Democracy’s Best Defense: Inoculation, Digital Literacy, and Vote Planning

2016 witnessed foreign interference in our elections which was, and continues to be, a direct threat to our democracy and democracies around the world.[1] Experts say there will be future attempts to further undermine our democracy and we need to be prepared. In the age of the internet, where the sheer volume of content flooding our feeds and inboxes every day is unprecedented, what defense do we have? How can we begin to discern the role of these external forces on our own psyche and how that impacts our choices on whether we participate by voting? Our best defense is to inoculate our public discourse from such attacks through digital literacy and increase voter turnout with vote planning.

So, what exactly is inoculation in this context?

Inoculation is a technique frequently deployed by political campaigns where the goal is to pre-emptively raise the talking points of your opposition and explain your perspective. In the case of direct voter contact either on the phone or in person (like in the case of knocking on doors) the canvasser can raise potential concerns of the voter and messages they will likely hear from the opposition and then directly address those concerns with the voter. Then, when the voter hears messaging from the opposition, they are less likely to be persuaded by it.

This same concept could be deployed through mainstream media to inform the public not just of what happened in 2016, but rather how it happened. The utilization of trolls, bots and fabrication of individuals on the web ultimately swayed the language and tone of the 2016 cycle from the mass media right down to the individual level.[2] What if this year, we were ready? What if we could know and understand the behavior of these attacks, what to look out for, and how to inoculate ourselves from their messages?

Inoculation is a technique frequently deployed by political campaigns where the goal is to pre-emptively raise the talking points of your opposition and explain your perspective.

As it turns out, in a study done of those most likely to share or spread disinformation on Facebook, there was a direct correlation to age; the older (especially over 65) folks were sharing more ‘fake news’ than younger generations.[3] This strengthens the case for digital literacy. Let’s create social norms around how we consume and share media. Let’s lead with digital literacy by creating learning opportunities for people to fact check the stories they share before sharing them. Let’s help each other identify when a story may be false and stop the dissemination of that particular narrative. An important example of this is how the 2016 election was influenced. Voters were convinced by bots to sit this one out, to not vote—ultimately aiding in suppressing the vote. See the attached pdf designed to help folks critically examine media before they circulate it.

Inoculate, educate, and make a plan to vote. Why create a plan?

Why not just urge people to vote? It has been statistically proven that if you have a plan to vote, you are more likely to get to the polls.[4] Part of this lies in the visualization of the day and the logistical planning of the action. The key points you need to ask about when making a vote plan with someone are to:

  • Ensure they know where their polling location is, especially if it has changed from the previous election (which happens more often than you’d think).
  • Make sure they know how they are getting there; walking, public transportation, driving, carpooling, hailing a cab, etc.
  • Ask when they plan on going (before or after work?). Have them think through what’s on their schedule on election day, this may feel tedious, but problem solving with the voter can be the difference between them making it to the polls or not.

If I ask you if you are going to vote, you, due to social pressure are likely to say ‘yes’ regardless of your intention. If I leave the conversation there, you’ll likely have forgotten about it by the end of the hour. However, if I take the time to ask you to think through what election day looks like for you; do you have to work, do you have appointments, will you get to the polls before or after those commitments? Do you need childcare or transportation, how are you getting to the polls? Who are you going with? By thinking through those points of friction that may prevent you from making it to the polls, the plan that we have now created together, makes voting that much easier.

Voting is the lifeblood of our democracy. Something that has been said frequently on the campaigns I’ve worked on is that ‘democracy is a contact sport and you can’t win by sitting on the sidelines.’  Please, examine the articles you share through your social media channels closely, and make a plan to vote. See the attached handout to share with friends and students to help ensure everyone in your life has a plan to vote.

[1] Hansen, Isabella, and Darren J. Lim. “Doxing Democracy: Influencing Elections via Cyber Voter Interference.” Contemporary Politics 25, no. 2 (April 2019)

[2] Jamieson, Kathleen Hall. Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President: What We  Don’t, Can’t, and Do Know. Oxford University Press, 2018.

[3] Guess, Andrew, et al. “Less than You Think: Prevalence and Predictors of Fake News Dissemination on Facebook.” Science Advances, vol. 5, no. 1, 2019, doi:10.1126/sciadv.aau4586.

[4] Nickerson, David W., and Todd Rogers. “Do You Have a Voting Plan?” Psychological Science, vol. 21, 2, 2010, pp. 194–199., doi:10.1177/0956797609359326.

Ben Marine is a guest contributor for the RAISE the Vote Campaign. The views expressed in the posts and articles featured in the RAISE the Vote campaign are those of the authors and contributors alone and do not represent the views of APSA.

Benn Marine is Political Science major soon to graduate from the University of Southern Maine (USM). Prior to enrolling to complete his degree at USM he spent over 6 years working as a political field consultant and grassroots organizer. He has worked on the ground setting strategy and building leaders on issue campaigns in Maine, Rhode Island, Oregon, New Jersey, Indiana, Utah, Idaho, and Minnesota. As a transgender man he has dedicated much of his work to equity and inclusion of the LGBTQ community as well as Ranked Choice Voting, Gun Violence Prevention, and Universal Healthcare. Currently he consults for non-profits and supports organizing work through his organization Ocean of Organizing which provides organizers and activists with resources via podcast, in person events, and online at

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