It gave me a way to compare the main political parties. On one site, my eye was caught by someone called Jo. There was no photo, but the man sounded cool and fun. Even better, he was studying on a course I’d my eye on. I was full of teenage desire. Certain I’d unlocked the key to getting in AND may get a date I emailed. Including my number, just in case. 

The following day, a warm, welcoming voice called. It did not belong to a strapping man, but a woman. I was gutted. The Jo was Jo Swinson who’d go on to lead the Liberal Democrats. Too embarrassed to admit my error, whilst feeling I mainly agreed with what the party said, I joined.

Politics was intoxicating. Spending time with people you agree with, and often say you’re right is easy to love. There’d be debates over issues, but your values are broadly the same. 

Over the coming years I became very adept at persuading others to take my view as their own - so they could be told they were right too. We were often defined by what we were against; tuition fees, Blair's war in Iraq, potholes not maintained by a council. Some didn’t find it easy to identify positively with a tribe. But, they’d join mine because of what they weren't. 

In 2002, the Lib Dems became the first party to import the American concept of online mobilization. It eradicated lots of laborious work. Previously if you wanted someone who signed a petition to do more you had to write and ask.  They’d have to adapt a letter, find an envelope, copy an address, get a stamp and post it. We launched a website that automated it. Within hours, thousands used it. I felt like the popular kid, and political activists rarely get to say that. We didn't know our work’d have that effect, neither did the Department of Education who we targeted over plans to raise tuition fees. But they noticed. They called and asked if we had a way to make it stop. 

Being popular and getting a reaction gave me a natural, addictive high. It made me feel powerful -even if we didn’t change the things we aimed to. I was hooked, certain online mobilization could only do good. These tools were going to help democratize the world, strengthening the hand of voices too often ignored. Over time, I came to realize that as we executed it, this belief was profoundly wrong.

But first I threw myself into online campaigning. I was not alone. Big movements were being created around the world. Presidential candidate Howard Dean and progressive campaigning movement move on in America. A few years later. 38 degrees in the UK more and more followed. 

When 38 emailed its members in Wales about a campaign I led on opt out organ donation I was thrilled. Again we watched as emails bounced into politicians inboxes. Their constituents cared about an issue, so should they. After legislation was announced, we told those supporters what they’d done would save lives. Just by sitting in their house. A big incentive to say yes and tell friends to get involved in the future. If this sounds like one of those pyramid schemes, you might be right. Persuasive techniques are often the same - context matters. 

But it was to take longer for me to appreciate this. First I ignored a distant, ringing alarm bell. 

When new MPs are elected they face a maelstrom. Constituents know who they are - after all an election’s just happened - so many ask for help. Some requests are small, others heartbreaking and labyrinthine.  Immigration cases where people are about to be deported, a child with complex needs whose parents can’t get respite. Supporting people in crisis is a pressing problem. When Conservative MP Dominc Raab, and I’ll let you in on a secret, I’d not have voted for him, was elected he asked for lobbying emails to be stopped - so he could identify these cases. The response? Public ridicule. I couldn’t help but feel the mostly progressive organising community would’ve been more generous to an MP from their tribes. Possibly explaining an inbox’s filter function. A seed of doubt about tribal preferences influencing behaviour had been sown.

Friends and fellow organisers did nail some stunning wins. National victories like stopping Government plans to sell forests and local triumphs from getting zebra crossings installed to making toilets fully accessible. Early debate about this campaigning accused it of clicktivism, generating no real connection. My experience showed me this critique was wrong, a more insidious one was to take root. 

But giddy with the potential to influence millions’ behaviour, I took a job with Which? leading their mobilization teams. We tried to bring about changes from businesses, government and regulators to help consumers. I was good at it. Really good. Which? had the fastest growing and most engaged base of any NGO.  We optimized the process to drive engagement. The tweak of a welcome journey, the color of a button - imperceptible, incremental changes to make supporters more committed to our cause. Armed with that knowledge we'd serve up personalised content that provoked responses.

