For anyone using social media for threats, stalking and intimidation to influence legislation: Don’t bother. The "anti-vaxxers" – those who oppose vaccination – just tried it.  Not only was it totally ineffective, it actually backfired.

Unsurprisingly, Facebook, Twitter and their competitors have become omnipresent in political campaigns and issue advocacy efforts. Public and government affairs professionals use these tools to advocate, educate, communicate, promote and persuade; all can be effective tools &hellip except when they aren’t.

In the case of Wired’s recent article titled Anti-Vaxxers are Using Twitter to Manipulate a Vaccine Bill, the assertions made are simply unsupported by the facts.

The article unambiguously states in a call-out box that "One small, vocal group can have a disproportionate impact on public sentiment and legislation. Welcome to Anti-Vax Twitter." This passage, and the article in general – complete with visually alluring graphs – leads readers to the erroneous conclusion that a small band of very active Twitter users had an outsized impact on legislation.

Social media, specifically Twitter, was used extensively by opponents of Senate Bill 277 – legislation Gov. Jerry Brown signed on June 30 eliminating the exemption from immunization requirements based upon personal beliefs. Contrary to Wired’s assertion, it’s clear that heavy use of social media does not equal success.

Reading the tweets and Facebook posts in opposition to SB 277, it’s abundantly clear that the opponents’ goal was to kill the legislation. They wanted the bill dead. Period. For the opponents, that was the only metric of success.

Did the opponents’ use of Twitter succeed in derailing the legislation?

The short answer: no.

The longer answer: Not only was tweeting totally ineffective, it actually backfired.

SB 277 opponents began to organize and get active when the legislation was first introduced. Their activity and activism took many forms, from social media organizing to traditional letter writing. They visited legislators’ offices and attended and testified at committee hearings. The social media activity increased as time passed and as the bill was heard in various legislative committees.

Their social media appears to have had little or no effect on the committees’ votes. SB 277 moved forward time and time again.

Committee Aye Nay Abstain
Sen. Health 6 2 1
Sen. Education 7 2 0
Sen. Judiciary 5 1 1
Senate Floor 25 11 3
Assembly Health 12 6 1
Assembly Floor 46 31 3
Sen. "Concurrence" 24 14 2

The totals reflected this chart are hardly indicative of a successful campaign strategy. In total during the committee and legislative floor process, there were 125 "aye" votes, 67 "nays," and only 11 abstentions. That means SB 277 got 62 percent of the maximum 203 aye votes.

The Wired authors even provide evidence countering their own assertion that the anti-vaxxers had a big impact through social media: "Senator Hannah Beth Jackson, has been @-mentioned (often unfavorably) in a particular Twitter hashtag more than 2,000 times since casting her vote in favor of the legislation."  While that may be the case, it obviously didn’t affect her vote. Jackson cast an "aye" vote for the legislation all three times she had the opportunity to vote – first on April 28 in the Senate Judiciary Committee, then again on May 14, and finally one more time on June 29 when the Senate concurred in Assembly amendments. This seems to fly in the face of the implication that legislators are wilting in the face of an unprecedented Twitter onslaught.

So what did happen?

The effort, seemingly run by one activist’s "Twitter tips" videos and originating from as few as 10 Twitter accounts, was responsible for more than 60,000 tweets – an amazing display of social media organizing.

The anti-vaccination movement, as has been clearly demonstrated, has a passionate base of support that spans from neo-conservatives afraid of government power to social liberals wary of traditional medical intervention. They were joined in their efforts, for reasons that never became clear, by the California Chiropractic Association.

Together the activists and association built a social media presence that was remarkable, and more significant than anything the California State Capitol has ever seen. But rather than being strategic in its organization and aim, the campaign quickly took on a life of its own and erupted into an out-of-control social media army.

The frenetic weirdness finally climaxed when opponents fixated on one particular lobbyist, calling her "Devil with the Blue Dress." They tweeted and posted pictures online, (later removed by Twitter), of her crossing the street outside the Capitol, and using hashtag #DevilInaBlueDress. They also ended messages with the creepy and ominous hashtag #wearewatchingyou. Pictures of her friends and family members, including her 6-year-old daughter, were posted on conspiratorial blogs and social media accounts.

Levine Wired rebuttal 1Levine Wired rebuttal 2

At one point, the president of the Chiropractic Association was forced to answer why some of this online traffic included death threats toward legislators, to which he exclaimed that he could not control everyone online.

Levine Wired rebuttal 3

Later he was seen on a video posted on YouTube trying to get activists to stop harassing one of his own lobbyists. But he was also caught suggesting they follow other lobbyists "all day long."

The cyberstalking was so unprecedented it drew the attention of traditional media as well as law enforcement. Local television and newspaper coverage easily connected the dots, tying the stalking activity to the same activists who were leading the social media campaign.

So, at the end of the day, what was the effect of this social media onslaught? It disgusted and galvanized vaccine proponents and others who were witnessing these events.

Additionally, any remaining credibility the anti-vaccine movement had quickly disappeared. The media coverage shifted and the "anti-vaxxers" were put on the defensive and forced to talk about their tactics instead of the reasons for their opposition.

Soon, the Sacramento Capitol community, many of whom hadn’t even followed SB 277 previously, were tweeting photos of themselves wearing blue dresses and neckties in solidarity with the proponents of the legislation and the lobbyist who was being harassed.

Backfire Effect

If there was any effect at all, it was the exact opposite of the one desired by the "anti-vax" community. The legislation accelerated through the process with help from the social media firestorm.

After easily passing the full Senate on May 14, SB 277 moved to the Assembly where it was "fast-tracked." Instead of being heard in three policy committees, it was heard in just one and then sent straight to the Assembly floor. The Assembly asserted it wanted to avoid the same circus that had occurred in the Senate.

Historically, most pieces of Legislation don’t make it to the governor’s desk for signature until the last days of session. In 2014 there were 931 pieces of legislation signed into law. Only 79 of them arrived to Gov. Brown before July 1.

Looking back at the past eight years, it’s abundantly clear: Bills are sent to the governor and signed into law later in the year. As the chart below shows, it doesn’t matter who the governor is.

Levine Wired rebuttal 4

Given all this data, it seems impossible to call any aspect of SB 277 opponents’ social media a success. The "anti-vaxxers" were unable to kill, slow down, amend or in any other way derail Senate Bill 277; they actually accelerated its path through the legislative process.