PurpleState aims to combat ‘real world’ political polarization

By Laurel White

In a high school classroom in central Wisconsin, a political ad campaign about state gun policy is in the works. Questions are in the air: Who are the advertisements trying to persuade? What is media coverage of the issue like in the area? How might factors like the local culture and economy affect how the audience feels about guns?

The ad campaign isn’t real — no one outside this classroom will ever see it — but the lessons learned about the inner workings of political messaging, engaging critically with 21st century media, and understanding some of the reasons behind political polarization are very real. Those are some of the goals of PurpleState, a hands-on simulation that engages high school students as interns at a fictional political communications firm.

Jeremy Stoddard

Jeremy Stoddard, professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, has helmed the research that led to and continues around PurpleState. Partners in the research include the Epistemic Analytics lab in the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER) and faculty at the College of William & Mary and the University of Rhode Island. The project began with a $50,000 grant from the Spencer Foundation in 2015 and was substantially bolstered in 2019 by a $1.3 million award from the Institute of Education Sciences. This fall, the research will expand from select classrooms in Wisconsin and Virginia to all interested schools in both states.

Stoddard says the feedback from PurpleState teachers and students so far has been enthusiastic and encouraging.

“We have teachers seeking us out to do it,” he says.

One teacher told researchers that PurpleState helped bring less engaged students out of their shells in the classroom.

“They went off and took ownership,” the teacher said in feedback to Stoddard’s team.

Another teacher said students appreciated the “real world” feel of the program.

“The simulation helped students feel more authentic, as opposed to doing it just for a grade,” they said.

The simulation includes an online application that allows students to view demographic information, polling data, and media coverage in their target audience’s area. As such, they’re equipped with much of the information professionals use to craft a political media campaign.

PurpleState graphic displaying different elements of the innovationThen they are assigned a team to collaborate with, a budget to work within, and are empowered to explore the world of political messaging and media in a faux- professional environment.

“We made it as realistic as we could,” Stoddard says.

That aim for realism included consulting with a seasoned political campaign manager, he says.

Stoddard says early student evaluations have shown that PurpleState is giving students not just an appreciation of how political advertisements are made, but how political opinions can be formed. He believes that understanding could combat political polarization as the students become more engaged citizens.

“Students were talking about using some of the evidence they had — about social factors, political identity, and economic factors — to understand why people believed what they did, and not just think they’re crazy or mean or evil,” he said. “One of the goals of this project really is combatting some of the polarization that we see, and also developing that type of empathy.”

Stoddard also says he views PurpleState as a more effective approach to teaching students about political messaging and media. Instead of teaching students to evaluate political messages in a vacuum — like analyzing a single tweet or advertisement for its veracity, for example— it aims to give students the skills to think critically about political messages as part of a complicated, dynamic media ecosystem.

“If you’re seeing an ad, a lot of these media literacy programs focus on it as if it’s a text and out of context, when really we know you’re seeing it for a certain reason — it’s a demographic category, some choice you’ve made,” he says. “Through designing these campaigns students are going to have much more awareness on the back end of why they’re seeing political information, and being able to understand it in context.”

After roughly 10 hours of work, teachers can gauge PurpleState’s success through argumentative reading and writing evaluations. Students also complete self evaluations on things like how they are likely to engage with an issue on social media after going through the simulation, and how they think they’ll communicate with someone who disagrees with them politically moving forward.

So far, Stoddard says the lessons about political identity, polarization, and empathy are hitting home.

“Not only did they learn a lot about the issue, but the piece that stuck out to us was they gained a better understanding of why different groups in the state felt differently on the issue,” he says.

Data collection will continue this fall as PurpleState rolls out to many more classrooms in Wisconsin and Virginia.

After that, Stoddard says he and his team are hoping to get support to expand the project to what they’re calling “PurpleNation.” PurpleNation would have demographic, polling, and current media information for every state across the country and include a broader array of policy issues.

With what’s sure to be another contentious fall election on the horizon, Stoddard and his team hope former, current, and future PurpleState students will enter the cultural fray of information, disinformation, and debate about politics with a new set of media literacy skills. He hopes they have a new perspective on what it means to be an informed citizen and, perhaps, a new appreciation for the person across town — or the classroom — who disagrees with them.

To learn more or visit: go.wisc.edu/lc-purple-state

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