Live Streaming the House Sit-in

The Democratic Party sit-in at the House yesterday had an interesting technology component: the emergence of smartphone live streaming as a political instrument. The 60s-style demonstration took place after the House was adjourned, so by rule the cameras C-Span uses to broadcast floor business were turned off. Democrats wanted to get their message out, so Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif)  used Twitter’s Periscope and Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) used Facebook Live to share speeches with followers. C-Span picked up and this and broadcast some of these streams to its TV audience. While C-Span had broadcast short clips from Periscope before, this was their first extended broadcast of a user-captured video stream. Other networks soon followed suit.

The event illustrates the prominent role that Twitter and Facebook play in the political process today. Twitter certainly had a lot to do with the rise of the Trump phenomenon, and it’s playing a role in the election today through the sniping that takes place nearly every day between Hillary and Donald Trump. Hillary’s tweets advising Trump to delete his Twitter account and criticizing his business books (“they all end in Chapter 11”) are already milestones in the campaign.

Technology may not be reshaping our politics, but it certainly has an influence. The Tea Party movement probably would never have taken place without blogs and social media to draw the disaffected together, and the Sanders Coalition was formed and energized by social media, just as the Howard Dean campaign was largely a product of blogs. It’s even arguable than the Obama campaign was a social media creation because his candidacy got an initial boost from Net Roots support after he came out in support of net neutrality in a speech at Google at a time when Hillary, the presumptive nominee in 2008, was less than enthusiastic about it.

Since gun control is to the Democrats what abortion control is to Republicans, an attempt to reverse a law by surrounding its exercise with restrictions, it’s doubtful that yesterday’s demonstration will change any minds. But the use of smartphones and mobile networks to convey a political event that would otherwise be inaccessible is a watershed moment nonetheless. And I feel for the members of Congress of a certain age who must have experienced aches and pains when they finally got up from the floor. Sixties-style protests are still the business of the young regardless of how they’re broadcast.

Ironically, the video quality of yesterday’s events would have been better with a little “paid prioritization,” but Democrats don’t yet see its value. Maybe the fact that the live streams were unreliable – they kept cutting out, and when connected delivered fairly low quality images – will help them understand the effects of today’s Internet regulations.

UPDATE: A reader asked on Twitter whether 5G will make the video quality dilemma go away:

While 5G will help by making more capacity available in many places, the reason for paid prioritization is statistical. You’ve probably seen supermarket checkout lines go from near empty to overly long in a matter of minutes. This phenomenon takes place on networks of all times, and can be especially destructive to real-time video streams. All the tools in the toolbox need to be available regardless of raw capacity because no network is designed to handle the load of all users hitting the air at the same time.