In a crisis, who’s talking can matter just as much as what’s being said. With this in mind, we decided to take a look at the data around Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act using our Optimized Listening platform to better understand how different political audiences engaged with the issue and when, and how this tracked with the eventual outcome — the Indiana legislature’s move to quickly revise the law.

What’s striking about the fallout from the RFRA was how each group differed in when they reacted to the issue. First, we can look at overall reaction on Twitter, with more than 100,000 U.S.-based reactions in the first day after the bill was signed, and peaking on March 31st, the date of Governor Pence’s press conference:

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In situations like this, we always want to know where reactions are coming from, not just their overall volume. Was the conversation being driven by the national political elite, or outside the Beltway? We developed a score to classify conversation along this axis, measuring the extent to which a conversation is being driven within our audience of political elites and the media (mostly inside the Beltway) or from sources elsewhere. We see stark differences in this Insider Score over time, with early reaction strongest among non-elite audiences, and the political elite catching on to the issue on Monday, March 30th, when presidential candidates began to weigh in and Indiana lawmakers began considering revisions to the law. Interest in the RFRA clearly followed an “outside-in” pattern of influence.

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In fact, if one looks at all news cycles since the beginning of the year, defined in Optimized Listening as news conversations about a single topic on a single day, RFRA broke into the top 20 on six times for all U.S. Twitter users and liberals, two times for conservatives, and zero times for Beltway Elites (topping out at #22).

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Indeed, it’s not very surprising that the political left generated the majority of conversation about the RFRA, just over 70% according to our sampling of conservative and liberal activists on Twitter. But this pattern shifted over time, with liberals generating more than 85% of the ideological conversation in the first two days of the controversy, and conservatives steadily increasing in engagement until they generated more conversation on April 3, the date the revision was signed into law.

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The pattern is even more striking when one looks at the percentage of ideological conversation by day, with the right steadily gaining in share.

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Activity on the right was centered on the story of Memories Pizza and their comments about catering gay weddings. In response, an online fundraiser which spread through social media raised $842,000 for the business. While this part of the story reached full force on April 1st, conservative reaction was building even before then.

We can also see this when we visualize individual tweets, with liberals reacting very strongly within the first few hours of the controversy and coalescing around tweets by Hillary Clinton, Marc Benioff, and George Takei. Conservative retweets caught up a few days later, but no individual conservative tweet reached the level of these early messages on the left.  

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It is relatively rare to see a law revised so quickly after passage. News coverage alone can tell us what happened, but looking at social data allows us to tease out patterns that might be applicable to other situations moving forward. What are the signals that we can measure through social data as events are unfolding that can signal whether a crisis like the RFRA will result in an about-face by decisionmakers — or fade away?  

  • A seeming disconnect between elites and the rest of the country. An immediate spike in volume around a political controversy that’s more concentrated outside media and elite circles than inside will add fuel to the fire, as participants will have the added motivation of trying to force the media to cover the issue. For perspective, most 2016 Presidential candidates are being discussed 3 or 4 times more heavily inside the Beltway than outside, as far as political issues go. The inverse was true of Indiana.
  • Immediate action by critics accompanied by virtual silence by natural defenders. At first, liberals were extremely vocal about the law and conservatives, who might be expected to defend the law, were virtually silent. Only when a local business was targeted did conservatives reach the same levels of engagement as the left, but this had little bearing on the revisions to the law itself. We see this pattern again and again when one side feels stronger and has the momentum, while another ideological camp may be conflicted and not as willing to weigh in publicly.
  • This only works when interest is high and events are changing rapidly. We see a number of issues where one side is more active than the other, or where there’s seemingly a disconnect between political elites and the rest of the country. This does not mean a law will change, only that critics are persistent. We can apply this framework mainly when conversation volume is increasing rapidly, and the outcome is uncertain.