Some of this cycle’ll be familiar. First a petition’s signed. Then people get asked to share it on the likes of facebook and ask friends to join. Clarion calls provoke reactions - typically labelling a baddie to counter your good work. So the images and words will be bolshy. The campaign’s now the signers campaign too. To keep them engaged actions are found to do whilst waiting for decisions.  A letter to a minister. Tweets to ask friends to join and ‘just take you over your target.’ Campaigners call this building up the ladder of engagement. An engaged, passionate base is one that cares. It can act as an important scrutiny function and a great mirror to let politicians know what people really care about. It’s legitimate and important. 

But there are downsides for our tribal natures. This was where I got it wrong.  

When millions take action every year you generate lots of insight. Digging through the stats, one element made me uncomfortable. There was little rationale why people backed one campaign over another. It wasn’t that some were motivated by social justice or others by securing better deals from businesses. Instead, once people took one action, and especially if they shared that with friends. They took every action you asked. So, to build our engaged base, we did whatever we could to get supporters to open and share emails. I like to think I did it responsibly. But I'm not certain.

Leveraging divisions was widespread and championed. Save the Children had a, now abandoned, plan to ‘engage and enrage’. The RSPCA’s CEO called for farmers who took part in a badger cull to be named and shamed - though it was politicians, not farmers who’d pass the law to make it legal. 

There wasn’t a pause to consider the divisions that could be created afterwards. Even though that seems obvious now, it wasn’t then. Or at least to me. 

When you bind people's identities together, and push out lots of messages saying they are good, and others are bad. That has an impact. When people take a position publicly, by sharing it with their friends. They find it harder to sit and reflect. Admitting we got something wrong is tough. 

That discomfort returned months later outside a conference hall in Reno, Nevada. I was stood in a queue that snaked round the building. People were fired up. Thousands already inside, eager to listen to the then candidate, Donald Trump. The campaigner in me admired the devotion and commitment of his supporters. 

I was in Reno with 120 Stanford classmates campaigning for Hillary Clinton. Earlier that day we’d been in our own queue of about 450 people at her office. None of us were local. But plenty knew each other. Colleagues from Stanford recognised friends from Harvard.  Clinton’s team had, in a cardinal campaigning sin, run out of work. So some of us stopped at Trump’s rally. Stood in that queue I bristled when a colleague turned up his nose as a Trump supporter thoughtfully explained why they came.  Sat on a stool a man held a sign, adamant Hillary had written “The Art of the Steal”. People were galvanized - in the way I’d spent years trying to do. But it was clear it caused them to lose the ability to listen to others. 

On the long drive home, my doubts grew. The approach and lack of effort to counterbalance divides between good and evil had been wrong. My enthusiasm, damaging and naive. It’s easier to respond to stories of damascene conversion. A moment when you saw the error of your ways. But when you change your mind, especially if it’s around a cause you’ve been intimately involved with, it’s more likely to be a slow, steady dawning.

That reckoning continued as I explored the spillover effects of tribalism. 

You’re more likely to get a callback for a job if you’ve the same political allegiance as the recruiter. 

A pregnant woman deciding if she should keep a baby, will receive different advice from a doctor if they think you’re a democrat or republican. - though they’ve no idea if you actually are. 

A child ‘s more likely to be vaccinated if the person you voted for is elected. 

Online campaigning’s far from the only reason we’re polarized. But election campaigns exacerbate divisions and it’s become easier and cheaper for online mobilisation to continually reinforce them. Democracy functions best when campaigners are unafraid to be robust, but also when a population does not solely sit in their own political tribes. 

When I began to voice my doubts two curious things happened. 

First, others began to say they too were struggling to reconcile the enthusiasm they’d shown to digital mobilizing with its effects. The RSPCA, Save the Children and 38 degrees have all gone through significant shifts. 

Secondly, it became easier to find other areas where I’d changed my mind. I used to think there was little need for public funding to support less commercial parts of the arts. I got that wrong. I now think differently about the balance between punishment and rehabilitation for criminals.

With the world fragmenting. The future can feel bleak - but if more of us are open to changing our minds. To accept we may have been wrong or that new information’s come to light it will start to overcome it.  If you look around and see political division getting worse and want to do something about it - Ask yourself, what you have changed your mind about and why.