When Texas State Senator Wendy Davis began her 13-hour filibuster against a Texas anti-abortion bill yesterday, none of the major networks was watching. But thanks to a groundswell of support on social media, Davis became not only national news, but also a serious political contender and popular meme, shooting into Twitter’s worldwide trends on Tuesday night and earning more than half a million mentions on the site.
To outside observers, this type of virality probably looks organic, even serendipitous -- and to some extent, that’s true. But it’s also a reflection of the growing social media savviness of politicians and interest groups, who positioned Davis’ marathon speech to go viral.
Texas advocacy groups didn’t make that mistake. In the days before the filibuster, the pro-choice organization NARAL Texas used Facebook to organize rides for supporters who wanted to witness Davis’ speech. Planned Parenthood Texas and a progressive women’s group called Annie’s List live-tweeted from the gallery. A pro-choice blogger compiled a lengthy list of local and national media outlets, politicians and celebrities on Twitter, encouraging people to “make sure your local news station … knows about our action today.” The hashtag #standwithwendy, which racked up 547,000 tweets during the course of Davis’ speech, was actually coined -- and promoted -- by the Texas branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“If you are NOT in Austin and cannot get here, tweet and retweet your support for us,” one local activist wrote on her blog. “The anti-brigade is out in force … Don’t engage them, just tweet your support for what we are doing. Tweet at positive public figures, get us trending and raise the signal for women’s rights. TWEETSTORM them out of business, y’all!
That “tweetstorming” tactic was essentially what pushed Davis, by degrees, into the national spotlight. After five hours, the #standwithwendy hashtag was picked up by the national ACLU and Planned Parenthood, which have a combined 259,000 followers. Less than an hour later, at 5:53 CT, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted her own message of support -- followed one hour later by a tweet from President Obama that was reshared nearly 17,000 times.
From there, the story spread like wildfire among Twitter power-users with a liberal bent. The comedian Rob Delaney, with more than 870,000 followers, tweeted a string of messages supporting Davis, as did Mark Ruffalo, Lena Dunham and Sarah Silverman. By 10:30 p.m., the hashtag #standwithwendy was seeing some 1,500 tweets per minute, and the livestream of her speech attracted nearly 200,000 concurrent viewers.
The rampant popularity of Davis’ speech was particularly notable for the fact that not much happened during it. The senator spent much of her 12-hour marathon reading testimonials from constituents, crowdsourced on her site -- itself a practice that encourages social sharing.
At one point, Davis was chastised for breaking procedural rules when she paused shortly after 7 p.m. to put on a back brace, the second of three strikes she could receive before being ordered off the floor. That criticism earned an avalanche of outraged tweets from observers and progressive groups like Think Progress and MoveOn.org.
Later, the acting chair, Senator Robert Duncan, ruled that Davis had gone off topic by discussing the budget for Planned Parenthood. When he overruled the objections of another senator, Leticia Van de Putte, Van de Putte shot back, "At what point must a female senator raise her voice or hand to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?" The quote rocketed around Twitter and quickly surfaced as a GIF on KnowYourMeme.com.
Yet even as Davis racked up strikes, her speech (and the surrounding social hubbub) racked up supporters. According to the analytics site Twitter Counter, Davis gained nearly 41,000 followers yesterday -- more than Justin Bieber. And as she spoke, hundreds of people poured into the Texas statehouse and filled the rotunda outside the senate chambers, despite the fact that the proceeding still hadn’t appeared on cable news.
Those people would ultimately prove critical to the bill’s failure: When Davis was ordered off the floor shortly after 10 p.m., observers chanted and jeered so loudly that the votes couldn’t be heard. In the ensuing celebrations, the crowd cheered and sang “Texas Eyes” while Redditors made plans to send Davis roses. Tumblr users traded links to buy her running shoes. The occupation section of her Wikipedia page was briefly edited to read “the LeBron James of filibustering.” And on Twitter, thousands of people who had never heard of Davis before began to wonder what’s next for the suddenly viral senator.
“I am overwhelmed, honestly, by the thousands of people who participated in what happened today,” Davis told reporters after the filibuster. “My office received so many emails and tweets and just -- incredible support.” That almost seems like an understatement.
Correction: An earlier version of this post referred to the acting chair as Robert Watson. He is Robert Duncan.