The App That Wants to Cure Our News Anxiety Has a Problem: Convincing Readers to Commit

The ‘news therapy’ app Sift thinks of itself as a gym, not a spa

Corinne Purtill
OneZero
Published in
5 min readFeb 12, 2020

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InIn fall 2018, an app called Sift debuted in Apple’s App Store. A product of All Turtles, the artificial intelligence incubator co-founded by former Evernote CEO Phil Libin, Sift billed itself as “news therapy”: a tool to equip users with the perspective and context they needed to process the substance of the news without being overwhelmed by rage or despair.

Sift offers a series of “cards” containing text, graphics, and interactive features that together summarize the debate on five political issues — gun control, climate change, immigration, healthcare, education — as well as a primer on news literacy. Sift has no advertising and is funded by six-month subscriptions for $19.99.

Image: Sift

Despite Sift’s origins in a machine learning incubator, its creators quickly realized that “the algorithms are part of the problem” when it comes to news anxiety, co-founder Gabe Campodonico said.

“Anything that’s tuned to get you to spend the most amount of time looking at something [or] reading something, is also going to just feed you what you want to hear and what you want to see,” Campodonico said. “It’s not going to challenge you in any way.”

Sift is designed to be non-addictive. Instead of content that stokes emotion and confirms preexisting biases, creators opted for a just-the-facts approach. Everything that appears on the app is written and placed there by a human. There is no system to game or experience to personalize, just solid chunks of fact-checked, primary-sourced information that offer solid grounding in the issues of most concern to Americans and a decent primer in news literacy. According to the reading time estimates on the site, each of the six modules takes 22 to 28 minutes to read in full — quick for issues of such complexity, but an aeon in internet attention spans.

Sift says that initial results have been promising: In a three-month experiment starting in fall 2018, the startup…

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Corinne Purtill
OneZero

Journalist with words at Time, Quartz, and elsewhere. Author of Ghosts in the Forest, a Kindle Single.