Where Ideology Meets Empathy

Photo of Gokul Venkatachalam
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Website or social media url(s) (optional):

Instagram: @_aidankelley Facebook: Gokul Venkatachalam

Date Started


Project Stage: Select the description below that best applies to your approach.

  • Start-Up (first few activities have happened)

1. Personal Journey: What’s the story behind why you decided to start this project? NOTE: All applications must include a 1 minute video that answers: “I am stepping up to make change because..."

During the 2016 Presidential Election, we saw the pernicious effects of political polarization. Living in St. Louis, a Democratic pocket of an otherwise Republican state, we are surrounded by students of all beliefs who are passionate about politics. Unfortunately, these discussions quickly turned toxic, as they were hijacked by people who were unwilling to compromise and promote respectful debate. Simply put, political polarization had become so widespread that people were unwilling to politely communicate with each other. As high-schoolers, we understand the role that polite discussion has in our political socialization and our development as citizens in a democracy. When our discussions aren’t polite and compromise is never reached, then our country as a whole will bear the brunt of the consequences. We need empathy to reign over ideology and restore our democratic values.

2. The Problem: What problem are you helping to solve?

Discussion about politics is failing due to political polarization. While websites such as Twitter and Facebook have been successful in aiding people mobilize and share their thoughts, they have failed in fostering respectful discussion. Americans are quick to choose news sources that already side with their beliefs and bias, which has led to a massive empathy gap, lack of holistic understandings of policies, and constant gridlock in Congress.

3. Your Solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

We hope to create an online platform that promotes respect and political empathy by encouraging intelligent, diverse discussion on important and sometimes-divisive political issues. Our web-based forum will be divided into topics (i.e “Gun Control,” “Immigration,” or “The Role of Government”) with user-generated questions about each topic. Users can then answer these questions, or respond to answers posted by other users. What distinguishes our site from other forums is the way in which answers are organized and presented to the user: the site will use advanced machine learning algorithms to present users with opinions they disagree with, so the beliefs of both users are challenged, and both can come to a mutual understanding. Furthermore, instead of grouping users into the confining binary of “liberal” or “conservative,” our system will use an abstract, Machine Learning-based approach which will only determine how different the beliefs between two users are, based on the way they write, reflecting the fact that people’s own opinions and political identity are their own and fluid, that every individual is unique and does not fit into a neat, predetermined box.

4. Example: Please walk us through a specific example of what happens when a person or group gets involved with your project.

Suppose Joe considers himself to be a moderate conservative, though skeptical about the issue of expanding immigration. Seeking to express his views and learn more about the views of those he disagrees with (including other conservatives), he logs onto our website. Once he selects the topic of immigration, Joe immediately begins to see answers to questions such as “Should the government build a Border Wall?” Because Joe personally believes that a border wall would be too expensive, the first few answers that appear to him are those in favor of a Border Wall. Joe responds to an answer, reasoning his opposition to a wall, and after a few posts of back and forth, Joe still believes that a border wall would be wrong, but has a deeper understanding of the complex issue and further empathizes with those whose beliefs oppose his.

5. The X Factor: What is different about your project compared to other programs or solutions already out there?

What differentiates our solution from others such as Better Angels or Bridge the Divide is our use of machine learning. Machine learning yields us the ability to avoid human moderation, allowing us to scale at faster pace and prevent bias from entering the forum. Unlike other organizations such as Reddit or Quora, our algorithm will display opinions that users actually disagree with, incentivizing spirited disagreement and learning, while still maintaining personal interaction. Finally, we aim to serve Americans, regardless of ideology or age.

6. Impact: How has your project made a difference so far?

We want to make sure that our website will have a big impact across the country and span demographic groups. When a user signs up for our site, they will optionally be able to provide demographic data, such as age group, region, gender identity, sexuality, race and ethnicity. This data will then be used to make sure our site is being used by members of all social groups, since we believe that a solution to divisive politics must encompass all of America. We will also track user activity and engagement, both across the board and by social group. Using the algorithm to determine user’s sentiment, our site will determine change in sentiment of users over time, in order to determine whether our site has persuaded users toward a different viewpoint. While our website promotes respect and empathy rather than changing views, we believe changing views could correlate to an increase in empathy.

7. What’s Next: What are your ideas for taking your project to the next level?

Within the next month, we plan on developing our website and creating a beta version of the platform with three topics and a few user-generated questions. Once our user-base increases and our platform expands, we plan on partnering with local high-schools and colleges to give students the opportunity to engage in political discussion. Through these partnerships, we would not only grow our user base, but also fine-tune our algorithm so that we can expand. Also, we plan on eventually expanding to other countries, so that foreign perspectives on issues that pertain to the international community are also represented on our forum, and so those outside of the US can help to heal political divides in their countries.

8. Future Support: What are the resources needed to make your vision a reality?

In order to take our project to the next level, we will need help on the technical side. We are already working to create a prototype of our website which will eventually be launched, but in order to reach a larger number of people we will need technical resources, primarily the financial resources to purchase servers that can handle a large amount of throughput and data storage, but also optimally the expertise of established professionals in the areas of security, machine learning, and server operation, either as consultants or team members, to ensure that our website is running in a secure and efficient way on a large scale with minimal delays in order to provide the best possible experience for our users.

9. Finances: If applicable, have you mobilized any of the following resources so far?

  • Friend support
  • Family support

10. Ripple Effect: Please share some ideas of how you could partner with other changemakers or involve other young people as leaders in making a difference.

At the moment, we have already been engaging in discussions with our friends and peers regarding how all of us can play a role in ending political polarization and closing the empathy gap. Specifically, because Aidan and I are involved in a myriad of organizations such as Speech & Debate, ARML, & FBLA, we have been reaching out to our peers in those communities and have gained diverse perspectives about solving America's political issues. In the future, we aim to work with young activists, members of political organizations, and leaders of student governments at high-schools and universities across the US. We would like to have discussions and bounce ideas off of young visionaries who have an understanding of the politics, and of everyday life. By connecting the views of those in politics to the views of those who are not, we can bridge yet another gap that exists within America. Finally, we are interested in working with other T-Mobile Changemakers who believe that political polarization is too widespread, or simply have an interest in politics and technology. We believe in the "Strength in Numbers" motto and believe that change will only happen if we work together.

How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Social media


Join the conversation:

Photo of Tyler Vogel

Aidan and Gokul - thank you so much for sharing this idea! I was my undergrad's student body president in rural Iowa during the year of Trump's election. I can not tell you how divisive and hurtful much of the campus atmosphere became, frankly on both sides and working with a typology like this was how we tried to "get through" it. This type of platform connected with university (even high school) communities is desperately needed. One of my favorite ideas thus far. Best of luck to you, would love to stay in touch. ~Tyler

Photo of Gokul Venkatachalam

Thank you so much, Tyler! Hopefully, we'll see each other in Seattle :)

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