Social Media Makes Texas Politics a National Affair

BY Allie Morris  June 26, 2013 at 6:41 PM EST

Wendy Davis

State Sen. Wendy Davis holds up two fingers against the anti-abortion bill SB5, which was up for a vote on the last day of the legislative special session in Austin, Texas. Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images.

Last night, @heatherr_parker was one of many Twitter users upset at how Texas State Senator Wendy Davis’ marathon filibuster was progressing. The rules governing the process mandate that a senator remain standing and stay on topic. So when Republicans and Democrats began arguing over whether or not Davis violated the regulations, Twitter user Heather Parker began digging.

Finding the rules online, Parker, a D.C.-based attorney and reproductive health activist who followed the filibuster via livestream, scoured rule 4.03 of the Senate Rules and discovered something she thought could help Davis. She tweeted it out, hoping someone might see. It was quickly retweeted and retweeted, until there were over 400 retweets.

Parker was one of thousands across the country following Davis’ nearly 11-hour filibuster that sought to block a bill that would ban abortions in Texas past 20 weeks of pregnancy and require abortion clinics to become licensed as ambulatory surgery centers. Tools like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube expanded the debate outside the Senate Chamber, allowing people to not only watch the proceedings but also to participate. It demonstrated the growing power and speed of technology and how it could even impact the political process.

The Texas Tribune was one site that offered a livestream, which, at its highest traffic point (12:03 a.m.), attracted 183,175 viewers.

“It was fascinating as a viewer watching the livestream to see a tweet from a senator commenting on what you are watching at that second,” said Rodney Gibbs, chief innovation officer for the Texas Tribune. “You would hear things in the gallery like disruptions… and immediately you saw senators tweeting about it and people tweeting back at them…It is like watching sports game while getting comments from sports players at the same time.”

The Twitter hashtag #StandWithWendy was a top trend on the social media site and Davis herself amassed more than 80,000 followers over the course of her filibuster. The Texas Tribune Twitter account alone attracted 10,000 new followers over the past few days of coverage.

“To go from 35,000 to 40,000 followers took close to a year and suddenly we went from 42,000-52,000 in a couple days,” said Gibbs. The website’s visitors spanned the country. Austin, Texas, was the number one location of most the Tribune website’s traffic, but at one point yesterday evening New York slipped into the number two spot, said Gibbs. President Barack Obama’s Twitter feed even made mention of the filibuster.

Parker said it was encouragement from people online that helped her send her tweet about rule 4.03. “I was doubting myself a bit at first,” she said. “They said tweet it out and immediately I got retweets… and the more retweets I got the more I thought something needed to be done.”

Parker ultimately ended up calling State Senator Kirk Watson’s office and spoke with a staffer, telling him what she found.

Watson said it wasn’t the only notification he received. “Heather is very representative,” said Watson, whose team was prepared on the rule ahead of time. “The rule you are talking about, we received numerous contacts through social media telling us about that and pointing it out to us.”

Watson said it was great how much information was being shared and the sense of empowerment that created.

“It was amazing to hear from people all over who were following parliamentary procedure, for goodness sake.” Watson also noted that the filibuster would not have been a national event without the help of social media.

“What enhanced the national event through social media was people were actually able to make their own judgements about how things were playing out on the senate floor.”

In addition to being a forum for debate, social media was used as a planning mechanism. On her Twitter feed, Davis encouraged people to send testimony that she could read while filibustering on the floor.

Parker said she saw tweets organizing food delivery for protesters who had taken over the statehouse.

She thinks this isn’t the end for a social media presence in the political sphere. “I actually think it’s going to be huge, people are going to look at Texas as how to engage in these sorts of debates in the future.”

“The world is watching,” said Evan Smith, CEO and editor-in-chief of the Texas Tribune. Five years ago the dynamic would have been different without live streaming and social media, things we now take for granted, he said.

“There is greater accountability now.”