The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act last week was the first landmark ruling of the social media era. The Internet was overflowing with information (and misinformation) as citizens, journalists and politicians alike tried to make sense of the complicated ruling on “Obamacare.”

By The Numbers

Obamacare-related Twitter activity peaked at 10:17 a.m. on Thursday with 13,166 tweets per minute — more than three times the number of tweets than when the U.S. House of Representatives first passed the health care bill two years ago. Thursday’s activity was nearly double the number of tweets generated after President Obama announced his support of gay marriage last May, but fell short of the 14,131 tweets per minute during President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address, the most-tweeted event in recent political history.

Beyond Twitter, the SCOTUSblog’s liveblog page received more than 3 million hits by Thursday afternoon, with viewership numbers at roughly the population of San Francisco around the time of the ruling. Additionally, Buzzfeed reported that Google News collected more than 25,000 articles related to health care in 24 hours. The news clipping service Nexis collected more than 1,000 news articles referencing Chief Justice John Roberts in the first 24 hours following the ruling, whereas it recorded just 227 mentions of then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist in the 24 hours following the Supreme Court’s Bush v. Gore decision in 2000.

We also know that the American public was searching for information about the SCOTUS ruling. Google searches for “Justice Roberts” rose 25,900 percent on Thursday, while search traffic for “individual mandate” – a key provision of the law – rose 12,200 percent.

A Reactive Twitterverse

The social media firm Crimson Hexagon analyzed more than 150,000 tweets related to Obamacare and found that nearly half of the tweets supported the Supreme Court’s decision. About 28 percent of tweets disagreed with the decision, while 23 percent merely spread news of the ruling.

Among the people tweeting their reactions to the ruling were U.S. politicians. Some lawmakers were fooled by inaccurate reports on CNN, FOX News, Huffington Post and TIME, and posted tweets that celebrated the individual mandate being overturned. These tweets were deleted, but still live on thanks to the Sunlight Foundation’s “Politiwoops” website.

The GOP wasted no time in voicing opposition to the Supreme Court’s ruling once it was clarified, immediately launching a microsite and Twitter campaign with the hashtag #FullRepeal. The Republican National Committee ran paid tweets with the #FullRepeal hashtag, and the National Federation of Independent Business – a Republican-leaning small business group – called for “repeal and reform” in a promoted tweet targeting people searching Twitter for Obamacare-related terms. Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney also experienced his “biggest 24-hour small-donor haul to date” after the ruling, raising $4.6 million online from 47,000 donors.

The White House fired back with a special session of White House Twitter “Office Hours” on Thursday. Users tweeted questions with the #WHChat hashtag and could follow the Q&A through the @WHLive Twitter account. The White House also ran a promoted tweet signed by President Obama, which said, “Today’s victory is one for all of us.”

What It Means

At its peak, Twitter conversation had 24 times as many mentions of “Obamacare” than of pop star Justin Bieber. This seems to challenge the idea that Twitter is filled with meaningless, ego-driven updates and support Twitter’s growing role as a political powerhouse.

Admittedly, Bieber regained his place on top of Twitter conversation by Friday morning. The SCOTUS peak of 13,166 tweets per minute is also dwarfed by the 12,233 tweets per second that were sent during Super Bowl XLVI last February.

Still, I believe that Twitter’s role in politics continues to grow in size and influence. We have seen Twitter play a key role in civil unrest throughout the world and become a cornerstone of U.S. elections.  The 140-character news cycle certainly enhances the “rush to be first” that led to momentary confusion on Thursday morning, but the takeaway for me remains that Americans are looking for political information online and expressing their opinions via Twitter.

The majority of Americans may be more interested in football than in a Supreme Court ruling, but I’d argue that Twitter helps political issues become more mainstream and reach otherwise uninformed members of the public. For sure, Twitter serves as an invaluable tool for getting a real-time temperature reading of public opinion and providing insight into political strategy.

Image credit: s_falkow

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