The battle lines over healthcare reform in America have been drawn, and they are digital.
Building on the successful grassroots model demonstrated by President Obama during his election campaign, advocates for and against reform are hurriedly staking out turf in social networks, such as Twitter and Facebook, and using e-mail marketing to organize and activate true believers.
Both sides in the debate agree the communications war will be won in those trenches, rather than over the TV airwaves that proved decisive during President Clinton's first-term attempt to reform healthcare.
And with total minutes spent on social networking sites by US consumers increasing at meteoric rates, (83% year-over-year, according to Nielsen Online), it's tough to argue with the logic.
“The new tools that are available to organizations and networks like ours revolutionize our ability to organize our supporters,” says Levana Layendecker, online campaign director for Health Care Reform for America Now. “With e-mail, social networking and texting, communications are much less expensive and therefore accessible to groups like ours.”
On the other side of the debate, Conservatives for Patients' Rights (CPR), which opposes a government-run healthcare system, is actively organizing Twitter teams and Facebook communities.
Obama's social media campaign organization, Organizing for America, will surely play a key role in the social media ground war. Now being run by the Democratic National Committee, the group plans to use its 3-million-person network to drive healthcare reform, in much the same way it helped Obama raise campaign funds and organize grassroots political support.
This link between social networks and real world is especially appealing to the legion of young voters, 18 – 25-years-old, who rely on those networks for information and networking. Largely absent from the 1993-94 healthcare debate, this group has huge potential power and will best be reached via Facebook groups, Twitter, and SMS. Numerous Facebook communities, like one in Philadelphia called Drink to Your Health, are already providing younger people a social media environment for discussion, while offering a chance to meet, over drinks, in person.
It's too soon to know in which direction this group will throw its support or whether the common wisdom will prove true that pro-reform organizers hold a social media advantage.
One thing, though, is clear: Participants in social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, will provide a relentless, energetic, real-time bombardment of messages, pro and against, that ultimately will have a great impact on the debate.
Mark Hass is CEO and partner of MH Group Communications, a New York-based consultancy that focuses on integrating traditional corporate communication techniques with the opportunities in social media.