Interview with debate platform Debatoo: ‘AI will improve the quality of online debates’
You can sense a degree of helplessness – in many people as well as in organisations – when it comes to the current state of online debates. Phenomena such as synthetic media, deepfakes and the effects of dis- and misinformation further aggravate a complex situation and decrease the already low levels of trust in both, the media and political institutions. In such a challenging situation, how can organisations initiate and run an equally positive online public dialogue and online political discourse and, thus, supporting democracy at large? Enter Debatoo, a new organisation founded by an experienced team which consists of Henrik Tesch, Holger Geißler and Jan Mönikes. This tech start-up’s main objective is to significantly improve the quality, process and outcome of online debates. Key to achieving this objective is a newly developed platform which aides in structuring and moderating online debates. Debatoo is a spin-off of the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) where the fundamental algorithms – on which the Debatoo platform runs – have been developed.
We had an interesting chat with Holger Geißler – a member of Debatoo’s management team – about the current state of the culture of debate in Germany, how social media impact our society at the intersection of language and culture and also if the Debatoo platform can be of value to non-political organisations such as communication agencies and others:
Why did you found Debatoo and what does the company do?
We want to improve the universe of online debates which is why we developed software that helps to solve most of the issues in relation to online debates. By using Artificial Intelligence (AI), our software is able to, for example, identify whether a similar argument has already been made which helps to avoid discussions going round in circles.
Why are debate platforms so relevant today?
A lot of news sites and forums have either gated or closed their comment sections because providers were not able to properly manage the enormous quantities of user comments. So, it’s obvious that many people want to discuss and interact with others online but, on the other hand, it clearly demonstrates that the solutions currently on offer are simply not up to the job. Therefore, we need new ideas and solutions to manage and improve online debates and that is exactly why Debatoo uses AI.
What makes Debatoo unique compared to other offerings on the market?
Unlike other debate platforms, our software identifies whether similar answers have already been given within the respective discussion. Once identified, we will present the earlier answers to the user who can decide whether they want to start a new discussion thread or if their statement should be integrated into an existing thread. This way, we change the linearity of discussions and branch out whenever new aspects come up. Users can also add evidence – such as links or studies – to their contributions.
What specific value-add do you deliver to your customers?
Debatoo is very relevant for political parties, associations and initiatives. For example, the Christian Democratic Union party of Saxony (CDU Sachsen) used Debatoo to manage discussions around their electoral programme with both, members of the public as well as of the party. The value-add for the CDU? People who typically don’t show up for such discussions offline now participated in the debate online and this, in turn, made the result – in terms of reflecting the current political mood – much more representative.
Publishers and portal providers also use Debatoo because our software can be implemented into their websites – just like a widget. That way users stay on the website but the debate is happening within the Debatoo tool which comes with various advantages, specifically for publishers.
Debatoo is also an interesting option for companies that have more than 30 employees or operate out of different locations. Basically, our offering is useful for all companies that don’t have the option to come together in one room to discuss any important topics or issues.
Which metrics does Debatoo measure? What makes a debate successful?
Hard metrics such as the number of participants, reviews or posts matter much less than the quality of the discussion. Debates are successful when either the initiator reached a specific objective, if the discussion evolved contentwise or when they help to understand which aspects of a discussion are in fact more relevant than others. But, of course, our software delivers various metrics that show, for example, how vibrant a discussion in fact was.
Which practical applications of Debatoo do you see for corporate communication, PR or marketing?
Our software can be useful when an institution wants to have an online discussion with stakeholder groups such as customers, employees or journalists – particularly helpful in crisis situations, think PR, or to discuss fundamental changes.
Within a marketing context, our solution is helpful for companies that want to understand consumers better for example through discussing open-ended questions.
Political discourse is important – but are there any commercial applications of Debatoo, for example within market research?
