Using Digital Platforms to Influence the Future of Obamacare

In case you haven’t heard, the Supreme Court engaged in oral argument this past week to address the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a March 2010 act of a Democratic Congress that mandates that all individuals (who can afford to do so) carry health insurance by 2014 or pay a penalty of $95 or 1% of their income to the government (the penalty rises in 2016 to $695 or 2.5% of income, whichever is higher).  It is unclear, after three days of argumentation, in which direction the Court is leaning (although currently it appears to be divided on partisan lines).  Nevertheless, whatever the Court decides when it releases its ruling in June, it will undoubtedly have major implications on the trajectory of summer campaigns.

Despite the fact that the Affordable Care Act was largely structured on the one that GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney implemented during his tenure as Governor of Massachusetts, “Obamacare”–as it is now colloquial known–has nevertheless become inseparable from and a measuring stick of Obama’s presidency.

In a nutshell, should the Court vote down the constitutionality of the bill, it would, as Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia put it, “say that a trend toward big government solutions out of Washington has a limit and the biggest accomplishment of the Obama administration is unconstitutional.”  In other words, this decision–apart from shaping the future of healthcare in this country (no big deal)–will effectively manifest Obama’s ability to successfully execute his biggest political promise upon taking office in 2009.


With the stakes so high, it is no surprise that people have taken to social media to try to influence the discussion.

On Twitter, for instance, “During the first day of Supreme Court oral arguments on Monday, “Obamacare” was mentioned more than 43,000 times while the general topic of “healthcare” was discussed more than 72,000 times. About half those tweets were neutral in tone, simply disseminating information about the Supreme Court’s proceedings. Positive and negative tweets both represented about 25% each of the total number of tweets.”

President Obama’s campaign, moreover, has been tweeting with the hashtag #ILikeObamacare in order to try to promote goodwill for the bill.

Yet, while Twitter and Facebook (17,086 people like the Overturn Obamacare page and 30,217 like the Obamacare page) have been noticeable in weighing in on the constitutional controversy this past week, the American Action Forum, a Washington-based policy thinktank, looked to use a different approach online to try to influence the discussion: targeted digital advertising.

Having submitted three amici briefings to the Supreme Court–all of which offered economic arguments in favor of Obamacare–the AAF worked with Google and TargetVictory on a campaign that, from Monday to Wednesday, supplied pro-Obamacare digital ads to all mobile phones within a 2 block radius of the Supreme Court that searched “Supreme Court” on Google.

It is unclear if such a campaign could be (or was) truly effective, particularly due to its limited geographic scope.  Nevertheless, the idea is nothing if not creative, and, if successful, might provide a framework for other thinktanks moving forward.

As Christopher Georgia, the group’s digital director said, “It’ll be a baseline for future use.  We’ll be testing it out and seeing what we can do.”

About David

David Helene is a senior economics major from Brooklyn, New York. He recently just completed an internship at Bloomberg View.
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3 Responses to Using Digital Platforms to Influence the Future of Obamacare

  1. Sybil E. Sam says:

    This was an interesting read, David. I’m particularly intrigued by the last part of your post where Christopher Georgia mentions his plans to use this software in the future. I know that since money and politics go together, advertising and politics are buddies too. I’m not too sure how comfortable we should be with directness of this advertisement on a policy issue of this magnitude. As you and Sam both have pointed out, none of this will directly affect the Supreme Court’s final ruling but it is important to note that it will affect the discussion outside it and ultimately, how people perceive and/or engage with it.
    What happened to the good old days of just giving people the data and allowing them to make what they could of it?

  2. Sam says:

    David, really interesting post I enjoyed reading it. I think that targeted digital advertising can definitely help the discussion but I’m not sure that it can help the decision because the decision in this case isn’t democratic. I think this tactic could be of use in the future if Congress is debating a bill but the Supreme Court is insulated against public opinion and protected from the will of the majority. For better or worse, it is an undemocratic practice to have 9 justices decide national policy and I believe as the New Media continues to help to promote discussion we will only feel stronger about the Court’s role one way or the other.

    • David says:

      I think that’s a really valid point, Sam, and one I considered touching upon in my post. I did wonder what the point of advertising is, but if you draw that logic out further, you then ask yourself, “Why bother writing about this in the first place, if the decision is non-democratic?” In theory, the structure of the court is, like you said, meant to insulate the court from the political process (particularly with the lifetime appointment principle) and promote a countermajoritarian principle. However, I think, as we’ve seen–especially recently–Supreme Court decisions are increasingly anything but non-political and the reality is that dissemination of information like this could add a degree of transparency to constitutional decision-making and at least offer a soft check to the process (NB: constitutional rulings are subjective and thus transparency may not be the right word). But I completely understand your point and found myself thinking the exact same thing.

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