The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

They survived a school shooting only to wage battle in some of the nastiest corners of the Internet

Jaclyn Corin, 17, and Sarah Chadwick, 16, are part of a crew of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students using Twitter to focus attention on gun control after a Feb. 14 mass shooting that left 17 dead. (Geoffrey A. Fowler/The Washington Post)
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PARKLAND, Fla. — In person, Sarah Chadwick and Jaclyn Corin are fierce. And young.

Meeting Sunday outside the Yogurtology shop two blocks from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, these two mass shooting survivors wore matching gym shorts and lanyards. Chadwick’s had a koala clipped on.

I don’t mean to diminish them. I’m actually star-struck: These students have channeled a personal hell into one of the most potent online forces since @realDonaldTrump. Never before have survivors of gun violence stayed on the national agenda for so long.

But it’s easy to forget they’re children, waging battle in some of the nastiest corners of the Internet even while they process a trauma. That's what makes them so effective — and also especially vulnerable.

You might know Chadwick, 16, as the Parkland kid who tweeted expletives at the president and deftly deflects attacks from politicians, gun-rights partisans, crazies and media personalities who don’t have qualms about picking on kids. Corin, the 17-year-old class president turned gun-control activist, is the one who tweeted, “Sorry, @NRA, the children are winning.” (On Wednesday Florida lawmakers imposed a waiting period and raised the purchasing age for long guns.)

What makes Chadwick and Corin interesting to a tech columnist is that in the wake of terror, they ran headfirst to a particularly treacherous online space: Twitter. It’s so nasty that even well-paid, grown-up celebrities such as Leslie Jones and Lena Dunham have decided to step away. On Twitter, Parkland kids have been called “crisis actors” and made pawns in conspiracy theories. They’ve been told they aren’t grieving properly. They’ve been threatened.

“Social media can be used for tremendous good and horrible things, and sometimes both at the same time,” Corin told me.

Will these kids be all right? I came away from our conversation inspired by their bravery — and fearful that technology is putting them back in harm’s way. If Silicon Valley’s geniuses can’t control social media’s dark side, how can a teenager?

Born into it

There is no one correct way to respond to trauma. But what made these students turn to social media?

“After everything happened, the world wanted to put us in a bubble and keep us away from everything. But no, we popped the bubble,” Chadwick said. “It’s scary, for sure, because of all the attention we’re getting. But it has to be done because who else is going to do it?”

The Parkland kids are rising to the occasion because they have to and because they have the skills. The Columbine High School shooting took place before social media, and the Sandy Hook survivors were too young.

“We’ve had iPhones since we were out of elementary school,” Corin said.

These kids are also from a tight-knit community, affluent and smart. Corin uses rhetorical strategies from AP English class to pack tweets with maximum punch.

Why Twitter, as opposed to Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat? “I don’t even have a Facebook or know how to use it,” Chadwick said. And besides, they wanted to be someplace where both young people and adults might notice. Twitter is designed for spreading information — and getting into fights.

Not all teenagers are on Twitter, or expert at using its public soap box. But Chadwick had experience tweeting about celebrities, sharing “meme” videos and images, and getting into squabbles about politics. Corin set up a personal Twitter account after classmate Cameron Kasky created the #NeverAgain hashtag and asked her to help him build a movement.

Regardless of your view on gun control, it’s clear the Parkland students have been successful at drawing attention to it. I asked marketing analytics firm Crimson Hexagon to analyze the tweets and conversations related to a dozen Parkland students and group accounts. Compared to a list of the top dozen other Twitter influencers on guns (minus President Trump), the Parkland students have produced 8.7 times the volume of online conversation than the celebrities.

Chadwick said they’re effective because they’re from a community she calls “young Twitter.” To them, Twitter is high school. “The politicians like Marco Rubio, they’re the mean girls,” Corin says.

In young Twitter, you deal with a troll by trolling them back. Attacked for smiling too much on a TV appearance, Chadwick replied, “You are a piece of hot garbage, and I hope you step on a lego.”

What’s been her most effective tweet? Chadwick dug around her phone and pulled up one that reads, simply: “I’m a junior.”

Those three words received nearly 350,000 likes, about three times recent popular posts by Trump. Her tweet was a troll on Laura Ingraham, the conservative radio and Fox News host who had attempted her own troll on Chadwick by quoting her as an example of “HOW TEENS SPEAK TO AND ABT ADULTS.” But in her tweet, Ingraham misidentified Chadwick as a sophomore.

Ingraham, author of “Of Thee I Zing,” was out-zinged by a factual correction from a child.

How social media changed the way we experience mass shootings

Who’s responsible?

But, wait a minute: Why was a 16-year-old in a position to be attacked in the first place? (Through a Fox News spokeswoman, Ingraham declined to comment.) Fellow student leader David Hogg has been repeatedly called out by Infowars’ Alex Jones.

“These students have been pushing back in ways that are admirable and surprising. The fact that they have to deal with so much speaks to what a mess social media is,” said Whitney Phillips, a professor at Mercer University who has studied online trolls.

Maybe, Phillips said, we ought to be talking about why Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other tech companies expose people to so much hate. Or how trolls have no problem attacking children. Or how the press fueled their fame and turned them into targets.

“All that gets obscured when we focus on how badass they are,” Phillips said.

There are pressures we can’t see from afar. The kids say they write their own Tweets, though they sometimes run language past each other in a group chat. (They’ve hired public relations firm 42 West to help manage media inquiries.)

For Corin, it has affected her personal relationships. “I have lost a few close friends who feel like we are doing this for personal gain or attention,” she said. “It is a really hard thing to choose between helping the nation or your best friend.”

And nobody knows what the impact is of having thousands of strangers come after you because you survived a mass shooting. “The worst ones to me are the people who don’t even believe the shooting happened,” Chadwick said. “I turned off my DMs [direct messages] on Twitter for that reason.”

She continued: “Or when people accuse us of having an agenda. Did we have a political agenda before this? No. Honestly, I would give anything for this to have never happened.”

Then there’s the violent threats. Their parents, who Corin said are keeping out of the spotlight at the insistence of their children, now track their online activity — but what can they do? Corin says her father scours Twitter for threats, and has asked her to not go out alone.

What’s Twitter’s responsibility to the kids? Its executives certainly like to take credit for the service’s positive social impact. After the Parkland shooting, it verified the student accounts, giving them a blue check mark usually reserved for celebrities, politicians and journalists. It also says it brought in a “swarm” of resources to remove abusive tweets and delete spam accounts targeting the children, though it wouldn’t say how many messages or accounts it has blocked. Its policies don’t give members under 18 special consideration.

Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey, who has been retweeting some of the Parkland students, last week launched a new effort to make the service less toxic. That isn't an easy problem to solve in balance with free speech — and it's turning into a major liability for Silicon Valley giants.

Hogg, who was the target of a YouTube conspiracy claiming he was a paid actor, told my Post colleague even he wouldn’t want to “censor” anyone. “They only way that we are going to prove that we’re not actors is to let them say what they want,” he said.

The Parkland students and their supporters might think they’re winning. But it really is a matter of perspective. People who don’t believe the school shooting ever happened think the kids are losing.

The same tech that makes Twitter an unprecedented platform for these teens also makes it an potent weapon for harassment.

“We are not going to give up this platform,” Corin said.

It doesn’t help to patronize young people, who are savvier at using the Internet than any generation before. But we adults should be wrestling with the consequences of the online world we’ve created — especially if we’re sending children into battle there.

Conspiracy theorists have questioned the credibility of the Parkland shooting survivors. This is how the theories entered the mainstream. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)