Short, simple interventions can reduce partisan animosity (yay!) … so, what comes next? Here are ninety ideas.

Kristin Hansen • October 18, 2022 • 22 min read

When it comes to reducing Americans’ partisan animosity, anti-democratic attitudes, and tolerance for political violence, what types of interventions work best? And, (how) can the best-performing interventions be scaled and offered to millions of Americans?

These were the burning questions that the Strengthening Democracy Challenge team set out to answer when they launched their innovative, tournament-style social science study more than two years ago. 

Having corralled the combined energies of a multi-campus research team, an expert advisory board, more than 400 intervention submitters, and more than 32,000 Americans who tested the interventions, the Challenge team has now shared its findings via a draft paper, a recent virtual convening, and extensive media coverage.  

On September 29, more than 400 bridge-building practitioners, social media company employees, academics, philanthropic funders, and interested citizens convened virtually to explore the encouraging findings of the Strengthening Democracy Challenge. 

As the Challenge team shared during the opening plenary sessions (view recordings here), among 25 interventions selected for full testing, nearly all of them (23) delivered statistically meaningful reductions in participants’ partisan animosity, anti-democratic attitudes, and / or tolerance for political violence. 

Results were fairly similar across left-leaning and right-leaning study participants, and winning interventions showed variable, but generally promising, levels of “durability” i.e. having a longer-lasting impact on these attitudes. Best of all, the Challenge results indicate that a wide range of approaches can be successful.

From the outset, the Challenge was designed to identify simple, impactful interventions that academics, practitioners, and platforms could scale up physically, virtually, or both. The September 29th convening took this applied focus even further, sending attendees into “themed” breakout groups and assigning the goal of brainstorming as many ways as possible to implement, scale, and measure real-world interventions based on Challenge insights.

Academics, bridge building practitioners, social media platforms, and funders now have a diverse “tasting menu” of ideas and innovations to consider scaling, amplifying, and funding in order to reach more Americans more quickly — whether in virtual or physical spaces. 

Scroll further for a roundup of many insightful ideas generated in the themed breakouts. Which ones might you, your lab, your team, or your organization decide to run with? 

Whatever the answer, be sure to learn about the Challenge grant program offering awards of up to $50,000 to teams that will implement, scale, and measure real-world interventions. Information sessions for researchers and practitioners take place on Mon, Oct 24, and grant applications are due Fri, Jan 13, 2023.

Below are detailed, bullet-point lists of ideas and suggestions generated across six breakout sessions of the “Bridging Divides & Strengthening Democracy” conference. The names of those who contributed ideas have been removed from this public-facing article, but are available to Challenge team members for potential future outreach. 

Challenge team members hope that the many ideas generated in the breakout sessions will inspire individuals and organizations to apply for the Challenge grant program, to implement, scale, and measure interventions with attributes drawn from Challenge winners and / or the more extensive idea lists here.

Correct Inaccurate Partisan Stereotypes

In this breakout, attendees brainstormed interventions focused on correcting participants’ misperceptions of their rival partisans. Ideas generated included:

