The Facebook andTwitter hearings broadcast live from Capitol Hill Wednesday felt like theater. Partially spurred by misleading reports that Twitter had “shadow banned” conservative accounts, House and Senate members questioned Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg while a gaggle of conspiracy theorists and far-right extremists sat feet away in the front row. Included in that group was Infowars' Alex Jones, who earlier had used Periscope to live-stream his own dramatic entry to the hearing and harass members of the media. (The stunt would ultimately get him permanently barred from Twitter, as Dorsey's company announced today.)
It was a spectacular convergence of two worlds, and would only get more spectacular directly after the hearing. A bizarre moment captured by Politico photography director M. Scott Mahaskey documents what seems to be a more spontaneous, unscripted encounter between Dorsey and Jones—with bonus cameos from a Google Glass and what appears to be an old-school Casio calculator watch. It's an image any photographer would hope for; obviously Mahaskey had planted himself in the perfect spot waiting for it, right?
Not so much. “It was purely coincidental,” Mahaskey says of the meeting. “Total chance.”
In anticipation of Dorsey and Sandberg's departure from the Dirksen Senate Office Building, a dozen or so TV cameras had staked out spots inside near the main entrance. Mahaskey, though, noticed Jones heckling reporters at an impromptu press stand near the back door. The Infowars host was so busy livestreaming his bravado that he missed Sandberg’s exit, so he gave chase out the door but, realizing he was too late, reversed course just as Dorsey appeared. The #pizzagate peddler shouted something about censorship at Dorsey, but the Twitter CEO ignored him (unlike Marco Rubio). “That’s about as close [to Dorsey] as he got,” Mahaskey says.
Since most press had stayed in the building, Mahaskey found himself beside a handful of smartphone-wielding civilians—the only credentialed still photographer to document the scene. That doesn't happen often on Capitol Hill, where any snap-worthy moment gets shot from every possible angle by a phalanx of cameras. "It's a rare thing to be alone on an island with such a dramatic scene developing in front of you," Mahaskey says.
His photograph records a tight web of figures, their gestures and expressions so intense as to seem exaggerated, like those of characters in a play. A no-nonsense cop looks askance over his shoulder; Dorsey steels himself; the tall man at center juts his lower jaw out, apparently hindering Jones from getting any closer. It isn't a technically perfect photo: The most prominent figure is a bulwark against the brewing conflict. But it sucks you in. "It’s a place to click in, like 'What the hell is going on here?'" says Karen Marshall, chair of the photojournalism program at the International Center of Photography. "It makes you want to keep clicking."
And in doing so, it reminds you that, even amid today's always-streaming political theater, the weirdest moments still unfold just out of the spotlight.
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