Oba­macare site looks big on grass roots, but much is the work of a few

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY KELLY RID­DELL

Americans be­gan head­ing anew this week­end to Pres­i­dent Obama’s of­fi­cial Oba­macare Face­book page to gather in­for­ma­tion on the new round of health care en­roll­ment, share their ex­pe­ri­ences shop­ping for in­surance on the fed­eral ex­change and voice their opin­ions on the pres­i­dent’s sig­na­ture do­mes­tic achieve­ment.

How­ever, what some would view as a ro­bust mar­ket­place of ideas is ac­tu­ally con­trolled by just a few, an anal­y­sis of the Web page shows.

Sixty per­cent of the site’s 226,838 com­ments gen­er­ated from Septem­ber 2012 to early last month can be at­trib­uted to fewer than 100 unique pro­files, ac­cord­ing to an anal­y­sis com­pleted by The Wash­ing­ton Times with as­sis­tance from an out­side data an­a­lyt­ics team. Many of those pro­files be­long to just one per­son who cre­ated mul­ti­ple aliases or per­sonas to widen her in­flu­ence and mul­ti­ply her voice.

Cindi Huynh, an Oba­macare sup­porter in Cal­i­for­nia, posted on av­er­age 59 times a day on the site in 60 days, mak­ing her the No. 1 poster in that pe­riod. She posted only dur­ing work hours — as is the trend of the top 25 posters on the site — and never on week­ends.

Over the past two years, Ms. Huynh has been a pro­lific poster — rank­ing twice in the top 25 pro­files con­tribut­ing to the site — once un­der the name “Cindi Huynh” and again as “Cyndi Huynh Vel­lucci.”

Ms. Huynh has had at least four Face­book pro­files, she con­firmed.

Ms. Huynh told The Times that she has never been paid for her posts but has vol­un­teered for the Cal­i­for­nia Demo­cratic Party and was ap­proached to be­come an Oba­macare pa­tient ad­vo­cate. She said she was too busy to con­trib­ute in that way and felt she could bet­ter spread the mes­sage on­line. She has a full-time job but has de­clined to name her em­ployer.

Co­pi­ous posters on the Oba­macare site, like Ms. Huynh, were not all so eas­ily iden­ti­fi­able. Once The Times made known it was con­duct­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the au­di­ence on the site, at least three pro-Oba­macare com­men­ta­tors dis­ap­peared or de­ac­ti­vated their ac­counts.

Wanda Mil­ner has posted 4,695 times in the en­tire time­line eval­u­ated, putting her in the top 25 com­men­ta­tors. Ms. Mil­ner, who is from Canada, told The Times she was pas­sion­ate about the is­sue and de­cided to get ac­tive about it. She de­nied hav­ing any aliases or be­ing paid for her ac­tions, but said fake pages were cre­ated to mock her. She has “liked” many of Ms. Huynh’s com­ments as well as those of other pro-Oba­macare posters.

Paul J. Nun­ley is an an­tiOba­macare poster who made 2,316 posts in 60 days, rank­ing only be­hind Ms. Huynh. A re­tired veteran from New Mex­ico, Mr. Nun­ley said he ded­i­cates his full time to the site to try to “rid it of mis­in­for­ma­tion.” In the process of do­ing so, he has made friends with Ms. Huynh and other top posters, and has en­gaged in on­line fight­ing, lead­ing to mul­ti­ple time­outs of his pro­file.

Eileen A. Wolf, from North Dakota, posted 5,870 times in the en­tire pe­riod eval­u­ated and 325 times in 60 days. She also used the ac­count of her hus­band, James Wolf, to post pro­lif­i­cally un­der his name, Mr. Wolf said.

The of­fi­cial Oba­macare page is con­trolled by Or­ga­niz­ing for Ac­tion, the pres­i­dent’s for­mer po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tee and now a non­profit group. It has more than 771,000 Face­book “likes” and is up­dated ev­ery day with a new link pro­mot­ing the pol­icy.

