Back in 2010, I developed a strategy for seizing other campaigns' hashtags called "Denial of Hashtag" or DoH! The idea behind the Denial of Hashtag tactic is to flood someone else's hashtag timeline with counter messaging to either shift the conversation in your direction or to simply shutdown their hashtag campaign. The other day I discovered a brilliant example of this tactic implemented by the Communications Director at Americans for Tax Fairness (@HarryGural).
I sat down with Harry to discuss his successful effort to shut down the corporate backed RATE Coalition's hashtag campaign regarding corporate tax rates. The RATE Coalition launched an effort to get #WorstRate trending as means to highlight its opposition to the 35% top corporate tax rate in the United States. Harry countered with #NobodyPaysThat. Here is what transpired:
Alan Rosenblatt: How did you find out about the RATE Coalition's #WorstRate campaign?
Harry Gural: Last Tuesday (April 1, 2014), Politico's financial tip sheet Morning Money ran a short piece that caught my attention:
The corporate backed RATE Coalition today is planning to mark what it calls "the two-year anniversary of the US having the world's top corporate tax rate" with a Twitter campaign under the hashtag #WorstRate.
AR: What was your reaction to the announcement of the RATE Coalitions hashtag campaign?
HG: As the communications director for Americans for Tax Fairness, a non-profit coalition of more than 400 state and national organizations that advocates for a more equitable tax system, I was amused but also upset that the RATE Coalition would get attention for the launch of a hashtag. But I also saw it as a huge opportunity. Because Politico had promoted the hashtag of a corporate-backed coalition, it was likely that if I asked in the right way it might mention an opposing hash tag from our coalition in its email blast the next morning. Morning Money has over 40,000 readers and its author @MorningMoneyBen has over 24,000 Twitter followers, so if we could launch our own hashtag and convince Politico to write about it we could draw a lot of attention to our perspective of the issue.
AR: How did you come up with your counter hashtag #NobodyPaysThat?
HG: This would be another skirmish in our organization's ongoing battle with corporate front groups that are trying to reduce the federal income tax rate on corporations. To make their argument, these corporate front groups are trying to focus the debate on the top corporate income tax rate - 35% - which they say is the #WorstRate in the world. But the effective corporate income tax rate is often much lower because corporations use loopholes and offshore tax havens to dramatically reduce what they actually pay.
The RATE Coalition chose #WorstRate because it wants to attention away from what corporations actually pay and instead to focus on what they are supposed to pay. The choice of a hashtag isn't academic - in this case it's at the very center of the debate.
#WorstRate is effective messaging but it is also highly misleading and thus subject to attack. A recent study by Citizens for Tax Justice found that 111 profitable Fortune 500 corporations paid absolutely nothing in federal income taxes in at least one of the years between 2008 and 2012. And it found that 26 profitable Fortune 500 corporations requested a net refund over that entire period.
In other words, some large U.S. corporations pay less in federal income taxes than a single average American family. If people understood that simple fact, the debate would shift from the top rate corporations are supposed to pay to the effective rate that they actually do pay.
Our first strategy for response was to invade our opponents' hashtag by tweeting links to compelling information that undermines their central claim. But I realized from the beginning that this would be even more effective if we could launch a counter-tag that carries our message. One of the best resources on corporate taxes is Pulitzer-prize winning series of stories in the New York Times titled "But Nobody Pays That." The conclusion is exactly what is implied - that many large corporations don't pay the top corporate tax rate. One of the best stories in the series is "G.E.'s Strategies Let It Avoid Taxes Altogether."
I considered launching #ButNobodyPaysThat, but I know from past experience that I'm often pressed right against the 140 character limit for a tweet. So I settled on #NobodyPaysThat and posted this:
AR: How did you leverage content from other sources to bolster your #NobodyPaysThat campaign?
(AR Note: I would have suggested Harry retweeted the above tweet manually, adding the #NobodyPaysThat hashtag.)
