They Said, We Said: Social Media’s Orchestrated War of Words over Equine Welfare

Advocates and Critics Use Facebook and Twitter Tools for Unified Messaging on Racing, Soring, Carriage Horse Hot-Button Issues

“Can they?”

When a disastrous public relations event smeared an organization, breed or sport in the past, the prescribed course of action was to circle the wagons, call in the public relations pros, and begin a carefully-plotted course of damage control. 

These days, we turn to social media. 

Let the phenomenon of social shouting commence: Fox News has nothing on horsepeople whose reputations, livelihoods and beloved animals are at stake. 

On Thursday, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) released a damning indictment of the treatment of Thoroughbred racehorses via an undercover video filmed by a groom working for one of America’s top trainers. 

Some people heard about it as they drank their coffee and perused the pages of that mightiest of traditional news sources, the New York Times. But most peered into their smart phones and saw it on Twitter or Facebook. 

No matter how, where or when they viewed it, jaws dropped.

For a day or two, racing’s faithful reeled, as they watched two of America’s most successful racehorse conditioners in the sordid frames of incriminating video evidence. The sky darkened with each horse, each callous comment, each blast of profanity.

The training team that brought us Horse of the Year icons like Curlin and Rachel Alexandr was in the crosshairs of an investigation that promises to equal the Tennessee Walking horse sting operation that set Congress’s teeth on edge enough to pursue stiffer federal legislation.

To add insult to injury, PETA and its supporters even punctuated their tweets with the hijacked hashtag #horseracing, normally used for people following the sport. 

How would the racing faithful fight back? Some attacked PETA on Twitter, blogs and Facebook and called the organization names. Others reviewed the related lawsuits that PETA has filed in Kentucky and New York and knew that was futile. 

The Jockey Club issued a press release before most people had even seen the video. Thought leaders like Gretchen Jackson, owner of Barbaro, and Bill Casner, owner and breeder of many top stakes horses, penned eloquent responses and calls to action in the pdf pages and mobile screens of Thoroughbred Daily News.

But social media offers everyone a platform and a megaphone to reach their followers and “friends”. Over the weekend, the Twitter hashtag #FullStoryPETA was born and went visually viral as owners, trainers, grooms, hot walkers, jockeys, exercise riders, journalists and fans launched a counter-offensive of love–in jpeg format–as a counter-offense. 

On Saturday, the @notscottblasi twitter account was born, as dark humor found a place to ridicule and insult one of the accused.

On Saturday afternoon, the Daily Racing Form announced that the assistant trainer was fired.

By Monday morning, the photos were still coming in; more than 1100 Twitter images populated #fullstoryPETA–mostly hugging and kissing and otherwise showing the warmer side of the human-horse bond as it manifests itself in so many shed rows at racetracks across the United States.

Celebrities like Bo Derek joined in. Breeders Cup winner Mucho Macho Man cuddled with trainer Kathy Ritvo. Calvin Borel was shown in full-body hug and owner Ahmed Zayat, who announced today that he would remove all his horses from the Asmussen stable, is in the mix, too.

Horses we have never heard of and never will were shown being kissed by babies. By Sunday night, HRTV’s Molly McGill had compiled hundreds of #fullstoryPETA images into the YouTube video posted below and the Blood-Horse‘s Claire Novak was cheering her on.

Those hundreds of loving images trumped the ugliness shown in the video in fine style and, at the same time, crystallized a diverse cultural, economic and ethnic tribe into an army ready to defend themselves, their sport, and their horses.

For anyone watching social media in the horse world closely, PETA vs racing’s faithful was only the beginning of a hyperactive weekend.

Enter Thunderclap

Thunderclap has been around for a while. It is a social media tool that makes some people run the other way, just as it attracts others like moths to a flame.

Anyone with a cause, a campaign or even just something to publicize can sign up for a Thunderclap social-blitz. The idea is to encourage your advocates to pledge to your cause, and on a given day at a given time, Thunderclap issues a flood of Tweets and Facebook updates to all the followers of all those who signed up.

By joining a Thunderclap for a cause you support, you allow Thunderclap to take over your social media accounts and issue messages on your behalf.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) decided that today was a ripe moment for a Thunderclap to hit US social media. The goal: motivate people to contact their Congressional delegations and push for HR 1518, the so-called PAST Act, or Whitfield-Cohen amendment, to stiffen up the administration of the American Horse Protection Act. 

Among the items specified in the PAST Act is the outlawing of stacks of pads and “action devices” on Tennessee Walking horses.

No sooner had HSUS launched its appeal for people to sign up to support today’s Thunderclap than supporters of the rival legislation,Tennessee Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn’s HR 4098 (“Scientific Methods to Protect Our Horses”) launched a counter-clap.

By the time the Thunderclaps were to go live this afternoon, HSUS had gathered commitment from 464 supporters, representing 170,600 followers who would receive messages encouraging them to support the PAST Act.

Not to be outdone, Blackburn’s grassroots Walking horse faithful numbered 519 with a total following of 288,164 recipients.

Of interest is that the Walking horse supporters did not urge support for Blackburn’s legislation; they chose instead to smear the PAST Act with the suggestion that the reality of enforcing that law would require horses to compete without horseshoes.

The language of what shoes would be allowed is vaguely stated in the PAST Act, in spite of a letter from Representative Whitfield in the fall, which did little to clarify how the law would be interpreted. Specifics of legal shoes would be determined after the fact by the US Department of Agriculture when and if the legislation passes. Read more about the horseshoe section of the PAST Act here.

Blackburn’s supporters also spent the weekend contacting farrier and hoof-related organizations, intimating the coming ban on horseshoes if the PAST Act becomes law.

Does Thunderclap work? The website documents eight causes in the horse world that have used the tool to broadcast their messages. Wild horses, horse slaughter, New York carriage horses, and now soring legislation have been put forward to over 1.6 million people using the tool.

This weekend’s Tennessee walking horse grassroots campaign has been, by far, the most successful horse-related campaign on Thunderclap, followed by the New York carriage horses.

The Jurga Report turned to carriage horse advocate and broadcast media marketing professional Sarah Chase for her experience.

She responded with an analysis for her numbers.

“Ultimately, (Thunderclap) helped us reach 227,477 people with our message. The primary reach was via Twitter, but it led to a surge of about 300 new Facebook Page LIKES for once it went live. 

“Initially, we weren’t sure how effective it would be, so we set the bar a little too low, (by) giving it too much time to run and choosing a ‘moderate’ reach of just 250. However, we nearly doubled the number to 496 supporters in a relatively short time, which was fabulous news for everyone!”

One of the Twitter campaigns defending the carriage horses was hijacked at the appointed hour by a perfectly-timed counter-campaign of a flurry of anti-carriage tweets by PETA.

Social media was “invented” to bring people together; we were promised that it would create a giant living room for friends and families to easily exchange news, photos and video. What it is becoming is a battleground where seasoned marketers and influencers jockey for public opinion and not just for our support or donations but our commitment to the cause.

The shouting may be so loud that we can’t even hear the messages anymore. Twitter, Facebook and countless online forums have become the new manifestation of Monty Python’s famous “Argument Clinic”. Feel the need to argue? Just go online, someone will be glad to argue back.

It takes a PETA video of the magnitude of what just hit horseracing, or the prospect of legislation that may or may not ultimately protect our horses for us to shout “Stop!” and do some old-fashioned research and in-depth reading to find out what’s really going on.

To learn more:

Read a free excerpt from The Argument Culture: Moving From Debate to Dialogue by Deborah Tannen.




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