The more likes, links, con­tent and com­ments gen­er­ated off the site move it higher in the list of Google searches, mean­ing the very few who are post­ing on the site ob­ses­sively are able to drive it as a top re­turn in another per­son’s Google search — no mat­ter the ide­o­log­i­cal tilt of the com­ments.

Or­ga­niz­ing for Ac­tion de­clined to com­ment to The Times when asked whether it hired paid com­men­ta­tors to post on the site dur­ing high-traf­fic days or tried to spur on­line con­ver­sa­tion through vol­un­teers.

Or­ga­niz­ing for Ac­tion also han­dles the pres­i­dent’s Twit­ter feed. This sum­mer, it was found that nearly half of the pres­i­dent’s 43 mil­lion fol­low­ers at the time ap­peared to be fake, ac­cord­ing to re­searchers at Bar­racuda, a com­puter se­cu­rity company in Camp­bell, Cal­i­for­nia. Or­ga­niz­ing for Ac­tion also de­clined to com­ment at that time.

Or­ga­niz­ing for Ac­tion em­ploys Blue State Dig­i­tal, the dig­i­tal pub­lic re­la­tions mas­ter­mind be­hind Mr. Obama’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary on­line cam­paign, both in 2008 and 2012, ac­cord­ing to Blue State Dig­i­tal’s web­site. The firm is cited by its peers as a leader in us­ing dig­i­tal tools to cre­ate both a per­sua­sive and in­for­ma­tive on­line fo­rum.

It was Blue State Dig­i­tal that in­vented an on­line tool for users to or­ga­nize a cam­paign event in their home­towns and then watch their Web “ther­mome­ter” rise as their con­tacts in­creased. Once somebody in the so­cial me­dia world sent their email ad­dress to the or­ga­ni­za­tion, in­flu­en­tial peo­ple such as first lady Michelle Obama would re­spond back, re­lay­ing the pres­i­dent’s talk­ing points for that week.

With Blue State’s help, the Obama cam­paign in 2008 col­lected the email ad­dresses of 13 mil­lion sup­port­ers and or­ga­nized them into lists, seg­ment­ing them by so­cial net­works, con­tri­bu­tions and fa­vored is­sues, ac­cord­ing to a Bos­ton Globe pro­file writ­ten about the firm shortly after Mr. Obama’s first win­ning pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

Blue State Dig­i­tal, which is based in Bos­ton, de­clined to com­ment for this ar­ti­cle.

With Face­book’s 1.23 bil­lion monthly users and Twit­ter’s more than 240 mil­lion, a cam­paign or po­lit­i­cal point of view can reach mil­lions in­stantly and the trends on so­cial me­dia of­ten be­come seg­ments on the nightly news.

E.J. Dionne told his read­ers at The Wash­ing­ton Post dur­ing the 2012 pres­i­den­tial contest to watch their Twit­ter feeds to get an un­fet­tered view of who won the sec­ond de­bate.

How­ever, so­cial me­dia is any­thing but un­fet­tered. It can be lever­aged to spread ru­mors, un­der­cut the op­po­si­tion or cre­ate a false sense of pub­lic pres­sure, com­puter an­a­lysts and pub­lic re­la­tions rep­re­sen­ta­tives say.

“There have been smear cam­paigns since Adams and Jefferson in the early 1800s and we’re see­ing the same thing here, with just a new set of tools,” said Richard Le­vick, chair­man and chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of Le­vick, a pub­lic re­la­tions and strate­gic com­mu­ni­ca­tions firm in Wash­ing­ton.

“Where do un­de­cided vot­ers, jour­nal­ists go to get their in­for­ma­tion? Google. So con­trol­ling the search en­gine is hugely im­por­tant. We need to know who is our au­di­ence, how do we reach them, how do we en­gage them, and then, how do we con­trol the ter­ri­tory?” he said.

Sixty per­cent of the 226,838 com­ments from Septem­ber 2012 to early last month posted to the Oba­macare Face­book site ad­min­is­tered by Or­ga­niz­ing for Ac­tion can be at­trib­uted to fewer than 100 unique pro­files.

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