Harness the power of real people to combat disinformation in 2020

Harness the power of real people to combat disinformation in 2020
© The Hill Illustration

In the recent European Parliament elections, European Union voters viewed over 500 million instances of disinformation — a powerful reminder that political disinformation remains a persistent issue, both in the U.S. and globally. Around the world, organized campaigns driven by governments and ideological groups spread false information, often through artificial accounts, to confuse and polarize voters and sever trust between candidates and constituents.

The picture in the United States is troubling. New research shows 89 percent of Americans encounter fake news at least sometimes, which erodes their confidence in government, journalists and other Americans. Disinformation campaigns already are targeting 2020 Democratic candidates, social platforms continue to provide a soapbox for disinformers, and disinformation techniques such as deep fakes, digitally doctored videos such as the recent one of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), are rapidly developing.

In response, many U.S. campaigns have scrambled for quick fixes such as social listening dashboards. But as online platforms restrict their APIs and refuse to self-regulate, even the most sophisticated dashboards lose social data access and technological solutions become less effective.

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However, technology and legislation alone are not the solution to disinformation and artificial activity. Hostile groups in the U.S. and abroad employ artificial accounts because they lack something much more valuable: real human voices and connections. Russians don’t have real American voters willing to spread their message, so they dress up fake social media accounts to look and talk like Americans as a second-best alternative. Many voters are so distrustful of candidates that they unquestioningly believe these illegitimate sources.

But U.S. progressives have real people on their side, and this is their secret weapon. To fight disinformation in 2020, progressive campaigns must stop focusing on tech tools and start focusing on voters. They must commit to rebuilding voter trust through smart digital organizing. This means fostering self-sustaining, organic engagement that gives voters meaningful ways to participate in the campaign. Building meaningful relationships with voters online is the only way to inoculate them from disinformation.

For progressives to engage in meaningful digital organizing in 2020, however, they must make three adjustments to how they view digital strategy:

Prioritize two-way engagement over one-way broadcasting: Many progressive campaigns still fail to realize that voters use social media for social, not media. They don’t want to view ads or follow candidates; they want to connect with friends and family. Focusing digital strategy on digital ads fails to meet voters where they are.

Instead, campaigns must communicate directly with voters online: message them one-on-one; involve them in content decisions; ask them to share this content directly with their friends. Organic conversations not only establish trust between campaigns and voters, they also inoculate voters against disinformation by providing facts from reliable sources. In 2018, candidates such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who prioritized direct candidate-to-voter conversations through chat apps and social media, were best situated to fend off disinformation attacks from the right.

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This shift requires refocusing on digital metrics that show two-way engagement. Instead of prioritizing vanity metrics such as “likes” or how many news feeds an ad hits, progressive campaigns should focus on how many one-on-one conversations they have with voters, or how many voters agree to talk to their friends about the campaign. This is especially relevant as people engage more online through groups and events.

Rethink social media as a measure of public opinion: As distrust of traditional polling increases, campaigns often turn to social listening dashboards claiming to aggregate social posts into meaningful indicators of public sentiment. But these tools fail to distinguish between disinformation, artificial activity and true public opinion.

In reality, the best way to know what voters are thinking is to ask them directly. Digital organizing allows campaigns to ask voters what they care about and what their friends and family care about. What issues are most important to them? Who do they know who wants more information about the candidate? Are they willing to help create content and disseminate it to their friends? This direct contact provides valuable data while building trusted relationships.

Court voters with high online social capital: Voters with online social capital (such as engaged online followings of key audiences) are incredibly valuable — they provide relevant feedback on the campaign’s online presence, spread content to otherwise inaccessible networks, flag instances of disinformation impacting organic conversation, and GOTV with others who trust their opinions.

Progressive campaigns should stop treating influencers and organizers with online social capital as simply potential “likes” or eyeballs on an ad. Instead, they must cultivate those valuable relationships. Digital teams should treat influencers like fundraising teams treat high-dollar donors, or like field teams treat their best canvassers. A trusted influencer who can use his or her online voice to persuade dozens of close connections to vote is far more effective than a canvasser knocking on complete strangers’ doors.

Organizing is not a novel concept, and progressives are historically good at it. But campaigns now need to harness the same human capital they do offline in the digital space. In 2020 and beyond, digital organizing is the best way to build trust with voters and inoculate them from disinformation.

Carly Meyerson is an analyst at GQR, a Democratic polling and consulting firm, and helps progressive campaigns in the U.S. and abroad navigate threats on social media and design smart digital campaign operations.