  • Pair individual Democrats and Republicans to be “buddies” holding each other accountable to not vote for or support representatives of their own party that are violating democratic norms. 
  • Help members of both parties to see that individuals on the “other side” have taken major steps to try to protect democracy; this would emphasize our shared stake in democracy, and partisans on opposite sides of the aisle wouldn’t seem so ill-intended.
  • Name misperceptions and misinformation; expose folks to the manipulation that has occured; gamify this if possible.
  • Popularize / gamify something that would teach a better understanding of human nature that leads to misperceptions of rivals – confirmation bias, conformity bias, groupthink, etc. i.e. a Human 101 “Owner’s” manual.
  • Launch a game show about identifying metaperceptions; goes along with teaching / learning human nature.
  • Help people become more aware of the complexity of their motivations and to make intentional choices based on their motivations.
  • Use reality TV format(s) to support democracy and depolarize.
  • Correct meta misperceptions prior to peacebuilding work; determine whether this collapses tension / resistance before engaging across divides.
  • Teach listening as a subject in school; make it a social value, elevate its coolness.
  • Take existing studies / surveys on misperceptions and convert them into interventions.
  • Bring people together across political divides to “achieve superordinate goals,” i.e. do a community service project — either their own community if it’s in person or a digital project if a virtual group.
  • Study the effects of correcting misperceptions on elected officials instead of the general public.
  • Study the effects of correcting misperceptions on independents and non-voters instead of self-identified Democrats and Republicans.
  • Use media / social media / journalism to depolarize; support more direct work depolarizing journalists, teaching concepts of cognitive bias.
  • Identify domains in which having accurate perceptions is genuinely important; create situations in which people have an incentive to be accurate. 
  • Create “social contagion” for positive behavior; i.e. build a civic “church” with excitement that spreads.
  • Apply some sort of humility exercise before starting conversations, to help people go into conversations with a deep sense of our shared limited perceptions. (The thing most people have in common is ignorance. We should acknowledge that. We tend to go into complex policy conversations acting like we have a deep understanding, which the vast majority of us do not.)
  • Teach skills and human understanding through helping people to be more individually self-actualized; people are more drawn to programs that help them become more fully human and are more about them individually than are about “saving democracy.” 
  • Encourage people to have more complex conversations with people on “their own side” to practice communicating complexity of experiences and views. This will help to correct misperceptions in in-vivo conversations across partisan divides. (By observing the significant difference of opinion on BOTH your own side and the other side, you recognize that opinion is a spectrum and that there are many more cross-cutting opinions across the political divide that one sees in this them v us environment.)
  • Focus not only on commonality, but also on points where there are legitimate, substantive points of disagreement (elaboration: really zero in on matters to talk about; where is the crux of the disagreement and what really produces important results/movement — rather than just talking about everything. Have more focus.)
  • Create better incentives to invite people into any or all of the interventions described above. 

Appeal to Common Identities

In this breakout, attendees brainstormed interventions that show how identifying commonalities between rival partisans can improve their perceptions of one another. Ideas generated included:

  • Show people aspects of conversations like this where people are getting along and realizing that they have more common ground than before.
  • Develop something that shows the silent majority’s perspective, i.e. testimonials of people sharing their stories about how fed up they are of hearing only the extremes.
  • Develop some sort of app or program that first finds things that people have in common and then moves on to more difficult questions where the people may not agree.
  • A large group of people in the “middle” aren’t represented. Presenting this information to people at the extreme ends may be beneficial to show the sheer scale of our differences.
  • Use icebreakers, such as “describe your perfect day” first to find connections and have people let their guards down before engaging across differences.
  • Have each side in a pair of out-partisans explain how they feel about democracy and polarization.
  • Give / show people a vicarious experience of working together to solve a problem or task, and show the creativity that can happen when people work together across differences.
  • Ask questions and listen for the values underlying these issues they have. Ask them to remember a time when those values were formed, and dig deeper rather than just listening, to figure out the “why” and “how” of their values.
  • Host workshops where misinformation shows how people may be mistaken. Then have participants write an identity paragraph to make the point that when you interact with any type of information, it helps form the identities that define you.
  • People will struggle to find commonality in information sources; therefore, a best practice is to start with emotions rather than facts.
  • With kids, rather than showing or explaining bipartisanship, show them how they feel about each other and the realities of the democratic world. 
  • Welcoming America is currently providing grants for communities on the ground (especially in NC and GA) to test out contact theory between immigrants and US born folks. We’re supporting programs that bring people together to build/create/do things together. Through that engagement, we’re seeing movement in perceptions.
  • “Being a good neighbor” is a common value we have with our neighbors. HOA groups, where people already have this common value, may be helpful to do an intervention within this space. You have to come together, and there is already common ground. Some sort of workshop within this arena may be beneficial.
  • Can religious interventions help polarization issues, by using common language like “children of God?”
  • Appealing to people around their “caretaker of the future” roles (like Mothers Against Drunk Driving) – show clips of people from different backgrounds talking about common visions of a healthy future for future generations.
  • Reveal common identities first, then discuss differences, or vice versa; which is the most effective? Most Americans are actually somewhere in the middle. People identify with their moral values, their jobs, their household identity. Is our political identity really the most important thing to identify as? Use this as a type of intervention.
  • Identifying common roles we play is impactful. People don’t have their guard up as much when they relate to each other in this way. In dialogue events, it can be hard to accomplish this because people are already set in their ways and it’s usually more extremists that attend events like this.

