By Kate Roff
Online 'bots' are often seen as negative, and dangerous, but they can also be used for good, as one social enterprise group is proving.
Peacebuilders have raised concerns over current social divisions in online media.
"Increasingly, people use their media in a bubble, and it's possible for you to hear news only that you agree with,” said Melanie Greenberg, CEO of Alliance for Peacebuilding. “And if you're looking at your social media, you're broadcast media, internet media, you never have to run up against any facts that run counter to your own political beliefs."
"What polarization is,” said Jacob Lefton, from Build Up, “as a phenomenon, is that groups of people are separating from each other and building stereotypes of the other groups of people, and losing shared facts and losing shared language to talk about the issues, and it doesn't matter if one side is right or wrong in this if their can't be a healthy civic conversation."
"And for us it's one of the indicators for a society that's sliding toward conflict,” Mr Lefton said. “And we're seeing more extreme hate speech, we're seeing hate crimes, and these stronger and stronger divisions."
Now Build Up are using social media bots to help depolarize conversations. Their The Commons project targets people who connect others and looks for common ground.
"So first a bot contacts them, and says, you know "Hi, it's interesting that you're talking about this, what do you think?',” said Mr Lefton. “And we ask just sort of an open question about the broader topic of polarization, trying to invite a response, and then if they respond we follow up with a facilitator who then takes it and attempts to have a longer conversation with them to find out what their core values are and their issues and invite them to further action in depolarizing the way that these conversations are happening."
"It's really hard to bring people together, and so that's why we think it's necessary in this way, is basically saying 'Can we do the same types of active interventions in these platforms as people who are using it as adversarial technique, but can we do it as a connecting technique?'"
The project is explicitly non-partisan and has reached out to 12,400 people online. Build Up will present its full findings at MIT in March and hopes they have built a little peace online.
"We can't expect that everyone will become an actor,” said Mr Lefton, “But we can believe that if we raise people's awareness of it, and engage them in healthy conversations about it then maybe in future conversations they will have more tools to engage with them in a healthy way."