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Periscope and Facebook shine a bright light on democracy

With C-SPAN cameras off, social technology was there to ensure the people could see their elected representatives in action — or inaction.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), address demonstrators on the East Front of the Capitol after the House Democrats' sit-in ended on the floor, June 23, 2016.
Tom Williams / Getty

Justice Louis Brandeis said, "sunshine is said to be the best of disinfectants." A ray of digital sunshine emerged last week as a new kind of disinfectant, one that may make sure our nation’s elected representatives keep cameras on.

Last Wednesday, a group of Democrats staged a sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives to draw attention to the gun responsibility debate raging across the country in the wake of the Orlando shootings. Republicans blocked a piece of legislation that would have made it illegal for people on the no-fly list to purchase guns. In protest, Democrats vowed to "occupy" the floor until Republicans allowed a vote on the bill.

In retaliation, the Republican leadership sent the house into recess, which caused C-SPAN’s cameras to go dark. The public window to the Hill is only open when the House is actually in session. Without cameras to watch, Republicans assumed they were taking the wind out of the Democrats’ protest sails.

This was an historic use of technology driving government transparency, one that will mark a real turning point in how we see our elected officials in action.

But a few tech-savvy staffers and representatives quickly realized there was a way to keep the protest on the air. Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., was the first to take out his phone and start broadcasting the protest on Twitter using Periscope. C-SPAN soon started broadcasting the feed, eventually switching back and forth between Peters’s feed and Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s Facebook Live feed.

Needless to say, this was an historic use of technology driving government transparency, one that will mark a real turning point in how we see our elected officials in action. Both Periscope and Facebook Live, per Politico, have been trying to become bigger parts of this election year by forming debate-night partnerships. But Wednesday, both sites showed just how powerful livestreaming can be when users can work around traditional media blackouts without tripping the piracy alarm like Periscope did when it burst onto the scene during the the Mayweather-Pacquiao boxing match.

While C-SPAN isn’t exactly known as must-see TV, a lot of its monotony comes from the imposition of congressional camera rules. But by identifying the use of and swiftly streaming from them, C-SPAN’s incredible relevance was immediately apparent. The staid network, with all due respect to the Kardashians, became by far the best reality show on television. Millions tuned in to see what was going on.

There’s an important lesson here for media, technology companies and elected officials as they all navigate this tumultuous election year. By working together, all of these groups can be more than the sum of their parts. Technology gives us far greater access to our elected leaders than we’ve ever had before. By tapping that power, media companies remain relevant by working with users. This is the power of the mobile revolution powered by innovation in hardware, software and networks.

Although the sit-in (and the subsequent blocking of the cameras) may have been equal parts passion and political theater, so are most things in politics. It’s crucial that we the people have a front seat to as much of that theater as possible so we can make informed decisions when we cast our ballots.

We’re entering into a new era of transparency, one fueled by the digital revolution. The future shines bright indeed.

A veteran strategist working at the local, state and federal levels, Mike Montgomery is the executive director of CALinnovates, a nonprofit technology advocacy coalition. Reach him @mikemontgomery.

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