Civil Discourse Exists in This Small Corner of the Internet

The subreddit Change My View is built on the proposition that we’ve at least got to listen to people we disagree with.

Stephen Yang / Getty

Imagine a place on the internet where a post that begins with “I’m not a feminist” is met with comments quoting Virginia Woolf and asking serious, clarifying questions. A place where a conversation about gun-control legislation unfurls into a thread of analogies, statistics, and self-reflection; where a discussion on the benefits and drawbacks of immigration is carried out in a series of building logical arguments. A place where users with radically different political opinions interact productively and politely, where a willingness to participate thoughtfully is the rule rather than the exception, and where people readily admit when their views on a subject have been altered.

This vision seems like the stuff of technology fantasy; spend five minutes on the platforms that host most of the web’s political arguments, and you’re likely to find name-calling, bigotry, sarcasm, and stubborn assumption. It’s a rare thing to stumble on an online dispute about politics that hasn’t devolved into a furious and chaotic shouting match, where no one can make out what is being said for the noise.

But civil discourse does exist, at least in a small pocket of the internet. Reddit’s Change My View forum, founded in 2013 by Kal Turnbull, then a teenage musician in Scotland, is an online space that promotes respectful conversation between people who disagree with each other. Its mission statement says that the subreddit is “built around the idea that in order to resolve our differences, we must first understand them.” Turnbull says that he created Change My View because of what he saw as a lack of places to turn to if you wanted to discuss an issue with people who took the opposite perspective. There was social media, but the goal on those platforms was largely not to listen and engage in search of insight. He wanted the forum to be conversational—a way of learning about an issue that wasn’t limited to self-directed research. Because of the unique oasis that Change My View represents from the troll-stalked depths of the rest of the internet, a number of academic studies have used its data to analyze how persuasion and civility work online. It has also spawned a blog and a podcast.

What might be more startling than the forum’s general tone of calm, reasonable disagreement is the fact that so many of its contributors seem to change their minds, even on flash-point subjects such as same-sex marriage, abortion, and gun control. (There are also lighthearted posts: A recent debate took on the intractable question of whether a hot dog counts as a sandwich.) While most users’ opinions aren’t turned 180 degrees, shifts in thinking and perspective occur regularly; “deltas” are awarded to commenters who manage to convince, persuade, or teach in some way. The forum’s rules system states that rudeness and hostility are banned, as are comments that don’t “contribute meaningfully” or challenge the original post’s view in some way, whether that means asking a question, offering an emotional appeal, or providing evidence for a claim. The result is that Change My View is the opposite of an echo chamber, where users reinforce the ideas that the group already holds and police anyone who tries to dissent. Instead, dissent is the point.

Change My View’s success largely rests on its strict rules and the dedicated team of moderators who enforce them. Elizabeth Weeks, one of the forum’s moderators and a 32-year-old attorney who works in Seattle, said that she was surprised at first by how much users wanted and depended on the rules. Weeks first heard about Change My View in 2013, when she was in law school, and thought that the forum presented an interesting premise, as well as a good place to practice formulating arguments. She enjoyed her conversations there because the rules “set up guardrails, so you could expect to have a quality experience each time.” The rules are one of the main things that users like about the forum, both because they mean that anyone who is behaving in a disruptive way is removed and because they set expectations about the environment that mean that users can operate under an assumption of good faith. Change My View’s rules system works because it is consistent, intuitive, and transparent. The moderation is predictable, and users modify their behavior accordingly.

Larger platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, have struggled with swiftly and fairly moderating posts, with the result that users have little sense of which posts will be deleted for violating the platform’s terms of service and which won’t. That kind of confusion isn’t conducive to the patient and painstaking process of untangling a stranger’s presumptions and prejudices. If Twitter and Facebook are vast wildernesses, overgrown in some places and manicured in others, Change My View is more like a carefully tended garden. Weeks says that Turnbull’s leadership is a big part of why Change My View has been so successful. “Heads of companies often don’t understand the consequences of what they have built,” she says. “But he thinks about that quite a lot. Kal leads by example.”

