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Five Steps for Building Trust in an Election Year

It’s become cliché to say “this is the most important election of our lifetimes,” but in 2024 the cliché has more truth to it than usual. 

In this pivotal election year, there will be an unprecedented amount of disinformation and misinformation fueled by highly-accessible content generation tools (think: deepfakes), global conflicts and anti-democratic sentiment bubbling up. Because of this confluence of forces, it’s more important than ever that civil society actively work to build trust and combat misinformation.

Recently, the Bipartisan Policy Center, the States United Democracy Center, and the Integrity Institute administered a national poll exploring how American voters get their information and what they trust. Some of their key findings include: Americans are more confident in accurate vote counts locally (74%) than nationwide (64%); election officials are the best authoritative source for election information, but their low visibility makes it important for news commentators and candidates to amplify factual election information; and nearly half of Americans feel positively toward learning new information via social media, but misinformation remains a top negative experience. 

As we think about what actions organizations can take in a likely rough and contentious year, where people are looking for voices and institutions they can turn to and believe, here are five steps based on learnings from our guides, Replenishing Trust and Just Truth, that will help.


1. Listen and engage at the local community level, where you’re more likely to build more trust.

One way to do this is by building and investing in local network infrastructure. On the topic of trust, Scott Simpson, managing director of campaigns and programs at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which released “Roadmap to the 2030 Census” for community-based organizations, shared with us that there are significant opportunities to build trust at the local and chapter levels, right now.

“Local work has a lot of opportunity to build and rebuild trust around issues that are much closer to folks’ communities,” Simpson said. “It’s important for national groups to think about how they’re showing up in the communities that they are in. How are you connecting communities to their issues and making them feel empowered to have more agency over their own lives? I see great work happening when folks really go local, really listen to what folks need and figure out ways to plug in there.”

2. Create opportunities for civic participation

As organizations analyze issues and potential solutions, be intentional about inviting people to shape issues that will most directly affect them. Seek input and build in flexibility in your work to be responsive to people’s needs, wants and concerns.

For example, before the 2021 local elections in Boston, the MIT Center for Constructive Communication launched Real Talk for Change, an initiative introducing a new civic engagement infrastructure to involve the city’s residents in community-led conversations. They held discussions across more than 20 neighborhoods, gave people virtual and in-person opportunities to participate, and launched an online portal surfacing the issues they cared most about. The team then shared these insights with community-based organizations, policymakers, journalists, mayoral candidates, city council members and ultimately shaped debates, conversations and top issues in the election.  


3. Elevate values in action.

This is based on the importance of practicing moral elevation, or rather showing how norms around your values are happening in the real world. Prove that the good things you say should be happening, are indeed happening. If you do or see something good happening that aligns with what you value, amplify it and inspire others to act. 

For example, since the Supreme Court overturned Roe V. Wade, there have been numerous abortion rights wins in local elections across the country. This gives an opportunity to amplify legislative victories as well as the efforts individuals and organizations are making in order to motivate people to take similar action on the ballot this year. On top of that, elevating such values in action helps instill hope that people and organizations can create change for the better – a key practice that can build strong trust.


4. Demonstrate competency.

In a time full of uncertainty, signaling your organization’s competency creates predictability that nurtures trust. People need to sense that an organization has the expertise and skill to consistently deliver on its promises. Consider how you’re showing the strengths and successes of your organization, policies and candidates, and be mindful to not overemphasize setbacks, over time. 

More broadly, to increase trust in elections and voter confidence beyond the local level, organizations can lift up credible examples of strong processes and measures in place at the state and national level that ensure voting accuracy. 


5. Understand what to do to inoculate your audiences against disinformation.

Misinfo, disinfo, deepfakes – there is a rapidly evolving landscape of information coming at your audiences, and it’s important to understand the ins and outs of it all, and most importantly, what to do about it. Coordinated disinformation campaigns have manipulated social media users in an attempt to suppress Black voter participation in numerous election cycles. As we prepare for this election cycle, understanding how to properly message to avoid spreading or repeating harmful disinformation in an attempt to debunk it is key. 

Spitfire’s Just Truth resource is a communicator’s guide to combatting disinformation in a hyper-connected world. It’s a one-stop-shop for understanding how to be prepared when communicating about, and inoculating against, mis- and disinformation. 

By putting into action these steps for building trust, organizations can better engage and partner with the audiences they serve, replenish the well of trust that is vital to a healthy democracy, and put themselves in a better position to accomplish their missions.

For a comprehensive guide on building trust, read Spitfire’s Replenishing trust: Civil society’s guide to reversing the trust deficit

This entry was posted on Thursday, March 14, 2024 at 11:10 am and is filed under Trust. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.