Can Twitter Chatter Get Obamacare Defunded?

Here’s why social media isn’t a good way to force action on Capitol Hill.

Kathea Pinto/flickr

Buried deep in Twitter's archives, the first users of "Obamacare" symbolize a fundamental divide in the Twitter universe: @WSJopinion, the Wall Street Journal's opinion team, and @victoria_29, a lover of NASCAR from "God's Country-Texas."

Do the @victoria_29s of the world have the power to affect national policies on topics like health care via Twitter? If the "Obamacare" case is an indicator of broader trends, the answer is no, probably not. In particular, this summer's campaign to "defund Obamacare" proves that even grassroots political movements on Twitter might be AstroTurf: Fake public outrage manufactured by traditional players in Washington like special-interest groups, think-tanks, and a handful of elected officials.

Efforts to gut funding for the Affordable Care Act are underway on Capitol Hill and computer screens across the country. Conservative groups like Heritage Action, Tea Party Patriots, and ForAmerica are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads and multi-state advocacy tours. At the same time, the Twitterverse has seen a gradual swell of conversation about health care -- 1.93 million tweets over the past two months. This summer has seen more tweets than the summer when the Supreme Court ruled on the health-care legislation (1.6 million tweets), the spring when Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a "slut" (338,000 tweets), or the winter when the Obama Administration struggled to compromise with religious communities on the birth-control mandate (562,000 tweets).

So why now? Why is the Twitterverse fixated on a political issue that seems to be in its twilight? Theoretically, there could be many reasons -- for example, starting in October, people can enroll in government-approved health insurance plans -- but data from Topsy, an analytics company that partners with Twitter, suggests that the bump in activity might be part of last-ditch efforts to rally opposition to Obamacare.

The graph below shows the "sentiment rating" for tweets that mentioned or used a hashtag involving "Obamacare." This rating is a way of assessing the tone of people's tweets -- whether they love Obamacare, hate it, or anything in between. After each tweet is evaluated, it's assigned a "sentiment" score. The green line represents the number of positive tweets, and the red line represents the number of negative tweets.

Since March, for basically the first time in two years, negative tweets have outstripped positive tweets.

Via Topsy

What makes this significant is who's driving the change.

"Most of that conversation we've seen is being driven by organizations and groups [that are] either promoting or opposing Obamacare leading up to enrollment beginning," said Jamie De Guerre, Topsy's senior vice president of product. "They're the larger make-up of that sentiment shift and the overall conversation around Obamacare that's happening ... on Twitter right now, as opposed to the general populace."

It's possible to track this by looking at how influential the people talking about health care are. The graph below shows the "potential impressions" of people tweeting about Obamacare -- basically, that's the number of followers who could have possibly seen a particular tweet. The uptick in "potential impressions" in recent months indicates that accounts that have large followings and broad audiences have been driving the traffic on the topic -- not everyday Twitter users with just a few hundred or thousand followers.

With the exception of a sharp spike last summer, right around the Supreme Court's ruling on the ACA's constitutionality, that hasn't ever happened in the last two years. Today's talk about Obamacare is trickling down from special interest groups with a policy agenda.

Via Topsy

Presented by

Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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