I followed my first tweet with another citing the excellent New York Times story. Again, I tried to both step on the opposing hashtag and to establish one that tells the real story:
This would give even die hard Tea Partiers something to think long and hard about. The simple fact that a multi-billion corporation like General Electric can avoid paying anything at all is an affront to most people's sense of fair play.
AR: What was the response from the RATE Coalition?
HG: The @RATECoalition was slow to respond at first, posting four more tweets to #WorstRate over the next hour. I was surprised that they would continue to engage in what would now be for them a losing battle. So I decided to engage them directly:
Still nothing from the @RATECoalition so I decided to push further:
Approximately an hour after my first tweet the promoters of #WorstRate had gone dark. Then things got even better. The @FACTCoalition, which has been a leader in criticizing the use of offshore tax havens, got into the mix with a string of effective tweets like this one:
AR: So the hook in your tweets pulled in an ally without you have to reach out to them directly? How deep into it di FACT get? Did it continue to use your hashtag?
HG: FACT also introduced a link to another excellent resource - a report released last week by Americans for Tax Fairness that shows that corporations are lobbying hard on a large package of tax breaks being considered in Congress, deploying more than 1,300 lobbyists to Capitol Hill to plead their case. The company that lobbies more aggressively than other corporation or trade association is General Electric - (see the NY Times story "G.E.'s Strategies Let It Avoid Taxes Altogether.") @FACTCoalition wrote this:
AR: Who else got in to help push your hashtag?
HG: @RossWallen of USAction tweeted a reference to the ATF report to his 2,000-plus followers:
Then Ross's organization @US Action, a member of our coalition, re-tweeted to its 4,000 followers an earlier post by @taxjustice:
(AR Note: Another opportunity for Harry and/or Americans for Tax Fairness to retweet and add the #NobodyPaysThat hashtag.)
AR: After hearing Harry's story about his #NobodyPaysThat impromptu campaign, I got very excited and jumped into the fray. Even though it was a few days after Harry initially shut down the RATE Coalition's hashtag campaign, I was able to retweet a few of harry's original tweets and jumpstart the campaign back into action.
Harry had this to say about my jumping in and ultimately engaging a supporter of the RATE Coalition's position:
HG: Finally, the effort to overwhelm #WorstRate went big when @DrDigiPol joined the fray, retweeting some of the central themes to his 40,000 plus followers. He summed up the debate in this trenchant response to a supporter of the #WorstRate meme:
Eventually, the @RATECoalition ventured cautiously back into the debate with 4 tweets following its boilerplate storyline. But at this point their hashtag is severely compromised and it may in fact be becoming a liability to them. We welcome them back to #WorstRate where they will find it tough sledding against some tough arguments and great resources from Americans for Tax Fairness, the FACTCoalition, Citizens for Tax Justice, U.S. Action and U.S. PIRG. They can try all they want to focus the debate on the top corporate tax rates but we've established that among many large and profitable U.S. corporations #NobodyPaysThat.
AR: Harry implemented a Denial of Hashtag campaign to great success. His counter messaging was the Twitter politics equivalent of a shutdown cornerback in football. Once implemented, there was no way for #WorstRate to catch on without exposing the weakness of the RATE Coaltion's position. Not only were there many Fortune 500 companies that paid nowhere near the top corporate tax rate, but through a series of follow-up tweets, Harry was able to single out several of the RATE Coalition's own funding members for being the biggest offenders.
Because Harry was carefully reading the news media, not just on Twitter, but via newsletters and other channels, he caught the Politico story about #WorstRate, came up with an effective counter message and launched an effective Denial of Hashtag campaign on his own. And not only did he shut down the RATE Coalition's hashtag campaign, he got Politico's Morning Money to report on his hashtag the next day.
UPDATE: The #NobodyPaysThat hashtag has reached more than 317,000 twitter accounts with more than 869,000 impressions. More than 240 tweets have used the hashtag,