A discussion around Cortico’s Digital Hearth, an AI-powered listening device created to help analyze conversations.

An Oasis Blooms in a Growing News Desert

TAKEAWAY: Today’s media environment is crowding out discussion and coverage of local and regional issues. Cortico, through its new Local Voices Network, is using advanced technologies, including AI, to amplify the “under-heard” and revitalize coverage of community concerns.

The late Rep. Tip O’Neill once said that “all politics is local” and in many ways it was when O’Neill entered Congress in the 1950s. Today the opposite rings true. In an era dominated by huge news networks, voices in local communities often “go unheard, drowned out by hyper-partisan noise and toxic public dialogue,” according to Cortico, a nonprofit organization allied with MIT’s Media Lab and Laboratory for Social Machines, and the developer of the Local Voices Network, which made its debut in 2019. 

A key concern driving Cortico is the decline of local journalism, a trend that well preceded the internet. More than 1,800 newspapers have shut their doors since 1990, with severe implications for in-depth local and regional news coverage. Distinguished journalist and media expert Penny Abernathy coined the term “news deserts” to describe large swathes of the nation where local issues are given cursory mention or not covered at all. This vacuum in news coverage gives and even larger opening to social media, where false information moves at velocities far faster than the truth. In 2018, Cortico quantified that velocity in a study summarized by The New York Times

“False claims were 70 percent more likely than the truth to be shared on Twitter. True stories were rarely retweeted by more than 1,000 people, but the top one percent of false stories were routinely shared by 1,000 to 100,000 people, and it took true stories about six times as long as false ones to reach 1,500 people.” 

Through a new approach called the Local Voices Network, Cortico set out to give the under-heard a fighting chance by melding time-tested means of civic conversation with advanced digital technology, including artificial intelligence. “Our aim is to translate what we know happens in in-person conversations and amplify it so people can trust that experience and see it reflected in the media” says Parisa Parse, Cortico’s CEO.

LVN was launched in 2019 in both Madison, Wisconsin and New York City. The heart of LVN is familiar: moderated conversations among small groups of interested people on local issues of importance. Here’s how it works, and here are its differences from other systems of facilitated conversations. 

First, volunteers become trained conversation facilitators, learning the latest on how to sustain a meaningful and inclusive small-group conversation. These volunteers also learn how to recruit participants to have a discussion on local issues. 

These discussions typically take place at a host home or a community space, around a table, and are generally limited to six people. Technology now comes into play through a Cortico-developed device called a Digital Hearth. Round, trimmed in wood, and about a foot wide, the Digital Hearth records the conversation, and its user-friendly control system allows facilitators to replay segments of the conversation for clarity and elaboration. 

What is recorded on the Digital Hearth can then be transcribed quickly into a running dialogue and further analyzed, using Artificial Intelligence-based tools. Analysis is then posted, with attribution of first names only, to provide local journalists and other stakeholders with a window on what issues are important in an area and how local residents are thinking about them. This helps increase the ability of local journalists to cover stories and discern trends that may not be apparent through the social media channels, which find themselves increasingly polluted by falsehoods, hateful invective, and web-crawling bots. 

The test case for LVN came in the 2019 mayoral election in Madison, Wisconsin, where Satya Rhodes-Conway was elected as the city’s first-ever openly gay mayor, defeating longtime incumbent Paul Soglin in a nonpartisan contest. In discussing the election, each side praised the other for focusing on the important issues identified by the people of Madison. 

LVN expanded to both Massachusetts and Alabama in 2020. Early in the year the coronavirus pandemic required a shift in strategy to host conversations online using Zoom, which has resulted in greater geographic and demographic reach for the Local Voices Network. Partner-based expansions have extended LVN’s reach to Northwest Arkansas, Chicago, and Stockton, California. 

Cortico’s next key challenge is finding the best way to scale up the number of people reached through its conversations. While Cortico is eager for the day when in-person conversations begin again (a new, smaller and more robust version of the Hearth is in production), online conversations and facilitator trainings will continue to be part of the path to scale. One visionary goal: finding partners with local roots across the country, such as the nation’s libraries, to embed Digital Hearths in every community. Coronavirus, the rising surge in demands for racial and economic justice, and the 2020 election cycle are all yielding rich new perspectives on how people at the local levels understand each other and engage in the community. 

No one expects all politics to be local, but Cortico’s approach can help address the consequences of a news environment that focuses almost completely on national perspectives and a political climate that reinforces divisive tribalism. 

Cortico and the MIT Media Lab continue to explore more ways to foster civil discourse through all avenues and recognize that the business community, as much a local news, will play a critical role. Workforces represent swaths of people with diverse beliefs and companies have an opportunity to build bridges within their own communities. Cortico and MIT Media Lab continue to seek mission-aligned private sector partners interested in using their platforms for internal use and pioneering the use of technology to promote civil discourse in the workplace.