By: Julia Schulze

When our opposition makes huge strides in the online court of public opinion, we often find ourselves asking, “What could I have done to prevent this?”

The answer is almost always nothing.

The rise of social media has given anyone and everyone a voice, and we can’t stop people from sharing their opinion or framing an issue. What you can do is learn from their successes and failures, and fiercely hold your ground by presenting yourself as the fact-based voice of reason.

For example, let’s look at the strategy used by anti-vaccination activists (anti-vaxxers) in California to influence legislation. An article in Wired explained that a few very passionate people were able to appear much larger than they were by using strategic messaging carefully crafted to attract potential allies. By consciously changing their reputation from conspiracy theorists using #cdcwhistleblower to one of concerned parents using #parentalchoice and #vaccinechoice, they were able to engage with credible communities of conservatives and autism advocates.

Changing their language allowed the anti-vaxxers to form alliances with groups of people not typically connected to their cause. It’s an important lesson to keep in mind when considering allies to carry your message – an ally on one issue doesn’t necessarily have to agree with you on all issues. This is a common oversight that we encounter: missing opportunities for collaboration because certain organizations aren’t in complete agreement.

You’ll want to avoid organizations that flat out hate yours, but seriously consider those in the middle. Ask yourself:

  • What language are they using to discuss the issue?
  • Are there opportunities to build relationships?

The anti-vaxx crowd comes from all across the political spectrum. A Pew study found that 34 percent of Republicans, 22 percent of Democrats, and 33 percent of Independents believe parents should be able to decide whether their child is vaccinated.

Over the past year in California, anti-vaxx hashtags received nearly four times as many uses as pro-vaxx hashtags. The graph below splits up the Twitter vaccine conversation by hashtags used by both sides. We know that 79 percent of Californians are not anti-vaxxers, but those who self-identify as such are so outspoken that they can be mistakenly perceived to be in the majority.

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One thing that the anti-vaxxers did particularly well was appealing to a person’s pathos by eliciting an emotional response. With Twitter handles such as @TannersDad and @AspiesMom, they tell personal stories with videos and images.

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The use of Twitter hashtags has made it easier than ever for like-minded people to find each other and rally around a common cause, and the anti-vaxx crowd is a perfect example. The fire is fueled by an angry online community, escalating and feeding off of each other in the form of retweets. Tweets that get users outraged are the ones that get shared most frequently according to a study in China on emotion in social media. Passionately spreading messages expands a group’s reach and brings in new supporters.

Unfortunately, happy, sane people are the hardest to mobilize. To counter, they need to have the same level of passion about the issue at hand. For example, let’s look at the measles outbreak at Disney earlier this year.

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There has been a rise in the level of engagement by some pro-vaxxers as they witness completely preventable outbreaks returning, but it still isn’t enough to drown out the anti-vaxxers.

However, not all of the anti-vaxxer tactics should be replicated. Some are overly aggressive, or borderline illegal. One leader encouraged supporters to stalk a lobbyist who ended up filing police reports. Others harassed pro-vaccine activists at their jobs and tweeted photos of their children. Obviously, these methods are NOT recommended. But the level of organization, emotional message framing, and dedication to the cause is impressive.

Until pro-vaxxers are able to activate the practical, fact-based side and combine it with emotional rhetoric, their opposition will continue to have an edge.