Role Model Positive Contact Between Partisans

In this breakout, attendees brainstormed interventions that show or facilitate positive encounters between partisans. Ideas generated included:

  • Use an advertising approach, possibly through commercial and social media; show positive affirmations.
  • Use a problem-solving model, relating what they do in common life.
  • Match people in small, private conversations.
  • Help people to manage their emotions and adopt a constructive frame of mind going into virtual conversations.
  • Use documentary film as a listening tool.
  • Create a video showing “lived experience” of different subjects, to humanize and create empathy.
  • Leverage the metaphor of “yielding” in safe driving, and how we must also yield to one another in conversation, giving way for other ideas to emerge.
  • Orchestrate interactive activities around museum exhibits that show positive contact between partisans.
  • Find ways to create the actual feeling of common ground among people whose opinions or positions seem irreconcilable.

Leverage Cues from Political Leaders

In this breakout, attendees brainstormed interventions that use messages from political leaders to improve Americans’ democratic attitudes and reduce animosity. Ideas generated included:

  • Formally train elected officials and staffers on bipartisanship
  • Show more videos of Republican and Democrat leaders affirming the democratic process, peaceful transition of power, etc (like the Utah governors’ video)
  • Show videos of Republican and Democrat leaders supporting bipartisan policy changes / actions.
  • Create a “channel” where political leaders can go to see and access the best examples and “exemplars” of bipartisanship (e.g. Van Jones)
  • Create and leverage a dataset of leaders to work with in bipartisan fashion, to achieve policy outcomes.
  • Create a platform as a “safe space” for political leaders to congregate and to forge cross-partisan alliances.
  • Recreate and strengthen the norms / expectations that force people to talk to each other; set the norm for engagement; show a feel-good story of showing people that came together despite disagreeing (with room at the table within power structures even for those who lost an election)
  • Create a pledge for people running for office that secures their pro-democracy commitments; offer election fund “collateral” and if they don’t honor those commitments, they lose the collateral.
  • Have party leaders visibly praise other party leaders for talking positively about the outgroup; create a culture of respect for the opposing party; make an effort to change others’ perceptions about the group.
  • Have political leaders / activists make the argument for how and why democracy is helpful; how can politicians demonstrate through their messaging that democracy is useful for the everyday American?
  • Influence media and candidates to speak to issues voters actually care about (instead of buying into divisive, partisan rhetoric) during election campaigns. E.g. Center for the Future of Arizona does research on issues likely Arizona voters are concerned about ahead of the 2020 election, and works alongside media and candidates to use this data to inform questions asked during debates and messaging on the campaign trail.
  • Designate a “Queen Elizabeth” figure; people liked that there was someone who symbolically held the best interests of the country in mind; a way of ensuring a peaceful transfer of power; a monarch-type figure in the democracy.

Highlight the Threat of Democratic Collapse

In this breakout, attendees brainstormed interventions that encourage partisans to consider the violence and disorder that can result when democracy collapses. Ideas generated included:

  • Run a series of videos (ads) similar to health (anti-smoking) campaigns. Demonstrate good behaviors to counteract bad behaviors. Ask for action.
  • Create a game that engages people to guess where anti-democratic practices have happened. Seems reasonable but could have negative effects.
  • Know your audience; make sure messages are properly crafted. Find a frame of reference that is different; show the fragility of democracy. Compelling vision of what it can be vs. the fear of losing what we have.
  • Make people think about the inconvenience, ramifications of democratic or societal collapses.
  • Appeal to patriotism to work across the divide. Less about tearing down the opponent, more about preserving what we have together.
  • Leverage scholars of government systems to speak at high school government classes, to really explain what the differences are between political systems. People are too used to democracy and may not really understand how it differs from other options.
  • Leverage evangelical pastors in conservative communities, asking faith leaders to step up. Ask how congregants feel and how the church is contributing to it. Use local research to support it. 
  • Focus more on local feelings rather than national. What is happening in your own community?
  • People adjacent to the fringe can have a big influence; target messaging to them, so they can help influence the fringe.
  • In terms of modifying the “threat of democratic collapse” video intervention, try these modifications:
    • Test and measure reactions to the video / footage to see what works best and what will limit backlash
    • Use “choreography” and placement of people, audio to put people into the story.
    • Adjust the video approach to lessen violent images. Less focus on fear.
    • Balance use of fear and possible gains. e.g. Electoral College reform is within reach.

