TAKEAWAY: Abridge News offers “both sides now”— diverse but factual and well-informed points of view from across the entire political spectrum.
They line up north to south, a 10-minute walk on Harvard’s campus: the Kennedy School of Public Policy, the School of Business, and the youngest of the group, the Innovation Lab. All three may have important roles in resolving a central question in civil discourse: how to get people to at least hear each other out on the issues of the day.
It was the Kennedy School’s Robert Putnam who surveyed the American landscape in 1995 and, in his landmark book, Bowling Alone, raised an alarm about the decline and fractionalization of American civic engagement. Fast-forward to 2016, and to a Harvard Business School student, Laura Carpenter. Trained as an engineer, and having relocated to Boston from the American South, she is dismayed by the growing toxicity of political dialogue during the presidential election. She’s also intrigued by what she’s experiencing in her B-school classroom. There, each case begins with a set of accepted facts and moves on to a discussion, where various points of view are encouraged and heard. The case resolution may not be tidy, but at least everyone in the class understands the range of viewpoints.
In 2017, seeing an opportunity, Carpenter teams up with computer scientist David Byas-Smith to explore whether the approach that worked so well inside the Harvard Business School could gain traction in the larger world. They set up shop in the freewheeling Harvard Innovation Labs and launched their venture, called Abridge News, as a digital platform to improve how Americans obtain, digest and comment on news.
Abridge starts with a topic chosen by a group of human moderators and offers readers a selection of recent articles representing a variety of views, from conservative to liberal, and points in between. Passionate advocacy is encouraged, but no false facts allowed. Readers can see a story from multiple points of view and have the opportunity to understand—and even empathize with—how others form their opinions.
Topics featured on Abridge are straight from the headlines and generally political, although questions on business, sports and culture have also been covered.
A reader clicking on a topic is given three options.
First is Quick Facts, a set of relevant, well-researched facts about the issue at hand. Each fact is scrupulously checked. Says Carpenter, “We imagine the reader coming across the topic with little or no background context and we ask: “What essential information is needed before a reader can engage with the opinions?”
Then comes the Opinion Spectrum. This includes up to four op-ed style articles selected by the Abridge moderators from the wide expanse of American journalism. As many as 20 different articles are considered for the final cut. If the topic is political, Opinion Spectrum features conservative, centrist and liberal viewpoints. If the topic is nonpolitical, the team finds articles that explain the pros and cons. No “personal feeds” or algorithms are involved. Readers can toggle from one article to the next to explore contrasts—and common ground.
The third option is Reader Reaction. Here, readers are prompted to provide their opinions by selecting statements ranging from “Surprisingly, I agree” to “This doesn’t paint the full picture.” They can also view the opinions of others in the Abridge community.
Our goal is not to bring people towards the middle, but to build empathy and understanding between people who hold different opinions.
Since its launch in 2017, these reactions have generally shown that Abridge readers aren’t as polarized or one-dimensional as people may think. Says Carpenter, “Our goal is not to bring people towards the middle, but to build empathy and understanding between people who hold different opinions.”
The co-founders report that Abridge is seeing sharp month-over-month gains in readership. In 2019, to continue to build readership, Abridge News launched a native iOS app to provide wider, easier access to its curated content. This app was handpicked by the App Store editors as an “App We Love Right Now” in spring 2020.
There are no ads or fees on the Abridge News platform and the co-founders plan to keep it that way. Abridge News is not focused on making money — instead, the team is motivated by a mission: “to increase empathy and critical thinking in the world by exploring diverse perspectives.” The company recently converted to a non-profit and is taking inspiration from an iconic internet giant: Wikipedia.
Carpenter recently explained, “We plan to scale our content via a Wikipedia-style contributor network. We recently built and launched an internet browser extension as part of a broader program that we call the “A-Team.” Using this extension, any person reading an interesting opinion article online can highlight an argument they like, right click, and submit it directly to our content management system. Members get points for submitting highlights to Abridge News, and as they gain more credibility, they gain additional content moderation privileges.”
The “A-Team” already has a small group of passionate volunteers that review submissions and moderate content that gets featured on the platform. This group of volunteers engages via a leaderboard (they get points for submitting content) and a Slack community.
Carpenter says that “the success of the ‘A-Team’ will be critical to our success as a platform. It will help us keep content scaling costs down, and it will build trust. Ultimately, we want Abridge News to be community driven, rather than a platform run by perceived ivory tower elites.”