Roe vs. Retweets: Fighting About Abortion Access On The Internet

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Mary Stathos

“So what you’re saying is that if Ted Bundy’s ghost came back and raped a 9-year old girl with no arms or legs, she should be forced to give birth to a half ghost, serial killer baby that would grow up to murder hundreds of women?” — a tweet that probably exists somewhere

As someone who was once a baby, I think I can speak for everyone in saying that there was a time in my life when my only way of communicating was by screaming and crying inconsolably, all the while being unable to comprehend anything that was being said to me. This is pretty much exactly what it feels like to use the internet lately, after several states, like Alabama and Georgia, passed freshly Draconian abortion bans.

At this very moment, there are tweets circulating which tell people who may need an abortion that they should run away from home and lie to their family. Other viral messages are couching their arguments in terms of (very triggering) rape scenarios. Now, I understand that people scared, that they want to talk about this, that they feel they must do so online. But after a certain point, it is important to step back and ask, “Who am I really talking to here?”

The Reinforcement Theory, introduced by Joseph Klapper in the 1960s, suggests that when we yell online about our opinions until we’re blue in the face, the answer is probably: no one. The theory holds that people tend to selectively expose themselves to things they like, as well as things that do not challenge their pre-existing beliefs. We don’t just find posts and online communities that we like, though. We also find posts we hate — which become easy targets for angrily deconstructing and bolstering our own viewpoints.

This does more than provide us a witty response to Pro-Life Patricia, the cloistered conservative girl we haven’t spoken to since tenth-grade biology but with whom we’ve remained Facebook friends for over a decade. Our vociferous Internet Argument Activism also provides a platform to the small fraction of Americans who actually believe there should be a total ban on abortions. (Only 18% of Americans actually think abortions should be illegal in all circumstances, according to Gallup.)

The pro-life camp, by and large, argues that fetuses deserve the right to life — the same right granted in the Constitution — as soon as they are conceived or have detectable cardiac activity. This is a relatively new idea, but one that has become a keystone to the extreme conservative politics that have evolved in the last two decades or so.

And the fact is, arguing with this rhetoric online is hard! (Cue the inconsolable screams.) While science and pro-choice activists point over and over again to evidence which indicates that a 6-week-old fetus is simply not a “baby,” and therefore it should not have the same rights as a real live citizen of the United States, the pro-life camp says that’s not how they feel. They bellow that they believe something else. And when people try to logically unfold an argument that isn’t based on any logic, the whole conversation loses its footing. So what happens? We yell online. And the person we’re arguing with yells back. And then we yell more. And then maybe we collect some Facebook likes or retweets and pat ourselves on the back and call it clout.

To be clear, that doesn’t mean that what is happening in states like Georgia, Alabama, and Ohio isn’t extremely alarming. It just means that using extreme exception rhetoric to try to sway the other side might be causing more alarm among the pro-choice movement than it is doing to help the cause. One study by the American Trends Panel in 2015 suggests that only 14% of people have changed their minds on an issue because of an article or post on social media. Interestingly, young men ages 18-29 are the most likely, at 29%, to have a change of heart, per the study. That being said, this is a very small minority.

As important as it is for us to consider and make people aware of the serious costs and dangerous nature of allowing restrictive abortion bills to continue to be created, it is important to take a step back and take a deep breath and to avoid scaring people as best we can. Alarmism and panic, while satisfying in the moment and useful to a limited extent, don’t necessarily produce injunctions or change any minds. In fact, they may do just the opposite. Abortions are still safe and legal in all 50 states — and that is something worth yelling about online.

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