Livestreaming Shines Bright When House Cameras Go Dark

Livestreaming Shines Bright When House Cameras Go Dark

You’re reading the Benton Foundation’s Weekly Round-up, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) telecommunications stories of the week. The round-up is delivered via e-mail each Friday; to get your own copy, subscribe at

Robbie’s Round-Up for the Week of June 20-24, 2016

On June 22, Democrats staged a sit-in in the House of Representatives, demanding a full vote on gun measures. After House Republicans shut-down C-SPAN cameras, several lawmakers began livestreaming the protest via Periscope and Facebook Live. Whatever your thoughts about gun control, the livestreamed sit-in highlights the importance of open government, an open Internet, and access in this digital age.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
At around noon on June 22, Civil Rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), Rep. John Larson (D-CT), and more than 40 other Democrats walked into the House of Representatives and pledged to “occupy” the House floor until GOP leadership allowed a vote on gun control measures. In response acting as presiding officer, Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) gaveled the House out of session. Additionally, House Republicans, who have control of C-SPAN’s video feed, vowed to keep it off until the House was back in session. Since 1979, C-SPAN has had to rely entirely on the House feed for its coverage. The company has made numerous requests to both parties over the years to set up its own cameras, requests that have been denied.

The Democrats countered by streaming the sit-in using their smartphones. Rep. Scott Peters (D-CA) began using the Periscope app, owned by Twitter, to stream the sit-in. He said the idea for the livestream came from a young aide, who texted him the suggestion. Having never used the services before, Rep. Peters said he downloaded the Periscope app from the House floor and began streaming. Technically, it’s against House rules to film from the House floor. But Rep. Peters said, “This is a protest. If Rep. John Lewis is going to sit on the House floor, that’s against the rules, so I thought it’s better for people to know about it. I think it’s appropriate as part of a protest. I really respect the rules of the House and don’t expect to break them, but today I think it’s appropriate for the American people to know what the heck is going on."

With its cameras turned off, C-SPAN began broadcasting Peters’ Periscope livestream with the full graphics afforded to normal video feeds of the House floor. At 1:52pm EST, C-SPAN tweeted, “C-SPAN has no control over the U.S. House TV cameras. Now showing a @periscopeco from @RepScottPeters.”

C-SPAN Communications Director Howard Mortman said a network staffer spotted the video and realized it was a perfect Plan B:

"This is a milestone moment. We’ve got a commitment to C-SPAN as a public service, a privately-funded, public service to connect Americans to Congress to show what's happening in Congress … this certainly rises to the event of something happening in Congress.
"It’s always a big misunderstanding. People think we’re in charge of the cameras but we’re not, we’re not the government.This is an opportunity to explain how we operate and how TV gets from the House floor into American households. This is a great moment.”

The plot thickened around 4 p.m. when C-SPAN switched to a Facebook Live stream from Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX). Part of the rationale for the switch was that the C-SPAN team wasn't sure if they would hit a viewer cap on Periscope. also wanted to showcase vantage points from different Members of the sit-in, which swelled in numbers and even attracted Democratic senators. Twitter Nick Pacilio said Periscope does not have a viewer cap and added that, as of the evening of June 22, Rep Peters' stream and that of Rep Eric Swalwell (D-CA) had been viewed more than one million times collectively.

Rep. Peters said the attention is vital, “If no one were watching or knew we were here, it would be more difficult to sustain. We don’t have a filibuster mechanism that keeps the House open. We’re technically in adjournment so it’s really the only way for us to make a point."

A Win for Social Media
In addition to the issue of gun control, the sit-in put a national spotlight on the potential of livestreaming.

Periscope co-founder and CEO Kayvon Beykpour said, "Today is an example of what drives us. Twitter and Periscope take you where other cameras don't — letting you experience breaking news through the eyes of those living it.”

Twitter and Facebook are extremely eager — as is Google, owner of YouTube — to capitalize on the enormous interest in the 2016 campaign because it validates their claims that the companies are the “townhall” where modern American politics is playing out.

