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Politicians have a powerful new tool in Periscope, and democracy is better off for it

Politicians have a powerful new tool in Periscope, and democracy is better off for it


Power to the (congress)people

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In March of last year, shortly after live-streaming via smartphones became a genuine phenomenon, Dan Pfeiffer declared that 2016 would be "the Meerkat election." "Whether it is Meerkat, Periscope or someone else," wrote Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to President Obama, "the potential for a service that makes live-streaming this easy is limitless. It could do to television what blogs did to newspapers by removing many of the financial and structural advantages of legacy media institutions." Pfeiffer was mocked at the time — "as exciting as these new live-streaming social media apps are, they are certainly not 'taking over' Washington," wrote Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

Meerkat indeed faded away shortly thereafter. But live-streaming has surged in popularity this year, with Facebook joining Twitter's Periscope app in a new war for Twitter's attention. That battle played out on the floor of Congress Tuesday and Wednesday, as Democrats staged a wild sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives demanding gun-control legislation. When House Republicans adjourned the session, forcing C-SPAN to turn off their cameras, Democrats simply began broadcasting their protest on Periscope. The illicit streams captivated the nation, as a promising but still unproven technology found itself at the center of the national discussion. Whether 2016 will truly be the live-streaming election is still anyone's guess — but it's inarguable that, at the time of this writing, these apps have taken over Washington. Politicians have now seen the value in live-streaming, and they won't soon forget it.

Periscope took over Washington

Seeds of Tuesday's protest were planted in 2013, when state Senator Wendy Davis, a Texas Democrat, mounted a 13-hour filibuster in an effort to prevent Republicans from passing onerous new restrictions on abortion. While most major networks largely avoided the filibuster, it captivated the internet, thanks to a YouTube broadcast provided by the Texas Tribune. The event showed how a new digital broadcasting infrastructure could turn a routine vote in a state legislature into a cause célèbre — and all but guaranteed federal lawmakers would one day use that infrastructure for their own purposes.

Still, Democrats' use of Periscope seemed to catch Republicans off guard. C-SPAN carries many government proceedings live, but does not have its own cameras on the House or Senate floors. Those cameras are controlled by the majority party, and their rules say the cameras must be shut off when the legislative bodies aren't in session. That's why the House leadership, when Democrats began their sit-in on Tuesday, adjourned their session — they hoped to deprive the Democrats' protest of media oxygen by turning the cameras off.


It fell to a young House staffer to suggest an alternative. According to Politico, it was an aide to Rep. Scott Peters (D-CA) who suggested the Democrats simply broadcast themselves on Periscope. Peters downloaded the app and began broadcasting; their broadcasts were viewed more than 1 million times on Tuesday, according to Twitter. (About 180,000 people watched Davis' filibuster in 2013.) The broadcasts were compelling for their subject matter, and for the strange circumstance of their existence. But they were also compelling because of their shaky, imperfect quality. The handheld, vertical videos were vividly familiar to anyone who spends much time on apps like Periscope or Snapchat, and at times they accomplished the rare trick of making politicians seem relatable.

Accomplishing the rare trick of making politicians relatable

C-SPAN threw fuel on the fire by rebroadcasting Periscopes from Peters and his fell Rep. Eric Swalwell, (D-CA). Filming on the floor of Congress is against the rules, but so are sit-in protests. And so stodgy old C-SPAN threw out its own rulebook in service of its mission, beaming a kind of pirate radio broadcast of the Democrats' protest into millions of homes (and laptops). C-SPAN has sought to put its own cameras in Congress since 1984, to no avail; yesterday, the network had its revenge. It was a thrilling moment — one in which tools made possible by the internet shifted the balance of power inside the people's house, drawing new attention to the gun control debate and to the 49 people murdered this month at a gay nightclub in Orlando.

It's possible to have cheered the Democrats' samizdat broadcasts even if you are rankled by the particulars of their gun-control legislation. One of party's proposed remedies is to block anyone on the no-fly list from buying a gun, even though the government can add anyone to that list without due process. As Gawker said of the no-fly list: "It is secret, it disproportionately affects Arab-Americans, it is error-prone, there is no due process or effective recourse for people placed on the list, and it constantly and relentlessly expands."

But the point on Tuesday was to force the debate: to make Republicans take a roll-call vote on the issue. And when they wouldn't, the Democrats tried another approach. They may have broken the rules, but their sit-in seemed to be in keeping with the spirit of the House: that the public's work should be done in public. And it was, because of the sunlight that members shined upon it with their smartphones. The Meerkat election may or may not arrive. But the Periscope protest is very much here, and it's here to stay.