The mainstream media was primarily offline when some of the most significant examples of recent grassroots activism, both online and in the Texas Capitol Building, took place around Wendy Davis’s bold filibuster of SB5, a restrictive abortion bill that if passed, would close all but five abortion clinics in the state of Texas.
In the days immediately following the filibuster, many mainstream reports misrepresented the details surrounding this effort to stop this bill. Their framing of this issue has serious consequences to how people understand statewide battles to ensure women’s access to reproductive health and progressive activism. Below are just a few of the most egregious examples from this past week.
1. The Washington Post story that claimed the Wendy Davis “tweetstorm” was planned in advance
In incorrectly framing internet activism in this manner, the author makes an incorrect assumption about the nature of activist engagement. Although feminist organizers have long created hashtags to discuss political issues, they have no means of predicting how many people will engage with a particular topic. Another recently successful feminist campaign, Women, Action, and the Media’s #FBrape campaign, was also technically “planned in advance” in that organizers were intentional about creating hashtags and e-mail forms to target organizations that advertised on Facebook, but the organizers had no way of predicting how many people would ultimately take advertisers to task.
Similarly, while Ms. magazine called for feminist activists to tweet their disapproval to Texas Governor Rick Perry’s decision to call a 30-day legislative session to force through the abortion restrictions using the hashtag #PissedAtPerry, the hashtag didn’t trend to the extent that #SB5 or #StandWithWendy did; averaging out at over 6,000 mentions. (In comparison, the hashtags #SB5, and #StandWithWendy averaged out at almost 500,000 mentions this past Tuesday.) Texas-based feminist activist Jessica Luther, who organized efforts both on the ground and online, was vocal about the cynicism of the WaPo piece, tweeting Thursday that she never expected Barack Obama to tweet about the Davis filibuster, or for over 100,000 people to watch the Texas Tribune’s livestream of the filibuster.
2. The New York Times' sexism fail
The New York Times’ coverage of the Texas filibuster was replete with problems, not least among them was that in the original piece that went up on the site, Davis was described as a “petite” Senator, with her name being buried until much later in the piece. Thanks to pressure from activists and media accountability organizations, the Times made substantial revisions to their original piece.
3. The AP tweet stating SB5 passed when it didn’t
Shortly after midnight CT on Wednesday, the Associated Press tweeted that SB5 had passed, even though during that time, there were several conflicting accounts about what had happened or if the after-midnight vote counted. While activists watching the issue used the Senate website as evidence to prove that the legislative session expired before the vote was taken, the site was later falsified to make it appear as though it had passed. (And, Twitter being Twitter, parody accounts flourished in wake of this controversy.) As an established and reputable source of information, the AP has a responsibility to substantiate information before posting it to social media.
4. (Dis)honorable mention: The Daily Beast
Although Wendy Davis’s pink sneakers have become an iconic visual on the internet, conveying her dedication to both her constituents and Texas women (and, in turn, inspiring some noteworthy reviews on Amazon), including them on a best/worst dressed list? Really?
Overwhelmingly, independent media gave the public accurate information on this issue. The Texas Tribune, which in addition to providing a livestream, also liveblogged the filibuster, and alternative media focusing specifically on reproductive health (RH Reality Check as a notable example) helped in providing additional context. As someone who watched these hashtags intently and tweeted along with others on Tuesday, I found social justice writers and activists on Twitter to be indispensable in providing me with context to understand what I was watching and to help spread what information we could.
The blatant mischaracterizations of what happened on Tuesday, bolstered by the right and the mainstream media, belie a dangerous tendency to equalize the anti-science arguments and resources available to those in power who are forcing through legislation the majority of Texans feel is unnecessary and have controlled the discourses and terminology under which we discuss abortion at all, with activists who are largely working on the defensive.