My first task when I started working in Peterborough, N.H., earlier this cycle as an organizer for a presidential candidate was simple: Know your turf.
To do that, I haunted coffee shops. I sat in libraries. I drew a social map of my community. It transformed residents from voter file numbers into real people – the mom who always brought her daughter to Dunkin’ Donuts, the retired women who attended weekly events at the library.
With the rise of social media – and especially during this coronavirus pandemic – campaign organizers need to think about their turf in a different way. At least for now, gone are the days of going to town Democratic meetings, knocking on doors, supervising in-person phone banks, or hosting house parties for neighbors. Organizing was always about meeting voters where they are. Today, voters are online.
Even without a pandemic, organizers in 2020 should be treating their local online turf as equally important to their offline turf. The systems set up for organizing before the pandemic often refused the reality that our online social networks reflect our offline communities. When organizing metrics center on call numbers, logging shifts, and hitting fundraising benchmarks, they’re out of step with how voters experience elections and form opinions about candidates. Instead, this is often happening from local pages and groups, popular influencers, and friends and family on social media.
Organizing needs to include all the ways you can connect with people digitally and create online communities. So organizers, not just digital teams, need to be empowered to understand their turf and their voters online.
Knowing your online turf is so important that it’s the first step for bad actors who look to spread disinformation to voters. Bad actors recreate local news outlets or impersonate members of the community to seep information seamlessly into news feeds, local pages, and groups. When organizers have a deep feel for the local digital terrain, they’re better positioned to notice what’s out of place, helping campaigns know what false information is out there and where to get accurate online information for voters.
In a digital election, organizers can still be the people who sense and amplify on-the-ground momentum. They can create powerful digital communities of volunteers and build trusted relationships that help inoculate against disinformation. To start, organizers should first map their online turf through a few simple steps:
1. Find your local influencers.
People have great influence in their own communities, so organizers should empower volunteers to organize the people they know first. This tactic is called relational organizing.
Organizers should ask around about who people follow, learn more about local pages and groups, and introduce themselves to active participants in these online groups,. Find out if there are popular community leaders or funny pages known for nods to local culture. Organizers should ask community members who they think would be helpful digital influencers.
Local establishments also provide a point of entry. If a brewery in a turf has thousands of followers, with real excitement about their content, this brewery becomes a local influencer, able to organize online. Organizers should also see who regularly engages with content across a variety of pages to find local influencers and figure out how best to engage them.
2. Join local Facebook groups and follow local accounts on a variety of platforms.
While not unique to the pandemic, it’s even harder now to meet leaders in person. It’s important to visit their digital spaces and that often means local groups and pages.
Every turf is going to have different dominant social media platforms, depending on the population. While almost 69 percent of American adults are on Facebook, younger voters tend to gravitate more toward Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. Know your voters and you will make smarter choices about where to find them.
For example, local Gen Z influencers can uniquely influence their friends to vote and care about issues on TikTok and many voters with family outside of the U.S. use platforms like WhatsApp or WeChat. We saw the power of this kind of specialized organizing with TikTok users buying tickets for Trump’s Tulsa rally.
3. Observe your opponents and people who don’t think like you yet.
It’s crucial to know what the other side is talking about. Organizers should keep an eye on local pages and groups that support their opposition, as well as pages that fall somewhere in the middle or rarely take sides. Knowing how voters see information from the full range of pages and groups vying for their vote will help you spot and stop disinformation and understand what messages, good or bad, stand out and get traction.
4. Constantly check on how local media covers your candidate.
Some of the most nefarious media websites, radio shows, and social media pages look completely respectable. You would never know they’re funded by dark money, or owned by far-right influencers. Organizers should keep close tabs on local media sources. They need to compare notes with their own campaign’s communications team and stay on top of the news their voters see.
While I miss the in-person excitements of organizing, digital organizing tactics are not new, and they’re not suddenly important. We’ve always been able to benefit from integrating digital more into organizing, it just took a pandemic to force us into these better habits. If we continue to embrace this change and empower organizers to know their online turf, we can implement winning tactics in 2020.
Carina Kaplan is a 2020 Campaign Strategist at GQR.