#StandForAdvocacy: How social media helped Wendy Davis in the fight for reproductive justice

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When Wendy Davis planted her feet on the floor of the Texas Capitol to deliver an 11-hour filibuster of a bill that would have closed most of the state's abortion clinics, she wasn't standing there alone.

As a widely circulated Twitter hashtag indicates, thousands stood with her. And that's the beauty of social media: Armed with it, everyone from politicians to public health advocates to ordinary citizens can speak out against draconian legislation like Senate Bill 5 (SB-5) and demand something better.

In this case, advocates used social media to push a sorely needed conversation about reproductive justice into the spotlight and expose the chilling implications of SB-5, one of 300 new bills proposed nationwide this year to tighten abortion regulations. If passed, SB-5 would leave Texas women with very little access to services that give them control over their fertility and, in essence, their lives. The bill would particularly impact women who do not live close to the big cities where those five remaining clinics would stay open. Many women living in the geographically humongous state would need to drive hundreds of miles just to reach one.

The social media buzz surrounding the bill quickly spurred a full-blown Internet meme, turning what might have remained a matter of Texas politics into an issue the whole country was watching. What's more, it provided real-time news coverage where -- at least initially -- almost none existed. Prior to the filibuster, the mainstream media told us very little about SB-5 and its implications for women's health and autonomy. Instead, it was Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and blogs that provided a platform for advocates to learn about the filibuster and later drove mainstream coverage of the bill.

But advocates should take note of the social media stage for another reason: It did more than raise awareness -- it's what propelled the filibuster to success. Wendy Davis and her team were strategic in rallying support for the filibuster using social media. Days before the filibuster, advocates used Facebook to organize rides for supporters to attend the special session, and they wrote blogs to encourage allies to alert their local and national media outlets of the filibuster (most mainstream media outlets didn't catch on until the following day.)

Testimonies of the women who would be the most affected by the bill (which Davis read during her marathon filibuster) were uploaded to her website. And the Texas Tribune, one of few mainstream outlets carrying early coverage of the filibuster, live streamed the event on YouTube, allowing close to 170,000 people to tune in from afar.

Advocates also used Twitter to bolster support and tweet throughout the live session. The trending tweet #StandWithWendy was the number one tweet in the world minutes before the midnight deadline for the vote of SB-5. Even President Obama supported Davis' cause by tweeting #StandWithWendy and using his own political power to advocate against the bill.

Yet, in spite of Davis stalling the special session for an impressive 11 hours, because of a few infractions she received (for having a colleague help her adjust the back brace she was wearing and for making a couple of comments that fellow legislators deemed off topic), her filibuster ended with enough time for a vote. It was only because other senators and hundreds of spectators -- previously galvanized on social media and now crowded onto the Senate floor -- rallied in support of Davis that the session remained stalled and the bill was finally halted.

A week later, Davis' following on Twitter has grown from just 1,200 the night before the filibuster to more than 127,000 followers. Her social media celebrity has catapulted her into the spotlight, which will undoubtedly be important as the fight against SB-5 continues.

The social media efforts surrounding Davis' filibuster have not only changed the landscape of the conversation around the bill, but have also become an example of the powerful voice that social media can give the public, without needing to use mainstream media outlets. With little help from broadcast television or newspapers, the advocates fighting against these stringent abortion regulations instantly expanded their support networks and flooded the web with their opposition to the bill.

And now, with a second special session covering abortion legislation underway in Texas, social media continues to keep advocates and the state's women informed and armed with tools to amplify their voices. Though it's unlikely that Republicans will risk another filibuster success by scheduling SB-5 to be reintroduced on the last day of the special session, the support for reproductive justice in Texas by social media users cannot be ignored. Those who want to follow and support the fight against SB-5 have plenty of virtual options to make their voices go viral.

UPDATE: The abortion bill that Sen. Wendy Davis fought to block passed the Texas Legislature Friday, July 12 -- less than a month after Davis' filibuster.


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