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Using technology to unite us, not divide us

Technology has brought the world closer together than ever before. However, today it is often blamed for sewing social division. Professor Anna De Liddo believes it doesn't have to be this way and is creating intuitive online tools to help us build consensus, even when we disagree.

There are no simple solutions to complex societal challenges. Whether it's climate change or addressing the devastating impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, the questions these issues pose to humanity do not have a single correct answer. Tackling them requires collaboration from governments, charities, companies and individuals. Nevertheless, at a time when society seems dominated by dogma and discord, building consensus about what action to take can feel like the greatest hurdle to overcome.

We can't overlook the internet's role in fanning the flames of division. Fake news and social media bubbles filter our reality and have the power to entrench us on one side of the argument and prevent us from understanding others' views. However, my research also finds that technology can also be a powerful tool to help us find common ground, even when it appears we couldn't be farther apart.

Building consensus

Since 2012, I've been making a case for a new type of technology-enabled collective intelligence to help people make sense of and co-create innovative solutions to complicated challenges.

The online Contested Collective Intelligence (CCI) tools I've built harness the power of technology to enable people worldwide to build consensus – even when, on the face of it, they disagree. Using advanced computational methods, such as Natural Language Processing, to 'mine' online conversations (with people's consent), these easy to use tools identify both stated and unstated points of agreement to help summarise complex debates. They then generate visualisations of these points of understanding, which we can show people to help them reflect on each other's ideas and make better informed collective decisions. Mining online conversations also produces a wealth of data we can analyse further to understand the fundamental nature of sensemaking, the social and cognitive process through which humans make sense of their collective experience.

Bridging divides and healing divisions

Society's division and disagreement are no more evident in the political arena. Working with colleagues from The Open University's Knowledge Media Institute and The University of Leeds, I've applied my research to build a new collective intelligence platform to help people think critically about political and societal issues and challenge their prior assumptions. These are crucial skills people need to bridge divides and reduce social conflict.

The Democratic Reflection web app harnesses real-time audience feedback on live or recorded events, such as televised election debates. It allows users to engage with the political debate in a truly personal and immersive way, empowering them to express their spontaneous reactions, reflections and feelings in real-time before group dynamics can bias them. Users watch political broadcasts in the app, on their computer, tablet or mobile device while simultaneously expressing their reaction by clicking digital flashcards representing their views. The app then records, aggregates and automatically analyses users' feedback to produce personal learning analytics that they can explore at the end of the debate. This aggregated feedback also offers valuable insights on citizens' trust, democratic entitlement and nuanced reactions to political debates.

On weekly basis the political leaders cite conflicting figures when they argue across the floor of this house.

When this happened during election debates this may alienate many people.

Five years ago tv election debate were watched by 22 million people. Research indicated that there is a high public appetite for these debates but it also showed that many viewers were left feeling uncertain about the conflicting arguments they had witnessed.

This is where our research at The Open University comes in. We develop innovative technologies to help citizens make sense of complex political argumentation and debates.

Our Democratic Reflection app allows viewers to provide live feedback on a televised debate.

Viewers can express their reaction by using our digital cards. These cards are reflective statements which try to capture how the debate is engaging viewers as democratic citizens.

We tested the Democratic Reflection app with a group of OU students and staff. So let's see what they think about it.

"Using the app made the debate more enjoyable because i could actually assess how my opinion was changing for the speakers and their arguments."

"I could see people's, other people's opinions popping up and so it kind of made me feel like we were all part of this we're all watching it together and i think anything that means more people take part in debates and discussions and things can't be a bad thing."

Some TV viewers are already involved in social media discussion around political debates but our technologies can take this experience at a higher level and change the way the public engages in political debates, not only during an election campaign.

Trials with broadcaster ITV during the 2015, 2017 and 2019 UK general election leaders' debates demonstrated the power of the technology to promote critical thinking and shift political opinion.

I came into this group more or less decided on what I was going to vote for, but the statistics completely changed my mind, so that helped

To someone who's really undecided on who to vote for, it is quite interesting to see what my reactions were […] I was a bit like oh, right. Okay, so obviously, I agree with what they're saying. Maybe I need to go back and look at their manifesto and read it all through again.

2017 trial participants

We're now applying the same approach to efforts to help communities heal after the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. Working with colleagues at King's College London and with on-the-ground engagement from the UK-based NGO, The Aegis Trust, we've used the Democratic Reflection app to support peace education. The project encouraged people from both sides to reflect on videos that tell the human stories of this brutal episode in the country's history and actively engaging them to challenge remaining divisions, ideologies and resentments. It has helped people learn from the conflict, especially those born in the 25 years since it ended.

What I liked is, the tool wasn't about commenting on the video as such, it was touching on how people feel, and how people think in the place of the storyteller..."

The tool has that ability of giving you a chance to express yourself, to feel connected, and connect with what you are watching, but also evaluate…It gave people a time for self-reflection.

When we engage people, when we call people for peace education training, we want the change to start with individuals. When the change starts with individuals, then it escalates to become a change for the group, and you can only achieve that if individually people are connected, and people are really reflecting on their role in society. That is something Democratic Reflection was really promoting. People had to respond not from their mind, I would say, but from their heart.

2019 trial interview with Head of Digital Resources and Communications at Aegis Trust

Crowdsourcing community capabilities

The same methods can also help professional communities pool resources, expertise and crowdsource solutions to problems. Since 2014, I've worked with the UK's professional body for health visitors, the Institute of Health Visiting (iHV), to create and manage The Evidence Hub. The online platform allows iHV members to share, reflect on and develop their professional practice based on the latest scientific evidence and their collective experience in the field. The network has created opportunities to collate evidence and present it to public health policymakers.

Brazilian open research community, COLEARN, facilitated by my Open University colleague and open learning expert Dr Ale Okada, has also used my cloud-based LiteMap tool to build collaboration between school teachers and university researchers, remotely and at scale, in a way rarely seen in the massive and geographically diverse country. The network has employed the tool's debate visualisation, collaborative knowledge mapping, and argumentation technology to support thousands of teachers and researchers to develop coordinated online learning opportunities for school pupils on diverse themes from genetically modified foods to Zika virus response.

It is easy to scapegoat technology for society's ills, but we should never forget its extraordinary potential to unite us. Addressing today's pressing challenges will require humanity to work together on an unprecedented scale. How we use the tools at our disposal to do this will define us.

Written by Dr Anna De Liddo, Professor of Human-Computer Interaction at The Open University's Knowledge Media Institute (KMi).