Implications for Social Media Platforms

In this breakout, attendees discussed how the lessons from Strengthening Democracy Challenge might translate to modifications of social media platforms. Implications discussed and debated included:

  • The desire for financial profit seems to drive polarization. This skews social media platforms and content towards division. It’s not so much about profit per se, but about maximizing profit through polarization.
  • Algorithms are super important. Finding new ways to engage is key; length of videos can be a deterrent; students are willing to engage with longer content if it keeps their attention.
  • How is it possible to get people to engage with prosocial content, when attention spans are so small now?
  • Cognitive restructuring to respond to incentives may not last very long. Arousal drives attention. Fair bit of evidence from neuroscience lit (primate, etc) that arousal (positive or negative) drives attention. 
  • Another major issue to keep in mind – most people are not political and most people don’t see much (or any) political content on social media. Where is the evidence for the idea that “polarization sells?”
  • Several platforms are attempting to do more work on the positive side; who can have a conversation with the key people of these platforms that will advance the reach but also discuss democracy?
  • How should prosocial interventions account for the fact that influencers are super viral?  
  • Any intervention / organization (positive or negative) has to be good at “selling things” in order to go viral; what are the algorithms doing to bring people together?
  • How can we have more accurate perceptions with posts while still having engaging content? 
  • It is confirmation bias that sells rather than polarization narratives. Can confirmation bias be leveraged to more positively affirm, putting empathy in the algorithms?
  • Bad things happen when conversations get too large or too public. As a group gets bigger, the chance that it contains people with extreme views gets bigger, and people with moderate views are often unwilling to talk publicly about politics for fear of getting attacked by people with more extreme views.
  • The rapid competitive news cycle means that a lot of conventional journalism is either recycled Twitter or recycled press releases – so what happens on Twitter doesn’t stay on Twitter. It’s more about reshares than ranking. People will click uplifting stuff, but negative stuff gets the reshares – because it’s a way of signaling identity or “warning people”.
  • Perceptions of extremity are not independent of algorithms. If extreme content does better as a business model due to algorithms (in part), then it makes sense that that perception would be reinforced by its visibility on platforms (not just social media, but also cable news)
  • One thing I’ve personally been thinking about is the significance of theory of mind, i.e. what I think other people think of me. Social media seems important not because it gives people too much polarizing information per se, but because it is a major cue for everyday Americans to calibrate what “generalized others” think and say.
  • Question: Does anyone know of studies that show whether arguing with people on social media works or not?
  • Suggestion: Positive troll farm. interested in more understanding about whether people are overestimating their own side. Then we need to take the difference between our own and the other side’s misperceptions.
  • Suggestion: Blend depolarizing content and messaging with (highly popular, cross-partisan) animal rescue videos
  • Suggestion: Focus less on monetizing social media, and more on creating a compelling app or game.
  • Suggestion: Maximize engagement with prosocial content via incentives. Simultaneously, push algorithm change via legislation.
  • Suggestion: Forge a collaboration or working group between people who are responsible for monetizing social media and those who want to democratize it. embrace this monetary incentive. working with the system we have and finding ways to make it work. health, wealth, and relationships sell. Look at Clubhouse, which exploded because of organic demand, when people were lonely during the pandemic.
  • Suggestion: Putting together ideas folks shared in this breakout room and the last, here’s a pathway: a) Draw from the successful challenge interventions and other existing, successful practitioner work, b) Engage in education & partnership with successful social media influencers and social media professionals, particularly those who are successfully monetizing. Then c) Invest in partnering with existing creators to publish pro-democracy content synergistically with their existing content.
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