Can Twitter Chatter Get Obamacare Defunded?

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

One of the ways these groups shape conversations in the Twitterverse is by mimicking the language "regular" people use to talk about the issue.

"A lot of the politicians advocating for this legislation would use #AffordableCareAct," De Guerre said. "It was more of the broad populace using the phrase #Obamacare, and you got a better representation of what the actual populace was saying. That started to shift -- what we've seen in recent weeks is a lot of smear campaigns against Obamacare being very active using the phrase #Obamacare, trying to push a negative message that is anti-Obamacare through Twitter."

In other words, the groups pushing to defund the ACA are conducting the Twitter equivalent of guerrilla warfare, pushing specific messages out through influential allies and crafting language to make it seem like their views are shared by the broader population. But will their efforts actually matter? Almost uniformly, political analysts and elected officials say no

If highly orchestrated, well-funded efforts to drive policy changes via social media don't work, is it likely that truly grassroots ideas can prompt change? On the one hand, there is some evidence that Twitter conversations can have a tangible effect on the real world. For instance, a 2013 Nielsen poll showed that Twitter chatter can increase a television show's ratings -- if someone's friends are talking about something on TV, chances are they will tune in, too.

Twitter chatter hasn't always been driven by special-interest groups. Over the past two years, the users who had the most "influence" on Obamacare conversations, meaning that their tweets reached the largest audiences, ranged from Barack Obama and the RNC to users like @rocky1542, who lives in North Dakota, and @csteven, a small-business owner in Chicago.

Via Topsy

But when it comes to actually changing policies, it's harder to tell whether Twitter makes a difference.

"There is a bit of a pendulum effect where people are talking about the day's news, that conversation influences the news, and then vice versa," said Adam Sharp, Twitter's head of government and non-profits in D.C. "You do have a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation."

Perhaps Twitter chatter is the 21st century equivalent of "call your congressman" -- another way for people to give feedback to elected officials, Sharp said. But, he added, "I don't think Twitter replaces the constituent town hall. It doesn't replace traditional polling, the same way as satellites and radar didn't replace the thermometer and barometer."

There's ample evidence that Twitter is an effective way to draw attention to an issue, and everyday users can end up reaching fairly large audiences with their thoughts on policy. But as this case illustrates, with enough data analysis and effort, groups can mold the public sphere of Twitter around their agenda, which makes this a problematic way for congressmen to gather constituent feedback. Since Twitter is a platform anyone can use, it might seem more representative of the views of regular Americans than the form letters organizations encourage people to send to their congressmen. But it's not -- Twitter can be co-opted to amplify the appearance of popularity for a certain position just like any other lobbying tool in Washington.

More importantly, there's a big difference between creating Congressional buzz and making Congress act. No matter who's talking on Twitter, it's unclear that policy makers are actually listening and doing something about what they hear in the Twitterverse.

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Emma Green is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the National Channel, manages TheAtlantic.com’s homepage, and writes about religion and culture.

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