Congress and President-elect Trump have made it clear that repealing ObamaCare is a top priority. With the rise of social media’s influence on public opinion, though, it might end up being a tougher sell to the American people than they anticipated.
There are two main reasons for this. For one, the vast majority people still don’t understand what the Affordable Care Act (ACA), or ObamaCare, really is. They know snippets about it, but they don’t understand how it actually works. In fact, there have been multiple polls since the law’s enactment showing that most Americans approve overwhelmingly of the provisions in the ACA, yet they oppose the law itself.
This leads to the second reason; estimates show that if the ACA was replaced today with no replacement plan, over 20 million people would lose their health insurance.
If there was no social media, the GOP could weather this storm. There would be news stories about people losing coverage, but very few readers would have a direct connection with the central figures in articles. However, social media allows for everyone to hear a heartbreaking story from somebody that they know on a personal level.
One doesn’t have to understand ObamaCare to realize that what repeal actually meant was that their Uncle Bobby just lost his coverage because of his pre-existing condition. Or that their best friend’s insurance has been canceled, because she can no longer stay on her parents’ plan until age 26.
Talk about a public relations nightmare for the GOP. Everyone who loses their insurance has the ability to broadcast their devastating experience directly on social media to the people they have the most influence over — friends and family.
Of course, the X-factor in all of this is the other part of the GOP’s call for repeal, and that is the replacement aspect. The argument from Trump and other Republican leaders is that Americans will have better health care when the ACA is replaced.
The problem is those policy details have not been filled in yet, and Republican lawmakers are even divided on what “replace” actually looks like.
Therein lies the challenge ahead. ObamaCare is not a clear issue for Americans, how to replace it is not clear for the GOP, and social media will drag everyone into the messy situation.
Something also to watch for is the misinformation that will spread about changes to health care. Just as the ACA had the infamous “death panels” and “rationing” falsehoods enter the mainstream conscious, there will almost certainly be made-up atrocities told of what the GOP is trying to do to destroy health care. Additionally, anything negative that does happen with health care will automatically be attributed to the repeal. In a world of just print and broadcast, these attacks could be defended swiftly and on message.
That time is over, though. Instead, repealing the ACA is about to receive the same treatment as ObamaCare did when it was created.
As seen with fake news before, misinformation can quickly become fact in the world of social media and public perception. And if the general public doesn’t even have a strong understanding of health care issues to begin with, the line between accurate and inaccurate can be easily broken.
Ultimately, what Republicans are trying to sell the country is a product. To them, the ObamaCare product wasn’t working, so they have a new, better one to offer.
In the corporate world, marketers relish in the fact that social media is a way to receive real-time feedback from customers about products. The GOP will also receive that real-time feedback if the law is repealed.
But, it might not be the publicity they were looking for.
Adam Chiara is an Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Hartford. He has worked as a legislative aide in the Connecticut General Assembly, a journalist, and as a public relations practitioner. He’s on Twitter at @AdamChiara.