Social Media’s Impact on the Health Care Reform Debate

The good, the bad, and the (very) ugly.

If the downfall of the health care reform efforts of the 1990s can be linked to the iconic Harry and Louise television ads, either the success or failure of these efforts over a decade later will almost certainly be attributed to how effective each side of the argument utilizes new and social media techniques to amplify their messages.

And although both sides are now really gearing up and utilizing these technologies in innovative and exciting ways, I’d argue that proponents of reform were late to the party, and are therefore fighting from a much more defensive position than ever expected. I break down most of the social-media activity, at least up to this point, in three main categories.

Viral (and not-so viral) Videos:

Throughout the spring months our nation’s health care reform debate was mired in the nuts and bolts of legislative process debate- certain Senators and Committee Chairs consolidating power, bipartisanship gone awry, reconciliation versus filibuster proof voting margains- but actual on-the-ground, or online, organzing was largely absent.

All this changed, I believe, with the amazing amateur footage coming out from townhall events across the country, with the first originating in my very own Philadelphia (My friend Micah shot the above video of the event with Sen. Specter and Sec. Sebelius, footage that I believe even made it onto the major cable networks).

Over the next week, amazing (or depressing, depending on your point of view) video again came out from Michigan and Tampa.  Regardless of whether you’re empowered by these citizens “speakng truth to power,” or floored by “their ignorance and mannerless attempt to hijack democracy,” – I think we can all agree the images coming out of these events that were instantly beamed across the world re-framed the debate and forced pro-reform advocates off message and created an entirely new dynamic to the debate.

I personally believe those opposing reform that actively shut down discussion and information are ignoring the beautiful and comprehensive history of deliberate debate in this country. I am all for freedom of speech. I am all for rabble-rousing, and protesting our government when it acts against our best interests and the will of the people. I enjoy and value a vigerous debate- but health care reform opponents are shutting the discussion down, and there is nothing democratic about that.

But these videos have gone viral, have been picked up by the 24/7 news cycle, and have re-framed our debate.  Like it or hate it, reform opponents have been entirely successful in creating an image of mass-resistance to reform.  I believe there is a tipping point at which these images will backfire and those shouting and screaming their way into youtube fame will actually hurt their cause– but we have yet to reach that point.

Reform proponents are pushing back; it’s just that they are having much less success in doing so.  The only real effort I could easily identify is the the White House’s newly launched “Reality Check” micro-site, an effort in which administration officials speak into the camera to try and correct the many lies making the rounds in e-mail chains and across other social sites (much like the Obama Campaign’s “Fight the Smears” site set up for similar purposes).  Again- snaps for efforts– but a bland video from the Director of the Domestic Policy Council just doesn’t pack the same punch as, say, hundreds of pissed-off Americans shouting down their elected officials.

Information (and disinformation) Sharing

Both opponents and proponents of reform have taken to the web to share information about reform and the process of which the bills are working their way through the Congress.  Perhaps only because it is much easier to make outlandish statements and share disinformation than rebute and fact-check every soundbite making its way across the interwebs, again opponents seem to be gaining much more high-profile success from their statements.

Perhaps the most famous of all originated from the former Alaska Governor’s Facebook page.  In it, she wrote,

The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.

This outrageous note has spurred countless fact checks and posts from the left– yet, again, the simple “splash value” of the claim itself seems to have drowned out all those trying to set the record straight.

When the White House set up an innoculous e-mail address,, and asked those with questions to e-mail them to set the record straigtht, conservatives blasted the administration for compiling an “enemies” list, drawing comparisons to McCarthy and Nixon.

iamthemobConservatives soon took to twitter, proudly standing up to the administration as one of “the mob,” filtering their conversation through the hashtag #iamthemob.  Opponents of reform are using this hastag to highlight and promote anti-administration proposals, further disseminate more disinformation, and track town hall events to attend.

Again, this isn’t to say that ONLY reform opponents are sharing information effectively-  I am only suggesting that they are more successfully, whether rightfully or not, amplifying their message.  And in such an important, costly, and personal debate– that effectiveness is what is driving their relative success in stalling the process of reform moving forward.  Progressives are herding toward #p2 and #hcr and #hc09 hashtags– but none have seemed to catch-on much like that of “the mob.”

Online Organizing

As a community organizer, I have been surprised at the lack of innovation and organizing happening online over this piece of legislation.  There’s potentially many reasons for this– difficult messaging, perhaps a sense of resting on our laurels, etc– but at this point there really hasn’t been much to point to as success stories for health care organizing.

After a presidential campaign that really took the tech-world by storm and demonstrated the awesome power of social media when harnessed and amplifyed correctly– there has been near-universal silence on this issue in particular.

One interesting project originating from Organizing for America has been Tweet Your Senator, a google-map and twitter mash-up that allows you to send a pre-populated tweet to your U.S. Senators urging them to take immediate action on health care refom.



With the August recess still in it’s early days, there is still a large chunk of time that individuals and organizations have to innovate and organize, and if these “townhalls gone wild” continue in a similar tone, I believe we’ve yet to see the totality that each side of the campaign will bring to the debate.  But at this point in the process, I’m surprised that there hasn’t been a more high-profile and successful social media component to seeing health care reform passed this year.

One final note–  I know I’ve missed countless things many individuals and organizations have done on this issue, and I really hope that if you’re reading this and could point me in the right direction to show me innovative and exciting uses of social media in this debate, that you will do so. But with this post I’m simply trying to highlight the broad environment in which I believe we’re operating currently.


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