On Wednesday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) took to Twitter to express her displeasure with the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), writing, “Out of 9 justices, 3 were appointed by a man who tried to overthrow the US government (& elected via minority). Those 3 will decide whether the US will legalize forcing people to give birth against their will. Legitimacy requires consent of the governed. They are dismantling it”
She was far from the first Democrat to publicly post her displeasure over the court. Numerous other lawmakers have been equally vocal across social media after the highest court in the land heard nearly two hours of arguments in the legal battle involving a Mississippi law that would prohibit abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy – and which could conflict with past decisions on the abortion.
It could be months until the court actually announces a decision in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, and it could potentially overturn Roe v. Wade; yet on Thursday hundreds of thousands posted messages to social media to express their opinions on the matter.
Twitter’s Most Serious Discussion?
It isn’t uncommon for major sporting events and celebrity news to receive a massive response on social media, yet with nearly 400,000 tweets on Thursday morning, “Supreme Court” may have been one of the most serious topics to trend on the platform. It is likely the most attention SCOTUS has received on Twitter to date.
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“This is of course a serious matter that is being discussed before a serious body,” explained Scott Talan, assistant professor in the School of Communication at the American University in Washington, D.C.
“This shows why social media has a real purpose today, as it provides a public platform for everyone to make their point and have their voice heard,” said Talan. “We have to remember that the Supreme Court also doesn’t allow cameras to film the proceedings, so it is really a bit of mystery. We have nine members in their black robes who make the decisions that affect all of us.”
It is common today however for those on social media to remain entrenched in their respective camps, and each side is unlikely to ever sway those of a different mindset. But in this case, the voices of the masses on social media could have an impact in other ways.
“In my mind, social media is really the ultimate form of democracy,” said Talan. “Anyone can join in on a discussion and share their views. While only about 20 percent of the American population is actually on Twitter – so it has a poor margin for registered voters – it can still allow people to try and determine what topics via tweets have merit.”
Social media could thus be a true platform for meaningful discussion.
“Twitter can serve as a ‘public sphere’ where major public debates as well as quite intimate issues – like a cancer diagnosis or intimate partner violence (IPV) can be discussed,” said Dhiraj Murthy, professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.
“Social media platforms can also change minds. Perhaps the easiest way to reflect on this is through more extreme speech. Take the case of the January 6th Capitol insurrection, where journalists and academics found that posts on Parler were critical to fomenting the insurrection,” added Murthy.
“Moreover, what one sees as ‘venting’ may be seen by another in a completely different light. Of course, plenty of content on social media is dismissed, ignored, skimmed, or disregarded in some way, a single tweet can actually be quite powerful – particularly if it becomes viral/spread by influencers – and, historically, there have been plenty of cases where a single tweet changes opinions,” Murthy noted. “Unfortunately, this can have negative effects such as a single tweet convincing someone to not get a vaccination. Ultimately, social media platforms such as Twitter serve public sphere functions and can influence the ways in which both individuals and groups side on an issue, from school shootings to abortion laws.
Public Opinion Via Tweets
It is also possible that the justices could determine how the public feels. There may be hundreds outside the courthouse, but as noted there are hundreds of thousands offering their opinions on Twitter, while millions more are likely reading those tweets.
“The nine justices may not be looking at Twitter, but their staffs could be,” said Talan. “Humans are social and they want their voices to be heard. This could allow the public to make their discussion known. We have a serious issue before the highest court in the land, and from my perspective there is more good than bad to see people talking about it on social media.”
This could also highlight how the platform could be used for the public to share their feelings with lawmakers. Currently, however, it seems lawmakers are more often the ones trying to use the platforms as a broadcast tool – so it isn’t clear if they’re listening enough.
“America is a country of disagreement, discussion and debate. From our earliest foundation to the Civil War to today, that is what we do,” explained Talan. “For decision makers in Washington, perhaps instead of putting out a message, they should do some listening from others. Politicians talk too much and don’t listen, but that is just the problem with politicians.”