In a country that’s increasingly polarized, where partisan politics shape perception, the question of how to create a compelling argument — rooted in facts — that can change minds isn’t simply academic. It’s a question that’s chipping away at the foundations of American democracy.
The cruel joke at the center of this is the role that new technologies have played in creating the current political environment and the fracturing of political thought.
Now a new company that’s emerging from the latest batch of the Y Combinator accelerator is hoping to write a better punchline — using technology to solve the problems that technology has created.
Swayable was founded by three former physicists to help craft political messages that actually inform and persuade rather than simply incite and propagandize.
Formed initially out of frustration with the country’s response to climate change, Swayable’s three founders — James Slezak, Valerie Coffman and Lyel Resner — hope to bring the experimental rigor of scientific testing to the efficacy of political messaging.
For Slezak, the company’s chief executive, the importance of crafting a persuasive political message was driven home during his tenure as the Vice President and Chief of Operations at NYT Global.
“What really stood out for me at the Times was that they do a lot of critical reporting on big issues, but it just wasn’t getting through to people on the other side of the filter bubble,” Slezak says. “It was a scary time coming out of the election of 2016 and a lot of people — myself included — wanted to contribute to get the world back on track and the political system more functioning. We’re trapped in these increasingly divided filter bubbles but there was just no obvious way to solve that.”
So Slezak tapped his network and enlisted some friends from his days as a research physicist to come up with a solution to the messaging problem.
And it is a problem. Last year a study by Stanford professor David Brockman and UC Berkeley political scientist Joshua Kalla revealed that all of the work political campaigns put into advertising, canvassing, direct mailing and phone calls simply doesn’t work.
“Campaigns probably need to get more creative and think more outside the box,” Brockman told Vox in an interview. “Whatever box they are working within now doesn’t usually produce results.”
Slezak and his team took Brockman’s advice — and his work — to heart.
“The way to have an important impact on a situation where the messages were getting off track was to use science,” Slezak says.
Working with Coffman, the former chief science officer of 3D printing and computer aided design company Xometry, and Resner, who was serving as a fellow at the Civic Data Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Slezak came up with an approach that most social and data scientists know all too well.
“What we’ve done is productize randomized control trials,” says Slezak. “It’s a set of experiment designs that have been used by social scientists for a long time… It’s also exactly what we would have done in a physics experiment.”
Marshaling resources on sites like Fiverr and Amazon Mechanical Turk, Swayable basically a/b tests political messaging to see which ones resonate and are most likely to persuade an audience.
Users send in at least four different versions of the message (typically a video) that they want to test. They’re logged into the Swayable platform and from there, the service goes to work. Swayable recruits its control and sample groups from sites like Facebook, Fiverr and Amazon Mechanical Turk and shows them the video.
To ensure the integrity of the results, Swayable tests to determine that its study groups are actually from the demographics that customers want to target. At the end of the survey — within 12 to 24 hours — Swayable comes back to a customer with the results of the study.
Using statistics, data, and information targeting, the company can determine what messages are most likely to change someone’s mind, Slezak says.
Political messaging is just one of the areas where Slezak and his co-founders think their business can provide value. The company is also looking to change the ways in which advertising is constructed.
“There’s billions spent on persuasion, but as brand sentiment,” says Slezak. “It’s that upstream moment.”
Unlike other technology companies that have taken a more bottom-line approach to the services they provide, Slezak says Swayable will definitely have a progressive bent to the organizations and companies with which it works.
“We’re not relativists,” Slezak says. “Our background is from progressive politics. We want to use this platform to give an advantage to people who are telling the truth. We would not take a phone call from Donald Trump.”
Swayable has already managed to sway some investors to its way of thinking. In addition to its work with Y Combinator, the firm has picked up an investment from Higher Ground Labs — an investment firm focused on incubating progressively minded technology companies.
Higher Ground is led by President Barack Obama’s 2012 online organizing director Betsy Hoover, former Obama White House special assistant Shomik Dutta, and former Tumblr and Google executive Andrew McLaughlin who served as deputy chief technology officer in the Obama White House.
“[There] have been few dedicated, long-horizon actors with the committed capital, expertise, and networks of experienced collaborators that can help entrepreneurs deliver the powerful-but-easy-to-use capabilities our parties, candidates and allies need to activate supporters and persuade constituents,” McLaughlin wrote on Medium to announce Higher Ground’s launch. “Without them, our candidates are competing at a disadvantage. Good tech alone cannot win elections, but bad tech can lose them.”
So far, Swayable has been put to use in a few campaigns, but Slezak says the results have been encouraging. “Our first experiment showed more than a 100% improvement in the ability to change opinions,” he wrote in an email. “We all have the personal experience of getting into arguments and trying to change people’s minds and failing. Yet when you run the experiments, you can see actual real people changing their minds. It’s incremental, but we know we can see it happening, with high degrees of statistical certainty.”