Yes, of course there are. Debatoo can assist any company that needs to have discussions with employees online. Even with collaborative tools, such as Slack or Microsoft Teams, chats and discussions basically work in similar ways: people add their contributions from top to bottom, the same answers are being given again and again and the discussions often do not get to the heart of the matter. That’s why a lot of debates fail – especially the ones that are a bit more complex. Debatoo is clearly the better choice here.
On top of that, within market research, Debatoo can, for example, be used as an alternative approach to traditional focus groups: it works very well whenever you want to evaluate how a discussion among participants evolves without setting guidelines. It’s basically a Big Data tool for qualitative research.
Communicating in politically charged environments: what are the main challenges for communicators and what can they learn from you?
Here we have to differentiate between online and offline communication: Within online communication, you certainly need to react very quickly and when you’re acting fast, the risk for mistakes to happen is of course substantial. And, such mistakes can go viral very quickly. We’ve published a couple of articles on our blog that discuss this issue, for example, an article by Ole von Beust who recommends that sometimes sleeping on it for a night is much better than to start tweeting straight away.
Offline communication also comes with many pitfalls. What response would actually be “politically correct”? How do you behave in and handle extreme situations? We have some helpful articles on our blog for these topics also – there is one by etiquette trainer Sabine Lansing which includes behavioural tips for debates and another one by Hanne Wurzel who is the head of the department for “extremism” at the Federal Agency for Civic Education (bpp).
How does social media impact our society at the evolving intersection of language and culture?
That is a complex question. For one there are the effects of filter bubbles which typically means that one doesn’t have access anymore to divergent opinions. One only reads what corresponds to one’s own opinion as that is the only thing that ends up in the news feed.
Then there is the transfer of information through computer-aided communication in comparison to other forms of communication, such as face-to-face, which comes with a lot of limitations. This leads to social norms being ignored and invites insults and aggression which, in turn, stops many people from participating in discussions – interestingly, we see similar things happening offline too.
I recommend reading Antonia Haufler’s – the chairwoman of the Hamburg chapter of the youth wing of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) – blog post on this topic where she very aptly describes the current issues with our debate culture and why that almost inevitably leads to radicalisation.
Fake news, disinformation and misinformation – How do these phenomena influence your work?
Unfortunately, our AI cannot identify fake news yet. But, what’s very helpful is that every user can, already today, add evidence to their statements and every user can also rate the contributions of others – all of which helps to establish a certain degree of social control.
Social Bots interfere with opinion-forming processes: Do they pose a risk for debates and can Debatoo help here?
As long as it’s possible to recognise social bots as such, we believe they can actually be of value. We see some potential in using social bots, for example, to ask follow-up questions in an automated way.
How important are new technologies such as AI for Debatoo? What are your plans in terms of product innovations?
We truly believe that technologies such as Artificial Intelligence can help to solve existing problems. That is why we use AI to identify similar contributions within online debates. The next step for us is to extend our AI capabilities in order to be able to also automatically identify hate speech.
Culture of debates & public communication: Which trends and developments can we expect in the future?
It’s a positive sign that people started talking about the culture of debates. I hope that we will experience a revival of debates, in particular between younger and older generations. The ongoing discussions around FridaysForFuture and #rezovideo are encouraging first signs in this respect. Those examples also emphasise how important online channels can be for debates.
We need new tools for public involvement as well as for finding and negotiating compromises. For the majority of people voting every four years is simply not sufficient. An interesting suggestion in this context is the proposal of a “Volkseinwand” by Michael Kretschmer, Minister-President of Saxony.
Also, traditional formats such as TV talkshows will become less important. Such formats are hardly interesting for younger generations and this is unlikely to change in the future.
Can you share a secret about yourself with us?
What many people don’t know about me: As a kid, I wanted to become a sports commentator and I still enjoy doing that today: whenever I watch a game of football or handball, I will comment on what’s happening.
Founder and shareholder at Debatoo GmbH
Holger Geißler is a certified psychologist and worked for many years within the market and opinion research industry. Holger served on the board of YouGov Deutschland and is President of the Marketing Club Köln-Bonn.
The Ubermetrics team thanks Holger wholeheartedly for this interesting interview.