Published August 26, 2022 by Jane Godiner

Bowdoin Team Posts Strong Performance in Democracy Challenge

As the summer of 2022 comes to a close, a small group of faculty and staff in the economics, government, and IT departments will return to Bowdoin with a new title: winners of Stanford University's Strengthening Democracy Challenge.

Dan Stone, Michael Franz, and David Francis
The winning team: Economist Dan Stone, political scientist Michael Franz, and developer David Francis

Earlier in the year, the team responded to a challenge issued by Stanford University's Polarization and Social Change Lab, which wanted to find "short, scalable interventions [that reduced] anti-democratic attitudes, support for partisan violence, and/or partisan animosity among Americans."

The Strengthening Democracy Challenge received 252 submissions, ultimately selecting the twenty-five most promising to research and test.

Among the finalists was "Contact Project," a media trades-based intervention designed to reduce partisan animosity, created by Associate Professor of Economics Daniel Stone, Senior Interactive Developer David Francis, and Professor of Government Michael Franz, as well as Julia Minson, associate professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Stone, Francis, and Minson have worked together before to create tools to reduce polarization. Their biggest undertaking has been Media Trades, an online program that encourages left-leaning and right-leaning participants to share news and opinion articles with one another. Franz has used Media Trades in his government classes.

Creative ideas on how to strengthen Americans' democratic attitudes came from academics, activists, and practitioners around the world, and included chatbots, videos, and directed essay writing. Researchers from Stanford, MIT, Northwestern, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania then tested the twenty-five most promising models against one another "in a unique experimental tournament involving more than 31,000 Americans, a sample that was representative of America’s partisan landscape," Stanford explained in a press release.

Of the final selection, "we were the only liberal arts faculty to be selected, so we were pretty happy about this," Stone said. 

Bowdoin's "Contact Project" proved to be the most successful at reducing party animosity. It encourages the exchange of opposing political ideas through respectful discourse. 

Participants are asked to watch a short commercial that shows people with opposing political views bonding with one another—despite learning of their political disagreements over issues like climate change, feminism, and transgender identity. Before watching, participants are told that if they answer questions correctly about the video, they will get to choose an article or video to share with someone from the other party.

“We wanted to enter an intervention based on Media Trades, and wanted to share a piece of media content that we thought would show that people with different political opinions aren’t as bad as we think," Stone said. "We were lucky to find the Heineken ad—it’s really well-done and tested well in pilot studies we ran. And to be honest the intervention performed even better than we dared hope.”

“The Strengthening Democracy Challenge proved one thing: you can change people’s views of their political rivals and their commitment to democratic principles, but what works and what doesn’t work is not obvious,” said Robb Willer, the Stanford professor who led the project. "We hope these results offer an evidence-based toolbox that can be used to begin to rebuild the national damage wrought by antidemocratic rhetoric and candidates, and to strengthen the public’s commitment to democratic practices."