PARIS (SPARKNEWS) - Brexit, climate change, migrants… many topics such as these divide Europeans, fuelling mistrust and miscomprehension among citizens.
In order to bridge the gap, a group of journalists from the German news outlet Zeit Online, together with media outlets from across Europe conducted an experiment called Europe Talks, a couple of weeks before the European elections.
The idea was to host face-to-face conversations between people from different countries who had opposing political views.
Philip Faigle, Special Projects Editor of Zeit Online and one of Europe Talks' project leaders, discussed how this kind of initiative can help break down stereotypes.
In an age of online forums, social media and 24-hour news channels, why bring together political opponents from different countries?
It all started in the newsroom, a few months before the German general elections of 2017, which revealed a number of controversial topics that were dividing society.
Our idea was to spark conversations between people who had opposing views, for them to initiate a dialogue outside their echo chambers. That was the start of Germany Talks.
We asked our online readers a series of questions on topics such as refugees, nuclear power or Russia, and whether they were willing to meet someone with opposing views.
Then we paired them up with an algorithm, a sort of Tinder for people with divergent political opinions. Once the matching process was complete, they met in person.
Some discussions lasted a half-hour; others went on for nine hours. Overall it worked really well.
What did you hope to achieve with Europe Talks?
Our goal was to get people from different European countries to talk to each other, like we had done in Germany, and to discover how their fellow Europeans think.
Our impression was that people in Germany might not know how a truck driver in France taking part in the Yellow Vests movement actually lives, or what were the reasons for someone in the UK to vote for Brexit.
Ahead of the European elections, we thought these conversations could help people to better understand events taking place elsewhere in the European Union by discussing divisive topics such as fuel taxes to tackle climate change, national border controls, or whether rich countries should help poorer ones.
How did it work?
We partnered with 15 newsrooms from different European countries .
People who wished to participate had to answer seven questions allowing us to match them with someone from a neighbouring country.
Roughly 21,000 people from 33 countries - more than those in the European Union - registered, and more than 16,000 confirmed they wanted to participate.
Our algorithm found a partner for almost everyone, but in the end 6,000 people actually went through with the meeting.
Some met online, through video conference, but some actually travelled longer distances - for instance, a Greek citizen met with someone from Bulgaria.
How did you manage the risks of getting people with divergent opinions together?
We were aware of the risks, so we asked them questions about their backgrounds before matching them up.
We also recommended that everyone meet in a public place, not at home. Everything went well - there were heated discussions but no violent incidents.
In fact, it was quite the opposite; we have been receiving e-mails from participants who were extremely happy about their conversations.
For the Germany Talks experience, about 90 percent of the feedback was positive. After Europe Talks, we gathered some 500 participants in Brussels, and everyone seemed truly happy with the outcome.
Did you hear about anyone whose views on a topic changed?
The Briq Institute and the University of Bonn conducted a study after Germany Talks showing that some people actually changed their opinions - although it was not always clear in which direction.
The research also showed that the talks reduced stereotypes about people from the other side of the political spectrum.
But what mattered most to us was that people started a dialogue.
Were there any challenges in scaling up from the German initiative to a cross- border experience?
There was the language issue. People in Europe speak a lot of different languages, which might be the reason why they have trouble understanding the issues other European countries face in the first place.
We wondered whether to conduct the project in all the languages and translate everything. Finally, we decided to simplify things and do everything in English.
Will there be a "World Talks" someday?
Maybe! We definitely wish to continue conducting experiences like this. It's too early to say how, but we have lots of ideas.
This article is being published as part of 7.7 Billion, an international and collaborative initiative gathering 15 news media outlets from around the world to focus on solutions for social, economic and civic inclusion.