There are two conversations happening in parallel across the sector right now. Charity leaders are wondering when the election will be, who will win and what it will mean for charities.
Meanwhile, charity digital staff are talking about how the election will play out online, including how they can manage their brands in a year when digital platforms are likely to be volatile spaces.
What could this look like? A recent survey found 70 per cent of MPs are worried that AI-generated content will spread disinformation ahead of polling day. In Slovakia, a deepfake audio recording may have influenced the 2023 elections, while Sir Keir Starmer and Sadiq Khan have already been the target of deepfakes.
The UK government has set up a Defending Democracy Taskforce to assess risk in this area, along with threats from foreign interference and cyberhacking.
And with more than 40 countries going to the polls this year and more than four billion people eligible to vote, the culture wars are expected to intensify both offline and online.
Glen Tarman, head of policy and advocacy at the charity FullFact, is concerned. “The next general election will test our fragile information ecosystem,” he says. “We expect to see false and inflammatory images and stories, surges of misinformation surrounding real events, and misinformation about the electoral process itself.”
FullFact is preparing for this by growing its team of fact-checkers and testing new formats to shorten its response times.
Charities will need to work similar muscles by identifying potential threats and being ready to act. Jonathan Chevallier, chief executive of Charity Digital, is advising charities to consider what the risk of increased misinformation (false information spread unintentionally) and disinformation (the deliberate spread of misleading information) means for them, so that they can decide what actions to take and how to resource them.
This might include investing more time in monitoring online platforms to detect false information and respond quickly.
Chevallier also wants charities to “establish clear and trustworthy communications with staff, volunteers, beneficiaries, supporters and other key stakeholders to keep them well informed and debunk any false information relating to the charity’s work”.
For some charities this will mean being on a war footing. But while there are threats, there could also be opportunities. Chevallier points out that charities need to think through how they might “use some of the increased discussion around social issues to give more oxygen to their campaigns” without endorsing a particular party or politician.
This could include using trending hashtags and mobilising volunteers to participate in events. Chevallier thinks that, while online spaces will be crowded, telling emotive and visually compelling stories will still achieve cut-through.
Being clear about who your charity needs to reach, and what you want them to do, will be even more important this year.
Clare Laxton, charity campaigning consultant, says charities need to be aware of the guidance and legislation for election campaigning. They should invest wisely in communications and “reach out to supporters to amplify their message and always make sure that there is a clear call to action for supporters and politicians alike”.
And while the year ahead will be tough online, charities don’t need to go it alone. Finding and standing with your tribe will be vital.
The social enterprise Impact Hub London is investing in community outreach – Kaye McDougall, its partnerships director, told me: “To keep reaching the communities who need the support we offer we need to use our social channels, sharing positive outcomes.”
Charity leaders must also use the platforms and power they have for good. It will be tempting to retreat this year but, as FullFact informed me, charity chief executives are trusted more than TV newsreaders and journalists, and therefore are a valuable source of information.
If you’re a leader, think about how you can use this to your charity’s advantage. Some people will tire of the sugar rush of low-quality content and will be hungry for engaging stories about real people, and thoughtful, longform discussions in podcast and blog form.
There will be plenty of opportunities for charities to stand out online in 2024, if you’re prepared for what this year could bring.
Zoe Amar is the founder of Zoe Amar Digital