Student Start-Up Series: ‘Flipside’ Bolsters Political Discourse Through Technology

Flipside won $20,000 in the New Social Venture Challenge hosted by Booth School of Business.

From the beginning of their time in the College, UChicago students are taught to challenge conventional wisdom. Buoyed by this quintessential UChicago value and displeased by the political polarization surrounding the 2016 presidential election, four undergraduates created a platform that encourages users to read more across-the-aisle perspectives.

Fourth-years Siddharth Sachdeva, Forrest Sill, Jason Li, and Baxter Stein are the founders of FlipSide, an artificial intelligence platform that uses an algorithm to assess political ideology and then provide users with news stories and opinion articles from opposite points of view.

Flipside is, what Sachdeva calls, a “natural language processing algorithm”: a machine learning program that is great at distinguishing meaning from thousands of written opinions. Given many different opinions on any particular article, the algorithm is able to analyze the key points and the primary political slant, then sort the various opinions inputted by readers into broader umbrellas.

“You [can] think of us as a discourse platform monitored by artificial intelligence,” he said.

After the 2016 election, Sachdeva was reading about how insular social media bubbles, recommendation engines, and newsfeed algorithms contributed to a culture of intellectual isolation that influenced some voters. Fascinated by the ways technology can impact our ability to gain knowledge and form well-reasoned opinions, Sachdeva sought to improve the digital political ecosystem.

Striving to understand complicated search algorithms, Sachdeva quickly built a preliminary model of a recommendation search engine and looked to see if it could facilitate our access to different viewpoints.

Sachdeva began to build a team to help turn those algorithms into Flipside. He found a robust group of undergraduates—all with multidisciplinary approaches to technology and politics.

“There are a lot of people at UChicago who have interdisciplinary interests….They have an interest in a broad range of things,” he said. “That’s really valuable for something like this.”

Unlike Sachdeva and Stein who often discussed politics at the Cathey House dining hall table in Arley D. Cathey Dining Commons, Li, an Economics and Computer Science double major, wasn’t very politically engaged before the election. “I didn’t know what to believe, what the facts were, and what side to take. It’s very hard for people like that to become engaged. What I wanted to do for the UChicago community was to build something to make thoughts and ideas more accessible, so people can become more engaged,” he said.

Once the team formed, the Flipside founders gained support from UChicago Careers in Entrepreneurship, the Polsky Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and professors at UChicago Law School, Booth School of Business, and in the College. They tied for second in Booth’s New Social Venture Challenge, receiving $20,000 to develop their start-up. Career Advancement also funded a trip to Stanford University, where they made the final round in another Venture Challenge.

Li, who has pioneered two separate start-ups in the past, added that he is thankful that the University supported what he called a “non-traditional internship,” where he and Sachdeva  worked full time over the summer building the platform without having to worry about funding.

“UChicago really gives you the ability and the opportunity to pursue your own thing,” Li said.

Since creating the platform this summer, the founders are now looking towards the future. They recently launched a campus newsletter that allows you to interact with a particular opinion piece, and then see how your opinions compare with those of your peers’.

“We’re finally confident in what we have digitally to push it with our friends, and with people within the University to see what they think,” Li said. In order to reach a variety of people and perspectives, Flipside is hoping to partner with publications, organizations, Universities, and social media platforms. Their long term goal is to be a one-stop-shop where people go to share and learn about different opinions.

Stein also remarked on the success of Flipside at UChicago: “The wonky, discourse aspect of this really resonated at UChicago. This is something that could only come out of this school.”

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