As Hadas Gold noted in an article for Politico, both Twitter and Facebook have dedicated staff members to training Members of Congress on how to use their livestream features. Twitter featured the sit-in as a “Twitter Moment,” Periscope dedicated a channel to it, and Facebook featured livestreams of the sit-in in its trending box with a red “LIVE” button.

But good government and transparency aren't the only motives — the social-media giants are in a battle to the death over their respective livestreaming platforms, seeing the technology as a way to compete with TV networks for eyeballs and advertising dollars. Facebook Live is such a priority for the company that it is paying around $50 million to media companies and celebrities to use the product, The Wall Street Journal reported.

In a dig at Facebook, Twitter spokesmman Nick Pacilio shared the Wall Street Journal’s report, reminding followers “we're not paying anyone to use Periscope.” He later noted that tweets sent by Rep Peters and Rep Eric Swalwell (D-CA) with videos had been viewed more than a million times each.

Open Government, Open Internet
At around 3:15am on the morning of June 23, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) adjourned the House for the Fourth of July recess. But Democrats said they would continue to press for gun control, promising to hold events during the recess both on the House floor and in districts across the country under the belief that they finally have momentum behind putting in place some restrictions on the sale of guns. Shortly after 1 p.m., Democrats left the floor, marched down the House steps to link up with more than 100 cheering supporters, and vowed to press ahead.

Over 25 hours after starting the sit-in, Rep Lewis declared victory. “Social media told our story,” he said as he called for an end to the sit-in. “We must never give up or give in and we must come back here on July the 5th more determined than ever before.”

Speaker Ryan said he has no intention of bringing up for a vote bills that would bar suspected terrorists on no-fly lists from buying guns or impose universal background checks when Congress reconvenes. He further criticized the sit-in, calling it a “publicity stunt” and accusing Democrats of engaging in a “fundraising scheme” by waving an e-mailed solicitation issued by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that cited the protest. He said, “If this is not a political stunt, then why are they trying to raise money off of this, off of a tragedy?”

Whether thought of as a historic protest or an ineffective political stunt, the sit-in offers more evidence of the impact of the Internet on American democracy. As Free Press’ Candace Clement pointed out , “One week after a federal appeals court ruled that Net Neutrality would indeed remain the law of the land, seeing how people are using technology like Twitter and Periscope to get around Ryan’s obstructionism is a wonderful reminder of just how important the open Internet is.”

Without smartphones, the Internet, livestreaming apps, and rules to ensure that all feeds are treated equally over a network, many citizens would have been left in the dark this week. Non-violent protest, communication technologies, and social media combined to shine some light onto the legislative process, giving connected Americans crucial access to their representatives. Moments like these reinforce the crucial, democratic necessity of access to digital communication technologies, for both lawmakers,media, and citizens alike.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)
coffee iconThe Future of Wireless: A Vision for US Leadership in a 5G World, (Speech by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler)
coffee iconNet Neutrality Ruling Finally Rights a Terrible Wrong (Michael Copps Op-Ed)
coffee iconIs winning net neutrality enough to save the Internet? (Tim Karr Op-Ed)
coffee iconSen Sanders: Media 'Far Removed' From American People (Broadcasting&Cable)
coffee iconOne Internet (Global Commission on Internet Governance)
coffee iconEnabling Growth and Innovation in the Digital Economy (Dept of Commerce)

Events Calendar for June 27- July 15, 2016
June 30 -- Hacking America, New America
July 12 -- FCC Oversight Hearing, House Communications Subcommittee
July 13 -- Grow2Gig+: Anchors Advance Communities, SHLB Coalition
July 14 -- FCC Open Meeting

ICYMI From Benton
benton logoLet Me Hear Your Yawp, Adrianne Furniss
benton logoNet Inclusion 2016: Addressing the Digital Divide From Miami to Kansas City, Romina Angelelli
benton logoNet Neutrality: A Historic Decision, Robbie McBeath

By Robbie McBeath.