The congressional committee investigating the January 6th riots has recently wrapped its “first season” of hearings. In eight hearings, the committee members have made a strong case against former President Trump as an instigator of the violence that occurred on the day Congress certified the 2020 election results.
What’s more surprising than the bombshell testimony is that the American public actually tuned in. This, in part, is due to the modern, viral-friendly way that the evidence was presented to viewers. The final hearing was viewed by 18 million Americans during its primetime showing. Those numbers are similar to the NFL’s, which is the most viewed programming on TV.
In the past, congressional hearings have been slow, decorum-laden exchanges between men in suits. Viewers would be lucky to catch a few minutes of meaningful testimony amid hours of questioning. By contrast, the January 6th hearings are carefully constructed, narrative-driven “episodes” that play out like a riveting Netflix documentary series happening in real-time.
It’s safe to say that this modern take on congressional hearings is a game-changer for bringing everyday Americans into the political fold. Though, while we’re likely to see similar viral tactics used to boost engagement in the future, experts say we’ll never see another congressional investigation quite like this.
Hearings like this Come Once in a Lifetime
The Democrats’ congressional hearings have succeeded beyond expectations at engaging the public and putting pressure on Trump and the GOP. Even conservative media outlets like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Post (both owned by conservative opinion-maker Rupert Murdoch) have published scathing opinion pieces on Trump thanks to evidence revealed during the hearings.
So, why wouldn’t Democrats stick to this new model for success?
In short, they can’t. Congressional hearings are typically bipartisan, which means both sides get equal speaking time and investigative authority. Usually, that means one side tries to derail the other (think the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, for example).
In the unique case of the January 6th committee, Republicans chose to boycott the investigation entirely, refusing to appoint committee members even when invited to do so. As a result, the committee is staffed entirely by Democrats and two anti-Trump Republicans, Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger. This has allowed committee members to take a unilateral approach to presenting evidence to the public.
Making Political History on Primetime TV
The congressional committee’s hearings were carefully designed to appeal to modern audiences. The committee even employed the help of master documentary storyteller and former president of ABC News James Goldston to weave the evidence into an engaging narrative.
The hearings had everything an audience could want from a season of primetime TV.
The pacing was quick and the content was varied. Audiences were not subjected to long shots of committee members asking repetitive questions. Instead, evidence was delivered in short successive bursts using a mix of live testimony and edited video clips.
There were also special guests to keep audiences glued to the screen—high-ranking Republicans in Trump’s inner circle, such as Attorney General Bill Barr, Senior Advisor to the President Ivanka Trump, and White House Counsel Pat Cipollone. This was particularly effective, as it confronted viewers still on the fence about the Big Lie with damning testimony from some of the former President’s staunchest allies.
“There are millions of Americans who might not be activists in the Trump base—they’re not true believers of the Big Lie,” says Tara McGowan, a former Democratic operative and founder of Courier Newsroom. “But they don’t trust Democrats. They’re going to pay more attention when it’s another Republican presenting this information.”
Perhaps the most innovative tactic was the use of emotion to hold viewers’ attention. Politics alone doesn’t keep audiences coming back, but emotional thrills do—and the hearings were a rollercoaster. From terrifying footage of the riots to comedic mic-drops like Senator Josh Hawley turning tail and running from rioters just after fist-pumping them in solidarity, the hearings merged history-making politics with primetime escapism.
Viral Tactics will Change Political PR—For Better or Worse
The congressional hearings on the January 6th riots appealed heavily to TV audiences, but they also provided plenty of viral fodder ripe for social media exposure. Bite-sized clips of Bill Barr calling “Bullshit” on Trump’s claims of voting machine fraud and Hawley sprinting to safety during the riots were easy to pluck directly from the hearings and post on TikTok, Facebook, and Twitter.
This unprecedented viral friendliness ensured that the evidence was diffused on social channels rapidly. In fact, many clips went viral even before the committee hearing had finished. Media outlet Courier Newsroom, founded by Tara McGowan, was quick to post the 3-second clip of Hawley’s run on Twitter and soon racked up thousands of views.
The hearings even produced memes not directly related to politics, such as conspiracy theorist and Trump lawyer Sidney Powell’s love affair with Diet Dr. Pepper. These water-cooler conversation starters inform non-viewers that they’re missing out on a national trend, driving more interest to the core message of the hearings.
While we may not see congressional hearings like these ever again, both sides of the aisle are surely scribbling notes on how to make politics go viral. And this may lead to problems in the future.
Democrats’ use of edited interviews and bite-sized clips was an effective way to make a case to a general public with a short attention span. But these viral tactics may someday be used in bad faith to create false narratives or ignore important context.
Now that viral politics has been normalized on a national scale, it will likely evolve into a dominant form of discourse, for better or worse.