How effective is fact bombing?
As I reported this morning, I jumped in on Twitter last night and started, with the help of others, to flood #livetweetingabortion with cold, hard facts. Today, I decided to experiment, and stayed on #livetweetingabortion most of the day to see what could be done by trying to stick to facts, correct misinformation, and quiz anti-choicers about their larger beliefs about sex and women’s rights. I tried to avoid platitudes, though I did give in and make a couple jokes. These were the results:
*Most anti-choicers fled the scene.
*A few tried to retaliate with links, but most were called out quickly for using blatant, misleading propaganda to fight against reputable research.
*Of the few that stayed in and argued, most eventually dropped the “OMG BAYBEEZ” thing pretty quickly. They would return to it, sure, but the facade that this isn’t about punishing sexually active women was dropped quickly.
Of the arguers, I saw these arguments, available for all reading #livetweetingabortion to read:
*That a man has a right to force his wife not to use the birth control pill. This was part of a larger argument about how the price women pay to be in families was submission to men’s desires. When I asked how much force/violence a man should be able to use to assert his right to prevent his wife from using birth control, she freaked out and left the conversation.
*That merely waiting for “the one” would be enough to prevent HPV, and that getting stuck with a needle is too painful to tolerate just to avoid cervical cancer.
*That the Centers for Disease Control’s information on abortion safety (conclusion: pretty damn safe) isn’t reliable.
*That married people have no need for contraception.
*That all single people should not have sex, ever.
*That instead of teaching sex ed in schools, there should be religious indoctrination.
A couple anti-choicers didn’t take the bait when asked if they supported the right to use contraception, but repeatedly ignored the question. However, most asked proudly answered. Of those, 100% dismissed contraception as unnecessary or wrong. For those reading who thought that anti-choicers were nice people who simply thought abortion was murder, it was hard to impossible to walk away with that conclusion intact. The more that anti-choicers dug a hole for themselves with their radical anti-sex arguments, the more the pro-choicers in the room were able to stay on track, and not get sideswiped arguing about impossibilities like when life begins or if there’s a god who cares how you fuck.
Now, there’s things about this experiment that are hard to prove. For instance, just because pro-choicers were able to control the debate and get anti-choicers to admit impolitic things, such as their loathing for most people’s sexual choices, doesn’t mean that others were reading. However, I do feel that some folks that went in already convinced of pro-choice arguments on the grounds of bodily autonomy really seemed to learn more about the anti-sex agenda of the anti-choice movement. Clearly, no hardcore anti-choicers were going to change their minds, but since this Twitter feed was well-publicized, it’s likely that some fence sitters came in and saw screeching about the evils of contraception from anti-choicers, and that could have an effect. But by and large, I think the most prominent effect was helping center the pro-choicers in the room on the fact that anti-choicers are warring against very normal sexual choices in our culture.
What the experiment did demonstrate, it seems to me, is that facts are extremely effective at undermining conservative bullshit. On this argument, conservatives prefer to argue about unknowables, like if fetuses have souls, or they prefer to use glittering generalities, such as encouraging “responsibility”. Facts help derail these strategies. For instance, if someone talks about responsibility, the fact that 3/4 of women who have abortions cite responsibilities to others as a reason can refocus the discussion. A lot of liberals end up buying into conservative frameworks—“responsibility” does sound good!—without thinking of how that framework is fundamentally dishonest. Facts can help.
However, this experiment was performed in an arena of gender and sexuality, and so the results may be hard to replicate in other ways. Why? Because the abortion discussion—and most misconceptions that allow people to sympathize with the anti-choice view—is dominated by misogynist beliefs about women that simply aren’t backed up by facts. The beliefs are that women are stupid, thoughtless, and have very little moral grounding on their own, and thus cannot be trusted to make the own decisions about their family size or their sex lives. The facts prove the opposite: women who have abortions tend to know exactly what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. They have children and families and finances and relationships. In fact, women who have abortions look very much like the women we all know and respect. They are the women we know and respect. Facts help establish this narrative.
I’m not sure the results could be replicated in other arenas, but I think this Twitter storm pushes us a little closer to understanding how these sorts of arguments roll out from conservatives, and what it might take to dismantle their misleading narratives.