It doesn't take that many people to steal a hashtag. A dozen or so independent tweeters pushing an alternative message on someone else's campaign hashtag can dramatically shift the sentiment of a conversation in a matter of minutes. A sustained effort can effectively deny a campaign of its ability to use its hashtag to promote its message.
The first time I tried a denial of hashtag campaign it was the summer of 2010. I got wind that the Republican Steering Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives was having a "Twitter Day." Several House Republicans signed up to use the #RSC hashtag to tweet their commitments to the American people.
I quickly sent out a few emails to some lists I belong to asking folks to jump on the hashtag to tweet questions, challenges and alternative commitments to the Republican Representatives participating in the Twitter Day. I also tweeted out a calls to action and a few questions, challenges and alternative commitments of my own. Very quickly, we were able to take control of the conversation.
One of my favorite examples of challenging questions emerged without my suggesting it (thanks to my mobilizing a group of very smart people). Several Republican Representatives tweeted that they would never let the government get between a doctor and his/her patient. Each time, within a minute or so, 60-100 progressives replied to that Member asking if their commitment included keeping government from getting in between a woman and her doctor when it came to the right to choose. Classic.
This was, as I mentioned, my first effort to deny a hashtag to an opposing campaign. As you might imagine, it wasn't perfect. The next day, several media outlets ran the story about the RSC's Twitter Day. But instead of recounting the story of how progressives hijacked the hashtag, they ran (either verbatim or paraphrased) the press release from the Republican Steering Committee declaring the event to be a great success based on the number of Representatives that participated. They never bothered to check the hashtag timeline to see the full scope of the discussion.
So, the key lesson here is that if you are going to launch a Denial of Hashtag campaign, be sure to alert the press at the beginning of the campaign. Provide them with a link to the hashtag timeline so they can see the conversation unfold. Then follow up by sending them a press release with stats on the results (SocialMention.com offers a free sentiment analysis of hashtags if you don't have a premium service).
Social Advocacy & Politics is a weekly, exclusive column for Social Media Today by Alan Rosenblatt that explores the intersection of politics and social media. Look for the next installment next Tuesday morning.