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On Twitter, Antonin Scalia’s Death Is No Longer News. Now It’s a Debate.

Are you celebrating his death, or paying your respects?

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When Antonin Scalia was reported dead earlier today, the news exploded through Twitter in a matter of seconds. Snapchat may be better at attracting young eyeballs, and Facebook may be better at making money off its users, but the death of the Supreme Court justice is a reminder of how useful Twitter is for disseminating and discussing breaking news.

Almost immediately after the San Antonio Express-News reported the judge’s death, Twitter became the place where politicians and their proxies issued statements and began positioning the debate about his successor.

Meanwhile, media personalities debated about the right way to talk about Scalia and his controversial tenure on the Supreme Court.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott took to Twitter to mourn the justice’s passing, and Texas Senator and presidential candidate Ted Cruz immediately tweeted that whoever succeeds President Obama should be the one to nominate Scalia’s replacement.

A staffer for Utah senator Mike Lee, who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, cut straight to the point, tweeting that President Obama has a “less than zero” chance of successfully appointing a justice to replace the conservative Scalia.

One thing that’s unique about this episode of breaking news on Twitter is the discussion of the appropriate way to talk about Scalia’s death.

In the pre-Twitter era, both traditional and online publications would follow a predictable playbook for an event like this: Pre-reported obituaries first, followed by sober, restrained analysis. Anything that deviated from that would only show up in media’s margins, at least for the first few days.

But now that people — journalists, politicians, celebrities and other influential figures with large audiences — can respond in real time, there’s a new kind of conversation that’s rapidly emerging.

Is it okay for liberals to immediately highlight Scalia’s long record of ruling against abortion and civil liberties advocates? Or is it tacky and untoward grave-dancing?

Scalia’s death isn’t like the largely celebrated news of the deaths of Osama bin Laden or Muammar Gaddafi. For lots of people in the mainstream, Scalia was a judicial hero.

Go ahead and celebrate, argues left-leaning journalist Glenn Greenwald, who wrote a column about the subject when former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died in 2013. Greenwald has been on a tear of tweets today about why public figures who make decisions of consequence aren’t entitled to the same kind of universal “respect for the dead” that private individuals deserve. Respected Politico media columnist Jack Shafer seconded his remarks.

On the other side of the aisle, doing a Twitter search of “respect for the dead” reveals an entirely different angle. A number of pundits (including one longtime Democratic political staffer) say that it is unseemly to do anything but pay Scalia respect.

The general vibe of my Twitter feed agrees with Greenwald. But that’s another thing about Twitter, at least for now: You make your own Twitter feed, and you usually populate it with people who share your worldview. Your mileage, as the saying goes, may vary.

What is clear and unique is that Twitter has become the place where people publicly negotiate these niceties, and that there isn’t really another platform where these conversation can unfold in the same way.

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