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How Parkland's social media-savvy teens took back the internet — and the gun control debate

Twitter has verified student leaders, who have amassed thousands of followers in the past week

by Alyssa Newcomb /  / Updated 
Marjory Stoneman Douglas student Cameron Kasky, left, asks Senator Marco Rubio if he will continue to accept money from the NRA during a CNN town hall meeting, at the BB and T Center, in Sunrise, Florida on Feb. 21, 2018.Michael Laughlin / Pool via Reuters

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Articulate, witty and digitally native, the survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, are using social media to debunk conspiracy theories and amplify their voices in a way the world hasn't seen before.

With thoughtful tweets about gun control, a fearlessness for taking on politicians and sharply worded messages to shut down conspiracy theorists, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are leading a movement. And in classic teenager fashion, they're doing it their way.

"I tell my students, 'Don’t ever let adults tell you what you are doing [on your smartphones] is a waste of time or it's silly or antisocial,'" said Jeremy Littau, an associate professor of journalism at Lehigh University. "When [this generation] has something to say, they now know how to use these tools in sophisticated ways. That would not have been happening if they hadn’t spent last 10 years preparing themselves through these tools."

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The conversation after mass shootings has followed an all-too-familiar pattern in the United States — anger, sadness, grief, calls for gun control and then, the inevitable silence until the next tragedy.

This time, it might just be different, according to social media experts.

People are listening, liking, retweeting and responding to students' messages. Twitter has been proactively verifying prominent student voices, giving them the little blue checkmark denoting authentic accounts.

Social media has also taken on a negative tone after growing harassment problems and Russia's manipulation of platforms began to drown out thoughtful dialogue and genuine interaction.

But there has been some success in using social media to spur major issue-based action. The Ice Bucket Challenge turned into a cultural phenomenon and raised more than $115 million for ALS research. More recently, the #MeToo campaign has swept social media to illustrate just how widespread sexual harassment and assault remains.

The public has seen the best and the worst of social media in the past 10 days. In the very same week in which social media has been taken to task for allowing foreign actors to hijack the conversation, the platforms have — almost — justified their existence by amplifying the national debate on gun control in the light of the massacre in Parkland.

 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Emma Gonzalez comforts a classmate during a CNN town hall meeting, at the BB and T Center, in Sunrise, Florida on Feb. 21, 2018. Michael Laughlin / Pool via Reuters

Emma Gonzalez, who has been a prominent voice in the eight days since the massacre, now has more than 300,000 followers on Twitter. Cameron Kasky, David Hogg and Sarah Chadwick have more than 100,000 each.

The students have spoken publicly and received plenty of TV airtime to spread their message, but it's on social media — most notably Twitter — where they're most effective in pushing back against pro-gun activists.

"The students on Twitter have been a wonderful counterpoint to what we have seen as this machine of right-wing propaganda," said Jen Golbeck, an associate professor at the University of Maryland's College of Information Studies.

That includes firing back at conspiracy theorists claiming the students are paid crises actors.

"They are willing to call people out and say: 'How dare you say that. I have a platform and a right to ask these questions,'" Golbeck said.

When conspiracy theorists claimed Hogg and other students were "crisis actors" pretending to have been in the school, Parkland students whipped out their yearbooks and took video and pictures to show proof.

When the conservative pundit Dinesh D'Souza commented on a photo of upset students after Florida lawmakers voted down a bill to ban assault weapons, remarking that it was the "worst news since their parents told them to get summer jobs," survivor Sarah Chadwick responded:

Littau, the journalism professor, said the students were doing "what I think people who find themselves suddenly thrust into the spotlight do."

"They use the tools they have in front of them to speak out," he said. "But with this group, they are inherently wired to think about it in terms of digital communication."

Twitter has been trying to clean up its act for years amid criticism of not doing enough to stop harassment on the social network. In a statement on Wednesday, the company said it was actively working to stop the targeted harassment of Parkland students.

Conspiracy theories about the students had begun to circulate on social media in recent days, seeking to undermine their credibility.

"Such behavior goes against everything we stand for at Twitter, and we are taking action on any content that violates our terms of service," the statement said.

The public-facing platform the students have on Twitter has also caught the attention of dozens of celebrities, who have retweeted them or sent messages of support as they plan to #MarchForOurLives on March 24 and demand gun control.

There's already evidence that the students are making a difference.

The debate and discussion around gun control isn't fading like it has in the past, according to Nate Silver, editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Even after the Florida state legislature struck down the assault weapons proposal days after the shooting, the real power to create change isn't solely in a politician's vote. It also rests with the students, according to Littau. And he expects they'll keep working for change the best way they know how, by mobilizing on Twitter.

"They are able to use these tools more effectively than someone from this generation could," he said.

And people will remember that "when the time came, they didn’t sulk on their iPhones — they’re using them to create change."

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