When Democrats won both Senate seats in Georgia in early January, longtime local organizers like Stacey Abrams and Nse Ufot were, and continue to be, praised for their efforts. Many reports focused on their local organizing, but underplayed how much of it happened online in the face of daunting threats like disinformation and hate speech flooding newsfeeds.
Investing in the long-term to cultivate trust, both offline and online, as we saw Fair Fight and the New Georgia Project do in Georgia, can be our strongest tool for inoculating voters against disinformation that wears down our base and pushes persuadable voters further away. By investing in long-term organizing, campaigns get a home-field advantage, both offline and online, and can make their opposition play on their turf in spaces they already know and understand.
Giving campaigns a home-field advantage means investing in local community members who can cultivate relationships in online communities to develop sustained digital organizing, regardless of political cycle. If campaigns invest, in the long-term, in mastering the online terrain of specific turfs through leaning on the expertise of community members and organizers, the sustained development of trust can lead to an increased online advantage and more wins for Democrats. It also takes the wind out of disinformation’s sails as it’s fueled by the absence of trust over any other driver.
We had a chance during the pandemic, with most campaigning happening remotely, to implement the first steps in a longer term digital organizing strategy. But it’s clear some campaigns worked to accommodate the pandemic, not find a new structure to make it irrelevant in the future. Georgia showed us the first step forward – how to center local participation over an extended period of time, due in large part to the hard work done over several years by Black women organizers like Abrams and Ufot. So, how do we do that with organizing online?
The goal of campaigns has always been to meet voters where they are and, today, voters are online. But as bad actors work to torch any remaining trust in media and politicians with disinformation, we must rely on local organizers and messengers to push back.
For example, to combat vaccine hesitancy, Dr. Mary Owen, director of the Center of American Indian and Minority Health at the University of Minnesota, recently told NPR that a successful strategy for the vaccine in Native American communities must recognize that there are 574 distinct tribes, each with its own leaders and influencers. She said the best approach “is for the states to find out who to reach out to in each tribe in order to gain the community’s trust.”
To build trust with communities, candidates and campaigns need to earn it and they can start by trusting the people who live and work on the ground in their constituencies. Now, playing to a campaign’s home-field advantage to win against disinformation can be achieved by three broad steps:
Organizers need to be empowered to know their online turf to truly understand communities. Most campaigns claimed to have an increased investment in digital this year but oftentimes “digital organizing” just meant enhanced text campaigns. Empowering organizers to understand their online landscape can increase organizers local competencies and improve their organizing ability. Organizers can do this by investing time in listening to volunteers and learning from them, the people who permanently live in their region. Ask them what groups they are in online, where they get their news, or which local leaders can reach a broad audience. Then utilize those relationships to understand how and when to show up with your message online.
2. Utilize existing online communities to nurture trust.
Campaigns sometimes hire strangers to come in from other states to organize a community and call the shots. This disincentivizes long-term investment in local expertise and can exasperate distrust that bad actors exploit. Instead, campaigns should center on leaders who have the community’s trust all year round. This allows organizers to be facilitators to manage their turf. For example, in Westmoreland County, Pa. during the general election, one volunteer was tasked with running their Democratic Facebook group – building the following, posting often, and increasing engagement. As a community member, this individual had a better chance of rallying other community members to participate.
3. Make online and offline work fluid.
People want a quick, magical solution to disinformation, but we know the best solution is investing in online and offline work and seeing them as fluid. Investing in long-term trust building can be strengthened by recognizing the consequences of online work. Online narratives have offline consequences such as when a candidate is asked about a false online story by the press and then that story is amplified to more voters. If organizers and volunteers actively work online to counteract disinformation with honesty and facts, candidates who run on truth will have a better shot at winning.
We shouldn’t need a pandemic to prioritize online community building and knowing who matters to a community online. As long as Americans spend more time online, we need to be where they are. We need to utilize the already election-winning local organizing strategies from this cycle and beef them up with an even stronger, more durable digital presence. This emphasis on digital community building will be key in rendering disinformation useless and taking away the home-field advantage from bad actors.
Carina Kaplan is an analyst at GQR.