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How One Women's Rights Group Is Betting On Facebook in 2013

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Wednesday, December 19 2012

Unless you’re a woman who’s experienced reproductive health issues, you’d probably never heard of the term “transvaginal ultrasound” until last February, when Virginia’s lawmakers considered enacting a rule that would have made them mandatory for women who had decided to terminate their pregnancies.

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart made the most of the invasive procedure's every detail, and the whole controversy flashed onto the national consciousness for a brief moment as Democrats ridiculed Virginia Republicans. Yet Virginia enacted an amended form last March, becoming, women's health advocates say, another in a long-running series of actions at the state level designed to curtail women's access to health care.

“We’ve seen that since the start of 2011, state lawmakers have introduced nearly 1,400 restrictions on reproductive healthcare, and so far, they’ve enacted almost 200 of those restrictions,” says Gretchen Borchelt, the National Women’s Law Center’s senior counsel and its director of state reproductive health policy.

While a dwindling stock of statehouse reporters cover state lawmakers for their local audiences, the aggregate story seems to have been too widely distributed to become a recurring theme for national news. It's exactly the kind of problem a tech-savvy advocacy group might go online to tackle, and that's what NWLC has done. In September, the organization launched a social media campaign aimed at women between 18 and 35 years old. By drawing their signatures to petitions and letters to lawmakers, Borchelt hopes to build a new network of advocates to counter what NWLC views as the death of sound women's health policy by a thousand cuts.

After four months, the campaign has built an email list of about 133,000 members and appears to be gaining traction on social media. Taking a page from Obama for America's playbook, they hope they'll be able to reach a target audience on the Internet that is becoming increasingly hard to find on other media. So far, the results of the campaign aren't definitive, but the NWLC is clear on what's at stake.

“They’re not just going after abortion,” Borchelt says. “They’ve been going after contraception, they’ve been going after providing students with comprehensive sexuality education.”

Research tracking the state legislative developments by the Guttmacher Institute (a non-profit policy research group that’s a spin-off of Planned Parenthood) reports that in the first three months of 2012 alone, lawmakers in 45 states introduced 944 provisions related to reproductive health care. Half of those were designed to restrict access to abortions. The focus of the measures range from requiring women getting abortions to undergo ultrasounds, to limiting access to medical abortions via telemedicine sessions. Some legislatures also considered allowing employers to refuse providing their employees with insurance covering some forms of contraception.

To confront what Borchelt describes as a newly aggressive group of opponents, the NWLC, which was founded in 1972, is adopting new tactics. Where it has traditionally worked in coalitions and state-level groups to influence legislative agendas, its new campaign, branded "This is Personal," appeals directly to women between the ages of 18 and 35 through outreach on Facebook and Twitter.

To jumpstart the campaign in September, NWLC sponsored petitions on Change.org and Care2 that have since expired. The group is also trying to build its list through Upworthy, the viral content business. Users coming to Upworthy are asked about certain reproductive rights issues, and if they answer to NWLC's liking, they're given the chance to join the "This is Personal" campaign's email list.

The campaign tries to appeal to its Facebook audience by using big graphics on its Facebook page to bring attention to an issue. Last week, for example, the NWLC published an alert on Facebook with a graphic of a state capitol with a yellow banner with the caption “The Michigan legislature is trying to pass bills that are dangerous and potentially deadly for women.” Clicking through sends readers to a short NLWC page on the law at issue, which was passed Friday in a late-night lame-duck session, and offers the chance to send a letter to lawmakers. A revised version Monday sought to drum up letters to Gov. Rick Snyder, urging the Republican to veto the legislation.

Monday’s post, for example, was liked by 551 people and received 246 comments. In contrast, a graphic last week related to the same legislation was shared by 4,100 people and liked by 2,000. Michael Connery, a digital communications consultant who developed the social media strategy with Borchelt, says that 30 percent of NWLC's target audience sees its posts every day "organically," but NWLC sponsors stories on Facebook to ensure that up to 70 percent of its target audience sees its posts. All of this is designed to build up an activist base for 2013 and the later legislative fights that are surely to come. So far the "This is Personal" campaign has more than 250,000 likes.

It’s probably too early to say how effective the This is Personal is right now, but the NWLC’s approach is on the right track, says Linda Gordon, a professor of history at New York University and the author of “Woman’s Body, Woman’s Rights,” a history of the ongoing cultural fights over reproductive rights in the United States.

That’s because many women in the campaign's target age group aren’t reachable in any other context, often don’t vote, don’t follow the news closely and tend to have lower-than-average incomes, she said.

The NWLC also took the time and spent the money to conduct two focus groups and a national survey to help it figure out how best to reach to that group. At least anecdotally, it seems to be working.

Tish K. Park, a 47-year-old stay-at-home mom in Houston, Texas, says sharing posts from "This is Personal" is the first thing she’s done that could be called activism. She doesn’t consider herself a feminist, saying that she didn't identify with the stereotype of the angry feminists of the Eighties.

She feels more engaged with the issues through Facebook, says, because there the people in the conversation are women talking directly to other women -- as opposed to the seemingly academic political issues presented to her via news articles or television broadcasts.

“I really liked the way [This is Personal] explained things, and I felt that they just talked about the issues – they didn’t rant, and they gave me a way to do something about it,” she said in a phone interview.

I asked her how she used to engage with the news and issues of the moment before the emergence of Facebook.

"I [used to] watch the Today Show and Oprah," she said. "I think Oprah brought up a lot of women's issues -- I watched her for 20 years, but I just didn't think the majority of the news was speaking to me. Facebook just opened up a whole new world."

As to whether the campaign's ability to strike a chord will translate into meaningful action, that remains to be seen. For now, the abortion-related legislation in Michigan is headed to Governor Snyder's desk and is expected to be signed into law.

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