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A guerrilla political act in heart of establishment America

Riley de León, special to

The Brexit was not the only act of rebellion this week to rock the world's political establishment. The world was also greeted by an American version of a political shocker.

A congressional sit-in demanding a vote on gun control, led by veteran civil rights campaigner and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., was in its 20th hour when C-SPAN cameras used to broadcast House business were shut off by the Republicans (deemed "in recess subject to the chair," in the technical congressional parlance).

John Lewis (D-GA), (3rd L), James Clyburn (D-SC), Maxine Waters (D-CA) and Charles Rangel, (D-NY), right, speak with supporters outside the U.S. Capitol building June 23, 2016 in Washington, DC.
Allison Shelley | Getty Images

Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., took to Twitter's Periscope live video app to stream the protest. For the first time in history, C-SPAN broadcast the doings of the U.S. government through a social media account. Other congressional leaders followed Peters lead, broadcasting the event via Facebook Live. "We're doing our best to fill the void," Peters tweeted, using #TurnOnTheCameras.

House Speaker Paul Ryan dismissed it as a "publicity stunt," but has the American public possibly just witnessed the birth of a new form of filibuster direct from the floor of Congress, produced by Facebook and Twitter?

In the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring protests, activists used platforms like Facebook to raise awareness about political movements. Egyptians and Tunisians alike referred to themselves as "the Facebook generation," exemplifying their break away from the nonmodernized past.

Social media gurus and political analysts say that we could be seeing the first steps in a parallel revolution from the heart of the political establishment, and using an issue, gun control, that has wide support from the American public but remains an intractable legislative battle between the nation's two major political parties.

Going rogue

"Our rogue broadcast opened up our dialogue on gun safety to the world," said Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif. "I've been an ardent evangelist to other Members about adopting platforms like Twitter, Facebook Live, Periscope and Snapchat to keep their constituents in the know, and I'll continue to do so."

"Communication is going through the biggest shift since the printing press," said Gary Vaynerchuk, CEO and co-founder of VaynerMedia, who said this week's action was an effective strategy from the Democrats. "There's a reason communist countries take control of the media."

Political analyst Hernan Molina, who specializes in issues of importance to the Latin-American community, said gun control in some form has majority support of the general public but it isn't a conversation Republicans want to have, "They're trying to make Republicans pay the political price."

The live streaming sit-in came after a 15-hour filibuster in the Senate and four failed voted in the Senate over gun control measures.

America and gun-control polling

Eight-five percent of Americans favor background checks on all private gun and gun show sales, according to Pew Research report from earlier this year.

In a just-released poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, 51 percent of Americans favored a ban on assault weapons, while 30 percent opposed it (19 percent were undecided) — but many Americans expressed ambivalence about how effective such a ban would be. In the biggest split, 50 percent of Americas worry the government would go too far in gun control legislation, while 47 percent of Americans worry the government will not regulate firearms access enough, the poll showed.

A Gallup poll after the San Bernardino, California mass shooting last year showed 71 percent of Americans in favor of banning gun sales to people on the federal no-fly watch list, expressing the belief it would be "effective."

This was not the first time the lights went out in Congress. In 2008, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi turned out the lights and cut off microphones on Republicans protesting over gas prices.

But Brad Shear, who runs a law firm that specializes in social media law and public policy issues, dubbed Periscope's role in #NoBillNoBreak (the Twitter hashtag for the gun control sit-in), "The first social media filibuster." (Technically, the actual filibuster tactic in U.S. federal politics can only be used in the Senate.)

Shear thinks the Democratic party's guerrilla film has inadvertently created a phenomenon, but added that if it is to be effective in the future, the key will be selectivity. "If lawmakers overuse these platforms they will lose their effectiveness," Shear said. "The key is pulling this arrow out of the quiver at the appropriate time and seizing a political moment."

Decades-old House rules from the pre-internet era shouldn't blind our nation to what their elected representatives are doing, or what they're refusing to do.
Rep. Eric Swalwell

There were other issues that had to be worked out in the first social media filibuster — indeed, democracy remains messy in the social media age.

After the social media feed became overwhelmed with people watching it, Peters had to encourage other Democrats to live stream the sit-in to share the social media load.

Peters also had to take a break from live streaming to recharge his phone at one point. "Holding the floor. Excuse quick battery break," he tweeted.

There is a rule against filming in the House chamber, but lawmakers unanimously passed a motion to suspend the rule. C-SPAN can only broadcast what the official House cameras provide, but Howard Mortman, the network's communications director, told The Guardian the House does not have control over the network and when it started seeing that members were using social media, C-SPAN decided to pick up those feeds.

House Dems end sit-in over gun control
Shelby on why Senate rejected gun-control measures
Time for more gun control?

Not everyone was happy with the results.

Vaynerchuk criticized Democrats for ending the sit-in early Thursday afternoon, after 26 hours, saying he wished they would've "actually executed."

But Molina said with Republicans in control of the House the best that could be achieved in this case was to make the Republicans look bad and to "score points with the general public."

"This was a historic, breakthrough moment," Swalwell said. "This isn't just noise. As Congressman John Lewis, the civil rights icon who led us onto the floor Wednesday, has said, it's good trouble, necessary trouble. ... Decades-old House rules from the pre-internet era shouldn't blind our nation to what their elected representatives are doing, or what they're refusing to do."