Tracking Virality and Breaking the News: A Study on Texas

Originally published by author and intern Lauren Wong on HuffingtonPost.com, June 26, 2013. Click to read original story.

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At 2:17 a.m. Central Time, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards read aloud a text from Dem. State Senator Wendy Davis: “The Lt Gov has agreed – #SB5 is dead.” At 2:29 a.m. CT, 12 minutes after hundreds of Texas supporters broke out in cheers in the Rotunda in a moment captured by photographs, Vines, Instagrams, and Tweets, I posted from the Crowdbooster Twitter account: “Wendy Davis confirms #SB5 is dead after Texas GOP attempts to change timestamp on vote. Powerful example of social media spreading awareness”

As of 3:30 a.m. CDT, the New York Times, The Guardian, CNN, BBC, and the AP either had yet to break the victory or reported, incorrectly, that the bill had been passed.

stand with wendy sb5 filibuster texas senate wendy davisYesterday, Davis attempted an 11-hour marathon filibuster of Senate Bill 5, which would make abortion illegal after 20 weeks with no exceptions for rape or incest victims and create more stringent requirements for abortion facilities. Throughout Davis’ filibuster, which had to last from 11:00 a.m. to 12:00 a.m., she couldn’t lean on anything for support, use the bathroom, or eat. The GOP ultimately ended her filibuster by citing three instances throughout her speech where she touched on topics “not germane” to the bill (the topics: Planned Parenthood, sonograms and Roe v. Wade). As the clock ticked down, Republicans attempted to ram the bill through, but the rising shouts of Davis supporters throughout the Rotunda made it nearly impossible to tell whether the vote was accomplished before or after the midnight deadline. The meeting was suspended.

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Graphic info credits: Filibuster by the numbers

That’s when social media reared its head. Over 180,000 people watched the live YouTube stream of the filibuster – Obama even tweeted a link to it – as there was no major network coverage of the full event. One channel was run by the nonprofit Texas Tribune; the other, a self-described “Citizen Journalist” named Christopher Dido. According to a CNN article, users posted a total of 730,000 tweets about the filibuster at a peak rate of 5,776 per minute in the minutes leading up to midnight. Nothing was free from the all-seeing eyes of the Internet. So when the Texas legislature was caught red-handed changing the timestamp on the final vote from 6/26/2013 to 6/25/2013, spectators went into a frenzy. Side-by-side screenshot comparisons blew up Reddit and Twitter, yet Republicans stayed that they had met the deadline. Finally, it was declared: SB5 was dead. Freelance journalist Andrea Grimes tweeted a Vine of supporters erupting with cheers as Richards read out Davis’ celebratory text in the Rotunda. Hours later, Republicans admitted they had not completed the vote in time.

orange shirt texas rotunda senate sb5 wendy davis

So where were the breaking reporters? They were there. But they didn’t wear press passes or clutch at voice recorders. Instead, they donned orange shirts, raising their iPhone 5s to document it all.

We saw it happen in Boston. As major news sources were just starting to report that an MIT officer had been shot, a friend who attends Tufts University was texting me about reports of a carjacking, a bomber possibly dead on the ground, and explosives being thrown from the stolen vehicle, all just a town over from her Medford campus. Twitter confirmed; #Watertown and #Boston were trending. It was not the first time social media was involved in propagating the news, but for many, it was their first time watching it firsthand. Boston shed a new light on a journalism perpetuated by the people: the news never sleeps, and major reporters got caught dozing.

The inherent problem preventing today’s news outlets from matching the timeliness and virality of social messages is accuracy. Media networks can suffer major setbacks for presenting and promoting information they can’t be certain is true, whether it’s a tangible monetary impact or an intangible destruction of credibility. By breaking a story to a global audience, reporters must take the leap of faith and accept the potential consequences of being wrong for the rewards that come with being the first to be right.

Crowdbooster’s Twitter following of 11.3k is small change in the face of @NYTimes’ 8.6 million, so we have a much smaller opportunity cost of posting a potentially inaccurate update. This isn’t something that will change – major news media outlets will always have more at stake than the average teenage girl or social media startup account – but it continues to speak to the future of reporting. And for the first time, I was an informer, not a spectator.

crowdbooster graph analytics tweet twitter social mediaI was glued to my screen, punching in variations of trending hashtags, for the hour leading up to midnight. #standwithwendy had 400,000 global mentions at one point. When I first caught wind that SB5 had been defeated, I was ecstatic. But it was 12:20 a.m in California. My personal Twitter following (not a very large pool to begin with: 160 people, many of whom live on the East Coast) was either subtweeting or posting nostalgic pictures of last weekend’s EDC. So I turned to Crowdbooster, whose account influences a diverse following of 11,000+ people, some of whom have hundreds of thousands of followers. And I helped break the news. In four minutes, my tweet had 18 RTs. In 15 minutes, it had 50. My tweet appeared in the Top section for the query “#SB5.” At an exponential rate, I was educating real people who went on to educate their own vast networks, and so on. I refreshed my dashboard constantly, watching the little red dot migrate east on the graph, growing larger and larger.

buzzfeed news social journalism media twitterA little over an hour later as BuzzFeed and CNN finally tuned in, my tweet had 200 RTs and 60 favorites and had reached over 300,000 people – much credit owed to a retweet by @MarthaPlimpton, an account with a following of 141,155. By the time I woke up the next morning, the tweet had 300 retweets and 80 favorites. Now, almost 24 hours later, it has 310 retweets and 91 favorites. But it’s not about the number of times people press a green button – it’s about the number of pairs of eyes that have absorbed my message, the people who came off enlightened, in any small part, by my knowledge. The concept of one girl sitting in bed watching a live ticker being able to enter 140 characters that in approximately 7 hours can reach nearly half a million people is absolutely incredible to me. Social media is a powerful beast, but a beautiful one at that.

In the early hours of June 26, as the media seemed to sleep, thousands of people propped their laptops up on their pajama pants and did the job for them. SB5 is dead, but the power of social media is more alive than ever.