On Saturday, April 2, 2022, 60 people from the greater Cleveland area teamed up for an experiment in better government. They were participants in It’s Your America, a deliberative democracy initiative that brings together people from across the political spectrum to learn about, discuss, and tackle critical national issues together. This event was the first in an ongoing series of citizen policy deliberations on digital disinformation and free speech that Civic Genius is hosting in communities across the country.
Participants came from a wide variety of backgrounds, with significant diversity of ideology, race, income, and national origin. Civic Genius deployed a community organizing model to educate people about the event and invite them to participate. Our team worked with dozens of community leaders and national partners, including NAACP, Country First, Urban League, City Club, Braver Angels, Phi Kappa Psi at Case Western Reserve, and YOUnify, which promoted the event to their members.
To scale the impact of citizen deliberation, Civic Genius is working with several key organizational partners.
One innovative partnership brings together citizens, experts, leaders, faith-based voices, and policymakers to develop policy recommendations that incorporate an exciting range of knowledge, perspectives, and values. The effort is led jointly by Civic Genius, Convergence Center for Policy Resolution, More in Common, and Interfaith America, four nonpartisan, nonprofit organizations that work to move past political polarization. Leveraging each organization’s unique expertise in bringing diverse stakeholders to the table, Civic Genius, Convergence, and Interfaith America are leading participants in deliberative processes designed to identify and build common ground on this complex issue, and then mobilize them to take action. Civic Genius is engaging diverse grassroots audiences in select communities across the country; Convergence is convening experts and stakeholders at the national level; and Interfaith America is bringing to both the perspective of interfaith voices. While each of these deliberations would be potent on its own, the partnership is creating a unique opportunity for grassroots and grasstops organizations to share perspectives, knowledge, learnings – and creating a powerful feedback loop that furthers understanding on all sides.
A second critical partnership is with YOUnify, a nonprofit organization working to reduce polarization and cultural divisions of all kinds, in service of accelerating progress on solutions to the key challenges of our time. Following a local policy deliberation, YOUnify brings its expertise in training and mobilization to equip community members for long-term engagement, both on the deliberation topic and in other areas.
Civic Genius is passionate about working with local media outlets, which comprise a crucial institution in our communities. Local print and radio were important validators in Cleveland and a number of participants noted that they learned about the event from their local media:
It’s great to see so many people with differing viewpoints and political leanings have an enjoyable civic discussion.
Participants spent five hours in small groups of 6-8 people, going through a process designed to help them create solutions on the topic of digital disinformation and free speech. Over the course of the day, the groups:
- Made commitments to work together in good faith.
- Got to know each other by discussing nuances in their own ideological views and experiences.
- Discovered shared values.
- Learned about the issue and the tensions of managing digital disinformation while protecting free speech.
- Brainstormed solutions and discussed the pros and cons of each.
- Crafted and pressure-tested common ground solutions.
- Committed to taking action on the issue.
Working in their small groups, participants began by listing values that would guide their deliberations for the day. The room’s top values were:
- Commitment to truth and facts (8 nominations)
- Community action / people power (8 nominations)
- Diversity of perspective (8 nominations)
- Integrity (7 nominations)
- Accountability (5 nominations)
- Tolerance and respect (5 nominations)
- Empathy / compassion (4 nominations)
- Free speech / free expression (4 nominations)
- Individual responsibility and action (4 nominations)
- Freedom (3 nominations)
- Transparency (3 nominations)
- Civility (2 nominations)
- Honesty (2 nominations)
- Humanization (2 nominations)
- Order / social cohesion (2 nominations)
- Safety (2 nominations)
- Self-awareness / self-reflection (2 nominations)
- Commitment (1 nomination)
- Consistency (1 nomination)
- Choice (1 nomination)
- Curiosity (1 nomination)
- Do no harm (1 nomination)
- Serenity (1 nomination)
As participants learned more about the topic and the various angles from which they could approach solutions, they brainstormed thoughts and ideas that built on their top values. Brainstorming largely centered on a few areas:
Prioritize Free Speech / Free Expression:
- “Eliminate censorship”
- “Fake info should only be taken down if it’s for public safety”
- “Government regulation? 1st Amendment rights”
- “Stop cancel culture”
- “Where do we draw the line on censorship?”
