The Fifth Estate Comes to the Floor of Congress

In the aftermath of 49 people being killed in the June 12th 2016 Orlando nightclub massacre, Congressional Democrats struggled to vote on legislation that would control gun sales. The Republican majority refused to bring a vote to the floor of the House, and Congressional Democrats began a sit-in to force a vote. It was led by Atlanta’s John Lewis, who has been a long-time Congressman and a hero of the civil rights era. He worked with Dr Martin Luther King Jr., and participated in the march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, during the Johnson Administration. This march  helped bring restrictions on voting rights in the South to the attention of Americans after violence against the demonstrators generated coverage by the press – network news.

When the Republican Speaker of the House adjourned Congress, even while the sit-in by Democrats continued, all cameras in the House were shut off. This blocked access to events in the House by the news media and cable news channels. It might have taken away all the oxygen of the media from this event. However, in response, a few social media savvy Democrats with mobile Internet phones used social media, such as on Periscope and Facebook live, to live-stream video from the House to their followers.  News outlets quickly picked up these streams and began covering the sit-in via the social media. Rather than stop the sit-in, the use of video from the House floor made it a major news event.

Members of Congress sit-in via social media
Members of Congress sit-in via social media

The House sit-in ended 23 June after 25 hours, but this may have been the first time that social media was used in ways parallel with other Fifth Estate strategies widely used in other arenas. The Internet enabled members of Congress to directly source and distribute content independently of major institutional actors – the leadership of the US House of Representatives, in this case.

Responses to this Fifth Estate activity were immediate. Some members of Congress saw this as a brilliant strategy, others saw it as a ‘stunt’, others as the rise of anarchy in the House. But the House of Representative came face-to-face with the Fifth Estate on the floor of Congress.


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