Technology

#welovetheNHS: how Twitter gave Brits a voice on US politics

There are two broad areas where US political debate has for years often seemed quite baffling to British ears: gun control and health care. To most British ears the idea that the ability to own a gun should be a fundamental, sacred right or that providing health coverage automatically for everyone is a sign of extreme left-wing thinking, has always sounded very strange.

In the past, though, there have been few ways to express that puzzlement / bemusement / anger. With the rise of the internet, and in particular social media with its style of short, emotive messages, that has changed. And so, when the British NHS – which has political support so broad that no mainstream political party has ever proposed abolishing it – came under fire as part of the US health care debates, this time there was a way for people to express their views.

It started with one person – Graham Linehan. He is a TV comedy writer, currently best know for his affectionate caricature of those in the IT industry, The IT Crowd. He sent a tweet:

http://bit.ly/5AP9P #welovetheNHS

The link through was to an article highlighting the absurdity of one American’s attack on the NHS saying that Steven Hawking wouldn’t have been allowed to live in the UK – despite Hawking’s own praise for the NHS and the fact that he’s British – and alive.

Graham Linehan followed up with another:

Please retweet all your NHS love using the hashtag #welovetheNHS

Helped by some celebrity friends of his on Twitter and the IT literate nature of many of his fans, this hashtag very quickly spread, becoming a trending topic on Twitter over several days. That in turn kicked off a lot of mainstream media coverage in the UK – and to a lesser extent in the US.

Although as he explained it, his motivation wasn’t party political but rather frustration and anger at the news reports he was seeing – “Just to be clear, I started #welovethenhs simply to counteract lies from Fox news and the like. Couldn’t care less about Tories vs Labour.” – the ruling Labour Party picked up on the issue, trying to use it to help bolster their own popularity on the basis of being the party that introduced the NHS in the 1940s. Widespread media coverage in the UK, and to a much lesser extent the US, followed.

There are four political campaigning lessons to draw from this. First, who in advance would have predicted that it would be a TV comedy writer that would kick off such a story? If your campaign is trying to push a message, the more different things that you try with the more different people, the greater the chance of something taking off – but because the routes can be so varied, and what works can be so surprising, you need to try numerous routes and see what happens.

Second, the big audiences for the story came from the traditional media coverage. As on many other occasions, it was the move of a story from online to offline that was the point at which it started to really have an impact on political debate.

Third, the ease with which people can express their views means the views of foreigners are more likely to seep in to the domestic politics of any country than in the past. The overseas audience cannot be neglected quite so firmly as it has been in the past.

Fourth, having an established group of followers, including some high profile celebrities and an IT-savvy audience, greatly increased the chances of Linehan’s message taking off. The lesson for campaigns from that is it is never to early to start building up your audiences – because the bigger the audience you have, the greater the chance of getting something to take off.

The success of #welovetheNHS in spreading a message is best illustrated by the attempts there already have been to emulate it for other causes – though so far, none of these has managed to take off.

With a general election due by next spring, there are likely to be plenty more attempts coming soon.

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