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SXSW Interactive: Lessons From the Texas Abortion Battles

Social media played key role in contentious abortion debate

By Jordan Smith, 1:52PM, Tue. Mar. 11

Opponents of HB 2 wear orange shirts inside the Capitol as Wendy Davis' June 2013 filibuster continued. Social media played a critical role in rallying advocates on both sides of the issue
Opponents of HB 2 wear orange shirts inside the Capitol as Wendy Davis' June 2013 filibuster continued. Social media played a critical role in rallying advocates on both sides of the issue
Photo by Jana Birchum

Social media can be a great equalizer – and a bit of a menace.

That was among the themes to emerge from a Tuesday morning SXSW Interactive panel on the "lessons learned" from last year's historic battle that culminated in the passage by Texas lawmakers of House Bill 2, the omnibus abortion regulations bill that has, so far, led to the closure of more than a third of the state's abortion providers – including every provider in the Rio Grande Valley.

The story, which included state Sen. Wendy Davis' filibuster, spread across the country, primarily thanks to the power of technology and social media services such as Twitter, said the panelists – including Texas Right to Life lobbyist Emily Horne, Rise Up Texas organizer Rocio Villalobos, and journalists Forrest Wilder of the Texas Observer and Sonia Smith of Texas Monthly.

Social media played a huge role not only in disseminating details of the story as it unfolded, but also helped greatly the efforts of advocates on either side of the issue to organize their supporters, who descended en masse on the Capitol over a several-week period last summer. Social media made civic engagement more accessible, said Villalobos, in part by making information sharing "more horizontal."

But the same tools also presented challenges, particularly when used to spread rumor – think of the infamous allegation from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, that opponents of HB 2 had brought to the Capitol feces in jars, proof of which no one was ever able to find – or errors. Indeed, shortly after Republican lawmakers successfully shut down Davis' filibuster efforts, the Associated Press tweeted that the abortion bill had passed; in fact, that did not happen and instead the fight was rolled over into another special-called session. The lesson, agreed Smith and Wilder, is that social media is not a substitute for traditional reporting. "Source your tweets and be thoughtful," Smith said. Wilder agreed: "trust," he said, "but verify."

Ultimately, the panelists agreed that technology and social media played a critical role in the narrative of the Texas abortion debate, and will continue to play a leading role at the Texas Capitol in future legislative sessions and on a variety of issues. "I think that's the new normal," Horne said.

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