The clear winner during the feud between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill this week? Twitter.
After lawmakers led by U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, furious at inaction on gun-control legislation, staged a sit-in, Republicans gaveled the House out of session. C-SPAN cameras don’t roll during a recess, and taking photos and video isn’t officially allowed in the House or Senate chambers, but there was hardly a news blackout.
Instead, the temporary idling of the mainstream media spurred a hydra of social media activity, and viewers didn’t miss an instant. At times, cable news outlets were airing live feeds supplied by lawmakers’ cellphones and, as the protest ended Thursday after more than 25 hours, social media’s place in politics seemed solidified.
“All it took was a cellphone and a little bit of Wi-Fi and the whole world was able to watch,” said Florida radio talk show host Mark Kaye, a nationally known social media expert. “It was a huge coup at a time when these live-streaming apps are really coming into their own.”
U.S. Rep. Scott Peters of San Diego, Calif., was among the members turning to Periscope, a live broadcast platform owned by Twitter. His videography earned him a shoutout from Samantha Bee, host of the “Full Frontal” TV show.
“We are huuuge fans of your work on Periscope,” Bee tweeted. Naturally, Peters retweeted that.
U.S. Rep Elizabeth Esty of Cheshire, Conn., posted a slew of photos, including images showing her sitting next to Lewis on the floor and, later, of her with sleeping bag in tow, preparing for a long night.
House Speaker Paul Ryan responded via (how else?) Twitter as the sit-in dragged on, directing his supporters, “Retweet if you agree: The sit-in by House Democrats is nothing more than a publicity stunt. #StopTheStunt.”
More than 6,200 people retweeted him. More than 11,000 retweeted Lewis’ post early in the protest saying, “My colleagues and I have had enough. We are sitting-in on the House Floor until we get a vote to address gun violence.”
It should be surprising to no one that millennials already tend to get their news from social media sites. A 2015 American Press Institute study showed that news consumers ages 18 to 34 “do not visit news sites, read print newspapers, watch television news, or seek out news in great numbers. This generation, instead, spends more time on social networks, often on mobile devices.”
But these weren’t whippersnappers tweeting and streaming from the House chamber, Kaye noted.
“Every single member was tweeting,” he said. “There were members in their 80s. I had no idea.”
Although Facebook is the dominant social media platform, Twitter triumphed during the Capitol Hill sit-in, he added.
“As far as Congress and politics, Twitter is the dominant platform,” he said. “Twitter is really being held together by politics. This is really giving them a boost.”
The protest began with Lewis’ fiery oratory, and all politicians — regardless of party or ideology — should be able to agree on at least one point he made during a news conference after it ended: “Social media told our story.”