People in conversation

How a Guns Factsheet Improved Online Dialogue

Parisa Parsa

We don’t usually think of data as a roadblock to productive discourse. We can take it for granted that the world is objective and measurable, and that everyone sees what we see. But that’s not always the case.

The forest for the trees

For two days in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol Building, Guns: An American Conversation brought supporters from both sides of the issue together to engage in dialogue about their views.

These eye-opening conversations led to a digital experiment. A private Facebook group was founded by the core members of the D.C. gathering, plus more than a hundred other members from their communities. It was a space where participants could use the skills they developed in person to facilitate dialogue online.

From across the political spectrum, participants in this Facebook group found themselves referring frequently to statistics and figures to bolster their views. Data and definitions soon became sticking points. Participants questioned each other’s sources. They focused on misinterpretations and methodological mistakes.

Bringing facts and figures into the dialogue seemed to draw participants away from their own stories. They had a harder time listening to one other and an even harder time relating to one another as people with rich stories and diverse perspectives.

Common touchstones

Several of the journalists who participated in the dialogue noticed the problem as well. Hoping to ameliorate these tensions and conflicts, they worked to assemble some fact sheets about gun ownership and gun violence in America.

Drawing information from nonpartisan sources, these documents included a few useful clarifications, including:

  • the number of American households that contain one or more guns;
  • key court rulings on the Second Amendment;
  • characteristics that define an “assault weapon.”

The journalists circulated this document to the other members of the Facebook group. With an agreed-upon set of reference points, the path cleared for more effective dialogue. Participants returned to the stories behind their values. They began to see each other, once again, as common stakeholders in civil society, rather than as avatars of an opposing position.