A group of high school students from last week's Florida school shooting is attempting to break the political stalemate that typically follows mass shootings with urgent social media appeals for new gun laws, but to succeed they will have to outlast the entrenched resistance of gun-rights activists, experts say.
The students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School created new Facebook and Twitter groups that have reached 100,000 followers in just days. The students are using their social media megaphone to call for new gun control measures, days after 17 people were killed a former student wielding an AR-15 assault rifle in Parkland, Fla.
The grieving students, armed with harrowing stories of loss, have brought new urgency to the issue - and the savvy of a generation raised on smartphones.
“As teens, we’re a little obsessed with social media,” said Diego Pfeiffer, 18, a senior who has helped organize Never Again MSD. “Sometimes we’ve been posting serious messages, and other times it’s been funny stuff, the frustrations or jokes that come out of the stuff we’ve been dealing with the last few days.”
Mass shootings are commonly followed by demands for action on social media, research shows. Yet it also shows that such initial momentum gradually runs aground when faced with gun-rights activists. History suggests that the challenge for the gun-control activists goes beyond channeling grief and outrage into calls for new gun laws.
“People get stirred up, and there’s some activists who organize hashtags,” said Jonathon Morgan, founder of Data for Democracy, a nonprofit research group. “And, not to be cynical, it seems like it dies down quickly after no legislators get involved in the conversations.”
The debate over gun rights ranked as the nation’s most divisive political issue — more polarizing than even discussions of race — according to research by Morgan’s group.
In the hours after the shooting, several student reactions posted on social media went viral. Students also used Twitter and Facebook in attempt to locate friends who were missing, mourn friends who had been slain, and directly weigh-in on the gun-control debate their stories were beginning to fuel.
A handful of students soon launched Never Again MSD - referring to the name of their high school where the shooting happened - creating the related Facebook and Twitter pages.
Organizers say that a team of several students is charged with running the official Never Again MSD social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and have been helping out with the accounts of individual students who have gained national prominence. Before a tweet or Facebook status is posted, it is workshopped with all of the members of the group who are present – often in the makeshift headquarters they’re running out of one member’s parents’ home.
“We want to make sure that a 19-year-old boy can’t get his hands on a machine of death,” said Dylan Baierlein, 18, a recent graduate. “This is the message that we want to get across, that is the change that we want to see.”
The speed of the burgeoning campaign, coming together in less than a week, suggests that a shift could be underway. Following the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the online conversation over Twitter was largely non-partisan, focusing on shock and grief rather than calls for action, during the initial phase of the aftermath, according to New York University Research published by Psychological Science.
Beginning at about the tenth day, however, the Twitter debate became more partisan, with liberals more likely to retweet liberals and conservatives more likely to retweet conservatives as both sides used the platform to express their views about gun rights versus gun control.
"We suspect it got more polarized at that time because the conversation was switching to gun reform," said Joshua A. Tucker, an NYU politics professor and one of the study’s co-authors.
University of Wisconsin researchers found a similar trend in their study of Twitter conversations after 59 mass shootings from 2012 to 2014. That research, which has not yet been published, analyzed 1.3 million tweets and 700 related hashtags, using machine learning to sort them into various categories, said political science professor Jon C. W. Pevehouse, who co-authored the study with Dhavan V. Shah, a journalism professor, and several others.
They found that the first hours after a shooting typically was followed by emotional expressions, what the researchers called “thoughts and prayers.” But those soon receded as a second group of tweets, advocating new forms of gun control, came to dominate the online debate. The volume of these tweets varied based on certain factors, including whether the victims were children or if there was an unusually large number of victims. But this group also gradually dwindled.
“For a few days, they talked about it, but then they faded away,” said Pevehouse.
There was a final group of tweets -- ones espousing the Second Amendment’s guarantee of the right to bear arms and opposing any new restrictions on the sale of weapons or ammunition -- that kept going steadily throughout the study period, apparently impervious to the amount of news about mass shootings. (This research did not attempt to determine which of these accounts used so-called "bots," which are automated Twitter accounts programmed to push certain kinds of messages.)
“There’s just a constant narrative out there, and they’re not really perturbed about the shootings,” Pevehouse said of the gun-rights tweeters.
The researchers did find two factors that gradually changed over the course of their study. The period when tweets mainly were devoted to “thoughts and prayers” following a mass shooting grew shorter and shorter.
Perhaps more consequentially, the staying power of the gun-control advocates seemed to gradually growing on Twitter, said Pevehouse, lasting for about two weeks before beginning to falter.