Last week, at Campaigns & Elections’ Campaign Tech conference I joined a panel to discuss “Countering the Dark Arts of Digital: How to plan for and fight back in the face of hackers and trolls.” We discussed the lessons learned since 2016 and the Russian interference in our elections.
The fact is, the Russian efforts were so effective, other foreign state actors are following suit. And we’re already seeing some of the tactics being used by bad-faith actors here in the U.S.
Just this week we saw an incident involving Pete Buttigieg and a fabricated allegation of sexual assault circulated on social media by a US-based troll.
Ultimately, the responsibility rests with the tech platforms, like Google, Facebook, and Twitter to protect their users from deliberate interference in our democratic political process. Sadly, the platforms haven’t done all that they can and lawmakers and regulators are playing catch up to address the issue.
Since help isn’t going to come from above and the problems aren’t going away, foreign interference and domestic disinformation efforts are a reality for campaigns in 2019 and beyond. Campaigns must be ready to counter these well-documented tactics.
You need to have a response capability and plan in place before a disinformation attack happens. Speed kills on campaigns and if you’re wasting precious time debating what to do more damage is being done by the minute.
Have a response runbook ready to go depending on the nature and intensity of the effort. It should range from very basic social media responses with information on your website all the way up to paid efforts and legacy media engagement.
Prepare Your Website
The cornerstone of your response strategy should be your website. If you decide to deploy countering facts or an alternate narrative, it must be easy to find. That means thinking about your website navigation and search engine appearance early.
Foster a Community
Growing online communities is an essential part of any campaign today and it’s an especially important part of your content distribution strategy. “Going viral” is a myth and you need individuals to ‘broadcast’ content on your behalf.
Think of your outreach as a pebble dropped in a pond where concentric rings radiate and grow. Start with your most active, core audiences and broaden your outreach based on the nature of the attack.
Have a Robust Email Audience
I’ve written before about the differences between earned, owned, paid, and borrowed media. Your email list is your most important owned channel and it should be your first stop in trying to counter disinformation efforts.
Tell Your Side of the Story
Outdated conventional wisdom says you don’t want to repeat an opponent’s attack or increase its reach, but the fact is we live in a “choose your own adventure” culture today and voters absolutely have to be able to access your side of the story.
If you can even get your version of the facts in front of them before they’re exposed to disinformation, you may be able to ‘inoculate’ them from bad actors.
Embrace Best Practices
As I reminded attendees last week, the Russians didn’t hack the social media platforms. They used Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others exactly as they were meant to be used and were really, really good at it.
That’s why campaigns need to be just as good, if not better than malicious actors on these platforms. That involves getting up to speed on the best practice for social media platforms and understanding how their underlying algorithms work.
The bottom line: be prepared. It’s no longer a matter of if, but when a campaign will deal with an attack.