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A cheat sheet for the big issues

Gracie Lofthouse
We spoke to Kirsty McNeill about ShouldWe, the site that's making public policy accessible.

The nation’s collective relationship with politics has been fairly strained of late. 59% of young people don’t intend to vote at the 2015 election: that works out to more than 2 million people. This interactive graph charts election turnout from 1964-2010. Note the steep decline from 1992.

Our apathy toward politics is reflected in our digital habits. The internet provides us with non-stop political coverage, but this recent American study found that out of a sample of 1.2 million web users, just over fifty thousand (that’s 4%) were ‘active news customers’ of ‘front section’ news. 
According to Go-Gulf, social networking is the most popular online activity, with users spending more than 22% of their time on social media channels.

Some are now trying to change all this. Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley launched Upworthy in March 2012 to “give people the information and tools that help make them better, more aware citizens”, as Pariser told the New York Times. Upworthy packages stories ‘that matter’ as entertaining and ‘clickable’. In their first 29 months online, the site grew from 0 to 88 million visitors a month, making it faster-growing than Huffington Post, Business Insider or even Buzzfeed.

A Wikipedia for public policy

Also making important issues accessible is ShouldWe, a site summarising arguments for and against public policy in a clear, concise format. Issue detail and context appear at the top; pros and cons underneath. Hover your cursor over an argument and the supporting evidence pops up.

Kirsty McNeill came up with the idea for ShouldWe when a friend suggested making a policy version of Wikipedia. “We think evidence empowers people, that people don’t just deserve to know what is happening, but why”, she told us. Headlines after-the-fact can seem cold and impenetrable; breaking down the reasoning behind policy-making might make it easier for people to engage.

Bursting the bubble

ShouldWe is crowdsourced – and as such, it ties in with some growing concerns over the subjective nature of our media. We might not look at news that much, but research suggests that the content we do look at reinforces our extant political beliefs.

Pariser calls this ‘the filter bubble’. We’re more likely to follow people on Twitter with similar opinions to our own; personalised news streams on Google and Facebook selectively guess what we’d like to see based on information about us. Can we trust crowdsourced content to be objective?

“We are looking to be ruthlessly non-partisan when it comes to party politics, but moderation on the site is relatively light”, Kirsty says. The need to register means it is easy for readers to see who made what edit, and to track any biases.

Journalists working to a deadline and policy-makers are expected to use the site. But can it confront the more general political malaise? It isn’t sexing up the news a la UpWorthy; you won’t find any Lolcats on the site. However, its simple, ‘cheat-sheet’-type format suggests if not mass appeal, then mass access: each ShouldWe page can be read in 10 minutes.

Not that this risks oversimplifying complicated political issues, Kirsty adds: “we give people an accessible overview, but they can dive deeply into the data if they choose”, she says. “Overall our impact is likely to increase the depth of insight any reader has on a topic, not decrease it.” Image credit: CC David Bergin.



of young people don't intend to vote at the next election



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