By Amrit Singh
Since the horrific Orlando massacre that killed 49 people in a rainstorm of bullets fired from a semi-automatic assault rifle purchased by a person once on an FBI Terrorist Watch list, the gun control debate has gripped the national discourse.
In turn, this past week Congressional Democrats used the most extraordinary means available to force votes on a series of proposed Gun Control bills. When they met with opposition from Republicans—both in a legislative and broadcast sense—the crusading Democrats turned to social media to organize and amplify their initiative in unprecedented ways.
Party officials flooded Twitter and Instagram with bold hashtags, and used platforms like Periscope and Facebook Live to circumvent the shutdown of C-SPAN's cameras when Democrats staged a civil-rights styled sit-in on the House floor. As a result, rules of protocol for these esteemed legislative bodies were broken, and as the political establishment learned, rule-breaking is a dish best served in social media's arena of #NoRules.
The first hashtag was #HoldTheFloor, which proliferated in support of Democrat Senator Chris Murphy's 15-hour filibuster. (Quick civics break: A filibuster is the legislative device via which a Senator takes the podium and talks at length, mid-session, in order to halt the legislative process until his or her side is heard, and publicized and possibly reckoned with. Here, Senator Murphy was nominally successful in getting Republicans to agree to votes.) Now while the votes did not succeed and the gun control bills were rejected, the hashtagged filibuster was successful in drumming up national attention, taking over the media and thereby perhaps putting some pressure on Senators from constituents at home to allow the vote.
Those were all legal means.
What happened over the last day in the House of Representatives, where the filibuster is not a legally recognized method of obstruction, was more rogue. Like their Senatorial counterparts, House Democrats wanted to initiate gun control measures to reflect the groundswell of attention the issue is receiving at the moment after Orlando; and like their Senatorial counterparts, House Republicans resisted. As a result of this impasse and lack of legal recourse, the House Democrats took a cue from the civil rights movement's methods of disobedience and staged a sit-in on the House floor, led by civil rights icon John Lewis, who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. and was explicit in drawing parallels between the resistance to gun control and that which he faced in the '60s with Dr. King.
The sit-in was orchestrated to keep the House in session, while the House Speaker Ryan raced through votes on other proposed bills in order to put the House in recess until July 5th. The Democrats frustration over the idea of a vacation before considering gun control bills led to the hashtag #NoBillNoBreak, which again proliferated over social media and created an organizing thread for citizens, celebrities, and activists alike to offer their thoughts. But House Republicans had the numbers and thereby called the shots, and they ordered the official cameras, carrying a feed to the Congressional network CSPAN, to be turned off.
And so Democrats broke the rules by broadcasting themselves. Others broke other rules by giving interviews via FaceTime from the House floor. While this illustrates the awesome power of social media and the full-feldged pocket-sized broadcast networks we all carry around in the form of cell phones, it also represented a breakdown of Congressional protocol and could lead to some serious dysfunction in the next session of Congress. Especially since Democrats have promised to resume the fight after the recess, which House Speaker Paul Ryan has called through the holiday weekend. And especially since Democrats sent out fundraising emails concurrently with the sit-in, which underscored Republican complaints that this was all a "publicity stunt," especially since the Democrats don’t have the numbers to force these votes by legitimate means.
It's a new day for social media and politics, and we're seeing it happen hashtag and social media platform at a time. Congress is back in session on July 5th. Will gun control be part of the debate? And will Snapchat somehow make its way into the dissemination of ideas around the 2nd Amendment? #StayTuned.