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What the House guns sit-in, the Sanders campaign, and Donald Trump have in common

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

When Democrats started their sit-in on the House floor to call for a gun control vote on Wednesday morning, they were playing to the cameras. So Republicans turned the cameras off.

Then Democrats did something they wouldn’t have been able to do even five years ago: With smartphones and live-streaming tools like Facebook Live and Periscope, they turned them back on again. And a sit-in for gun control measures that are almost certainly doomed became a rallying point on social media.

This is a different twist on the same phenomenon that propelled the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Vox’s Timothy Lee calls it the disruption of politics: Social media allows politicians to reach out directly to their partisans, bypassing the establishment infrastructure and empowering the grassroots.

Because social media is also changing how we find and consume news, it creates a feedback loop, where stories that go viral — like the sit-in — generate an increasing amount of coverage.

It all provides an incentive for attention-grabbing tactics, whether it’s a filibuster on gun violence on the left or an incendiary remark from Donald Trump on the right. The congressional sit-in is just the latest example.

Social media is disrupting politics and making attention-getting events more popular

Nancy Pelosi talking about sit-in
Nancy Pelosi talks about the sit-in during a press conference Wednesday.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Democrats’ sit-in is an extraordinary gesture, and a newsworthy one; the fact that it was started by John Lewis, a hero of the civil rights movement, gives it symbolic power.

But it’s also a stunt. The measures the Democrats want passed are not going to be voted in by a Republican House or signed into law. Even if they did, research suggests they are not drastic enough to significantly reduce gun homicides or suicides in the United States, let alone prevent mass shootings. The bill itself raises serious civil liberties concerns.

In the past, by the time most people outside Capitol Hill heard about it, it would have already been over, and some of those concerns would have stopped it from getting wall-to-wall coverage.

Now members of Congress are broadcasting live from the floor of the House of Representatives, using Twitter and Facebook to urge their supporters to call and back their efforts. Their posts are being liked and shared thousands of times. Sen. Elizabeth Warren came by to support the sit-in and took a selfie:

And social media isn’t just changing how people find out about the news — it’s shifting the definition of what news is in the first place. Data on what people are reading and sharing makes it easier than ever for editors to find out what their audience is interested in and provide coverage accordingly. Readers share those stories to an audience of their friends, many of whom have similar political beliefs, and the cycle continues.

At Vox, for example, we didn’t initially rush to cover the Senate filibuster on gun control last week. But as it became clear that people were very interested in what was going on, we wrote about it. Those stories found a wide audience, and so when the sit-in started, it seemed worth noting as well. Right now, on a day when both parties’ presumptive nominees gave major speeches, two of the three most-read stories on the site are about the Democratic sit-in.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this — a sit-in on the floor of Congress about gun control is unusual and interesting, and it’s hard to find fault with people for paying attention to what’s happening in Washington — but it does provide proof of concept to politicians that social media–friendly stunts get big results. And the way we read and share news means that these effects will heighten in the future.

Facebook’s algorithms push nuance to the margins

Woman standing on Buzzfeed symbol
BuzzFeed has harnessed the power of social media in news, but it’s not the only one.
BuzzFeed News/Facebook via Getty Images

It’s fashionable to hand-wring about how Facebook is changing news consumption, as if the way coverage decisions used to be made — by a handful of overwhelmingly white and male editors who shut themselves in a small room to decide what subjects they thought deserved prominence — was perfectly objective and bias-free.

Social media, and particularly the ability to pass around video and messages without journalists and intermediaries, has brought attention to issues that are hugely important to Americans who aren’t well-represented in the corridors of power.

But there are also ways it’s changed media and politics for the worse. As Lee wrote:

Candidates are becoming less and less dependent on conventional media outlets to get their message out. They can count on more partisan media outlets and direct social media communication to get their message to their supporters — without having to answer a lot of awkward questions about wonky details.

So candidates have less incentive than ever to back up their campaign rhetoric with detailed policy proposals and numbers that add up.

The Senate filibuster and the House sit-in have gone viral in the same way the Sanders campaign did: by resonating with people who pass the news along to their like-minded friends via Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets.

It doesn’t require nefarious intent from Facebook’s developers to cause liberals to see mostly liberal-friendly news and conservatives the opposite. We’re increasingly spending our time and energy on people who agree with us — see today’s Pew report on how liberals and conservatives think about each other for depressing validation of this — and sharing news that reflects our worldview.

This creates an asymmetry in what kind of news gets shared and, consequently, read. Here at Vox, for example, we covered the filibuster and the sit-in, but Dara Lind also wrote about the deep civil liberties issues inherent in labeling people as “suspected terrorists.” Matt Yglesias wrote about the political motivations for Democrats to push hard on gun control. Dylan Matthews has written repeatedly about Democrats’ unwillingness to embrace measures that could actually lead to dramatically lower rates of gun violence.

All of those articles found an audience. But none of them has the immediate emotional appeal of, say, Rep. Keith Ellison’s mom writing him a note telling him to leave a meeting and join the sit-in. For politicians in particular, social media is tilting the scales ever more firmly toward politically appealing stunts and away from serious considerations of trade-offs and compromise that are part of policymaking.