- “What is truth? Whose truth?”
- “Words are not violence”
Accountability – Media
- “Hold media accountable”
- “Media [should] report on or reflect narrative, not create it (i.e. Russian propaganda, Hunter Biden)”
- “Monitor far right media”
- “Stop media bias”
Accountability – Tech Companies
- “If tech companies had more liability, it forces them to create more moderators or bots that can accurately warn [users] of misinformation.”
- “A system of checks & balances”
- “Audit process”
- “Democratic process to address unintended consequences”
Accountability – Government
- “Hold politicians accountable”
Transparency & Consumer Choice
- “Give users more choice and more insight into algorithms”
- “Maximum consumer choice: let individuals choose platforms, algorithms, how data is used”
- “The level of customization and transparency given to the user promotes self-awareness in the type of content being consumed”
Education in Media Literacy
- “K-12 education”
- “Continuing education”
- “Long-term tech & information education”
Other topics included:
Better Moderation & Labeling
- “Amplification: don’t boost harmful things; less media consumed”
- “Move context/resources to users per post”
- “Refocusing algorithms” [on trustworthy news rather than emotional appeal]
Accountability — Individuals
- “Societal change in values”
- “Data restriction to stop amplification”
- “Sacrifice convenience”
- “Regulation of incentives”
- “Tech: a change in goals & motivations”
Finally, with advice and guidance from the Civic Genius team, participants refined their ideas and crafted them into actionable solutions. Here are solutions around which groups built consensus, and who they thought should implement that solution (note that in our one-day setting, we did not have time to work toward full room consensus, but our chapters will take on that work in the coming weeks and months):
Tech companies should:
- Allow users to choose or opt out of algorithms.
- Eliminate user anonymity.
- Create citizen juries to review questionable content and determine whether it should be removed from online platforms.
- Create clear disclaimers on posts during emergencies, rating them as true, false, or gray area.
- Implement something akin to Facebook’s “Supreme Court” for every social media platform.
- Improve ability of AI to moderate content.
- Ban targeted algorithms.
- Provide federal funding for K-12 schools to teach media literacy and critical thinking.
- Require tech companies to make their algorithms public.
- Repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
- Subsidize local media so people have better access to trustworthy information.
- Provide federal funding for tech companies to integrate third-party systems that moderate content.
- Make tech companies legally liable when their algorithms amplify harmful content.
Non-profit organizations should:
- Create educational media literacy programs for adults.
- Create a think tank that develops and shares tactics for combatting misinformation. Amplify information to the public via a PR campaign.
We can make a tangible impact on the causes we care about.
To better understand the impact of It’s Your America, Civic Genius and Convergence partnered with More in Common, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that researches the drivers of social fracturing and polarization. More in Common adapted its survey tool for this venue, and Civic Genius administered it to participants before and after the event. While the sample size was too small to yield conclusive results and more research is needed, the survey found that “Overall, attitudes towards civic engagement, compromise, and political outgroups shifted positively after the event.”
- Affective polarization: Warmth towards outgroups increased after the event (i.e. Democrats felt warmer toward Republicans and Republicans felt warmer toward Democrats after the event).
- Conversation Attitudes: Attitudes towards compromise and self-disclosure trended positive after the event. There were notable increases in people who said “I find listening to opposing views informative” and “In a debate or argument, I feel comfortable expressing my perspective.”
- Civic Engagement: Attitudes towards civic engagement trended positive. There were notable increases in likeliness to call an elected official and in agreement with the statement “I believe that all citizens have a responsibility to their community.”
We learned how to come together as a group to form consensus about an issue.
Citizen Deliberation In Color
A number of participants stayed after the event to continue talking…
Deliberating and crafting smart, nuanced, common ground policy is only the first step. Next, It’s Your America participants in Cleveland are organizing to take action, with their first chapter meeting scheduled for late June. Here, participants will:
- Decide which solutions to prioritize.
- Create action steps they plan to take.
- Identify skills and resources they need, such as an advocacy training or an op-ed writing workshop.
Before leaving the event, participants wrote postcards to their future selves, to be delivered a few weeks later. Here are some examples: