My Country Talks, the editorial initiative from Germany’s Die Zeit is an innovative case of audience engagement at scale that connects readers with opposing views to foster mutual understanding. In June this year, it will connect readers around the world with a unique global media alliance.

Die Zeit is a national weekly newspaper, and Zeit Online – the digital arm of the brand – is one of the biggest news brands in the country.

Hanna Israel (Head of My Country Talks, Zeit Online) joined WAN-IFRA’s recent Digital Media India conference in New Delhi to talk about how this brand initiative works and their future plans. 

My Country Talks is a software that brings together people of diverse political opinions through a matching algorithm. Die Zeit developed the concept in 2017 and since then has empowered more than 250,000 people from over 35 countries to have “controversial” conversations about politics. 

Inception of My Country Talks

Back in 2017, around the federal elections in Germany, there was an influx of immigrants from Syria. Amidst a tense political atmosphere, right wing populists, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), came into power. 

Die Zeit saw this as an opportunity to diffuse the tensions and bring people with polarising opinions, unwilling to indulge in healthy debate, together by means of conversations.

The team began putting together this software by first asking its readers on the Zeit Online homepage if they would be interested in participating in such exchanges. “To gauge audience reaction, we also asked controversial questions such as – Should Germany receive more immigrants?” said Israel.

Zeit Online expected only about a 100 people to show interest, and was pleasantly surprised when more than 12,000 people signed up for the first edition of My Country Talks. 

“We were amazed with the response and took our first steps into building this software,” said Israel. 

The overwhelming response was echoed by several European newsrooms that contacted Die Zeit to get access to the software, to facilitate similar conversations in their countries. 

Currently My Country Talks is available in Spain, France and several Scandinavian countries. The software supports a cross-border format, enabling people from different European countries to interact, and will soon be available in the United States.

The initiative is primarily a brand-building exercise and does not bring in any revenue. 

How does it work?

The team has essentially built an easily scalable iFrame embed that can be smoothly integrated in online articles and social media.

“This software really interacts with our readers’ emotions and opinions, and that is how we acquire new users,” said Israel. 

Upon the first scroll through an article, the user is greeted with a “yes or no” question. This redirects them to a longer questionnaire where they are required to answer about eight questions. 

Following this, the users are given some personal information about each other and put into a matching pool. They finally get introduced via email. 

“This is why we’ve dubbed it Tinder for Politics,” said Israel. “Both sides must confirm if they want to interact with each other. This security mechanism is necessary since we’re putting people in vulnerable and sensitive circumstances. We want them to know who they are speaking to.”

Participants get access to basic information such as age, gender, the answers of the person they matched with, as well as a few answers to the open-ended questions. 

Helping reduce polarisation

Israel pointed out that conversations like these are capable of reducing polarisation across the political spectrum, and yield interesting results.

“This becomes especially true when people talk about commonalities,” she said. “A person might hold a political view completely opposite to yours, but might still have things in common with you.”

Even though the sign up questions are complex and multifaceted topics and have to be answered in a “yes or no” format, the goal is to get an initial idea about each other and subsequently find an “in between.”

Right now the conversations revolve mostly around hardcore politics, but the brand is exploring interactions also focussed on society, to target younger audiences.  

A feedback mechanism is integrated into the My Country Talks software, and users are asked to rate their conversations

The team has found that more than 80 percent of participants reported to have had a good experience. Around 60 percent said they would stay in touch with their partners and 55 percent even said they had been convinced on one or more grounds in terms of opinions and perspectives by their partners.

When the initiative kicked off with Germany Talks, these conversations were of a physical nature – in cafes, restaurants, and parks. Post pandemic, they once again have an online meet-up option. 

Participants are also put through a labour-intensive screening process, handled by Zeit Online journalists to weed out trolls and people with extremist and hateful views.

“It might sound incredible but we have not had even a single case reporting physical, verbal or sexual offences. This is directly related to the fact that our brand is extremely trusted in Germany, and I don’t think this would work if we were to simply put the embed online,” said Israel. 

More than 250,000 people have signed up for My Country Talks to date, with a fall out rate of 20 percent. 

What is the point of these conversations?

The primary aim of My Country Talks is for media outlets to break out of their bubbles and bring people together, which is imperative for a working democracy. This initiative also aims to restore the lost trust in journalism and establish audience loyalty. 

Most of these conversations take place privately, with the exception of a few where Zeit Online reporters sit in to generate content in the form of articles, podcasts, videos and interviews.

With the conversations that the brand does report on, the journalists focus on what the participants have in common, rather than the topic that polarises them. 

“For instance, the COVID-19 pandemic was a hotly debated issue in Germany, where one person wanted to have even stronger rules, the other one wasn’t in favour of those. And they had a strong fight, they exchanged arguments,” said Israel. “Eventually, they realised that they both had a serious cancer illness and that both their mothers died of cancer, realising that another human being has a right to exist, despite their political inclinations.”

Expansion plans

As mentioned earlier, the brand has already expanded to several European countries, and in June will bring together people from around the world to join the conversation about global issues that concern them.

“We’re thinking along the lines of gender, climate change, Ukraine war, etc. These topics are of course not set in stone, and we’re still in the process of developing them with our media partner network,” said Israel.

My Country Talks’ current media partners include Thomson Reuters, The Daily Mirror (UK), News24 (South Africa), La Repubblica (Italy), Meduza (Russia), El Tiempo (Colombia), Organización Editorial Mexicana, RED/ACCIÓN (Argentina), Hankyoreh (South Korea), Commonwealth Magazine (Taiwan), and Pulse (Ghana). 

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