Change My View’s most important lesson is one that applies beyond its moderated walls, one that anyone who has tried to engage in a productive political argument likely already knows. If you want to convince, meet people where they are rather than where you want them to be. “People respond better if you don’t start out guns blazing, accusing them of being dumb or nefarious,” Weeks says. “The most important thing you can do is listen to people,” says another moderator, Brett Johnson, a project manager in Houston who is 36. “If people feel heard and understood, they are more likely to listen to what you have to say.”

Some of the arguments on Change My View make use of a strategy called moral reframing, a concept studied by the Stanford sociologist Robb Willer that relies on a person’s ability to empathize and understand the point of view of someone who holds different values. Moral reframing means appealing to the morality of the person you are trying to convince rather than your own. Most people have a hard time doing this without being coached, even though it can be an effective means of shifting deeply held beliefs. This “moral empathy gap” is why it is difficult for those with differing political views to understand each other.

Willer says that two factors contribute to the moral empathy gap: information and inclination. Increasingly, Americans don’t have access to or don’t seek enough information to fully understand the opposite side’s positions. Their news sources may represent only one slice of the political spectrum, or they live and work in communities that are overwhelmingly red or blue. The second factor is inclination. How motivated are we to try to bridge the divides between us? What really widens the moral empathy gap is not attitudinal polarization—that is, how the public generally feels about policy—but affective polarization, which measures how much political groups dislike one another. While both types of polarization are getting worse, and have been for some time, affective polarization is getting worse faster, Willer says.

This is why places such as Change My View are so important; the forum is proof that some people are still willing to engage in good faith with “the other side.” Willer says he thought Change My View was an interesting thing to study because it showed that normal people could reach their political counterparts if they wanted to. “It’s not just political strategists … a motivated or clever or empathic person can change somebody else’s mind on something. It’s a reassuring thought,” he says.

Turnbull, Change My View’s founder, says that one of his goals with the forum is to encourage people to change the way they look at admitting that they’ve encountered a perspective or a fact that they didn’t know about before, one that has the potential to alter their opinion about an issue. “People feel that changing their view is somehow losing … that it’s this embarrassing thing,” he says. “We are trying to change that perspective.” To an impressive extent, he has succeeded. Johnson says that this attitude is what initially intrigued him about Change My View when he came across it three years ago. “I found it to be a unique place,” he says. “Most places on the internet, most places in the world, they reward you for being right. But this was a community that celebrates being wrong.”

As a moderator, Weeks worries about the role the forum plays in giving a platform to problematic ideologies. Change My View’s rules don’t ban any specific topic—users may post on just about anything as long as they are willing to truly engage with challenges (that means no soapboxing or propaganda). She says that she came across a number of posts in the forum that disturbed her in the wake of the 2014 Isla Vista killings, a series of murders near the campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara committed by a college student named Elliot Rodger, who said that he wanted to “punish” women for not being attracted to him. For his misogynistic crimes, Rodger was eventually held up as a “hero” in some of the internet’s darkest corners.

“If we assume that these people want their views changed, then it’s probably a good thing that these conversations are being had, because hopefully they will change their views,” Weeks says. “But at the same time, the more people see those views being surfaced, they become normal. Are we contributing to an atmosphere where really terrible views that previously would have had no place to go are given a little bit of sunlight?” Those extreme views can and do find expression elsewhere on the internet, and in spaces where there is no one to counter or challenge them, but it’s a question that Weeks says she and the other moderators continue to wrestle with.

Change My View’s model has other limitations. Its users represent a self-selected pool of people who have already declared themselves interested in open-mindedness as a principle. Some of them view the conversations they have there as a game; these users tend to be law students practicing for the bar exam, or former high-school debate stars who think of argument as a sport. Amy Bruckman, a professor and an associate chair in the School of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, worked on a study of Change My View in 2017. “It’s not clear to me that many people on Change My View really change their views,” she says. “But I think our data suggests that everyone walks away with a broadened perspective, and that’s absolutely of value.”

Johnson believes that the forum offers something else that is increasingly hard to find in the polarized political landscape of 2018: the chance to forge compromise. “Even if we come away and our minds haven’t changed, we understand why the opposition feels the way that they do,” he says. “Most of the time we agree about more than we disagree about, and if we were willing to come to the table and have a conversation, we would discover that most of the time, we are after the same ultimate goal. We just disagree on the best path to get there.”