School Climate & Safety

Fla. Students Use Social Media to Call for Safer Schools, Then Face Backlash From Internet Trolls

By Benjamin Herold — February 27, 2018 6 min read
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Even as a heavily armed teenager stalked the halls of Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, firing on his former classmates, students turned to Twitter and Snapchat to communicate with loved ones and document the unfolding horror.

Within hours, law-enforcement officials were combing through the “very, very concerning” social-media history of 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, who would later confess to the mass shooting.

And in the week that followed, a cadre of Stoneman Douglas High students emerged as vocal advocates of new gun-control measures, using social-media platforms to challenge elected officials, organize marches, and raise money—and, in turn, became the targets of a vicious backlash led by online trolls and conspiracy theorists.

This is the new reality for schools and educators, experts say: Social media is essential to understanding and responding to a tragedy like a school shooting, precisely because it is so interwoven with the fabric of young people’s lives and such a critical part of our information infrastructure.

“This is the power of social media,” said Amanda Lenhart, an expert on teengers and technology who now works as the deputy director of the Better Life Lab at New America, a Washington think tank. “It brings us all so immediately to these experiences, but it can do so in a remarkably unfiltered way, and it can have a traumatic impact, even on people who weren’t directly involved.”

Following is a look at four big ways social media has shaped the events surrounding the second-worst school shooting in U.S. history.

Documenting Events As They Happened

Most young people use social media primarily to communicate with their friends and families, said researcher Joan Donovan of Data & Society, a think tank. As students, including freshman Aidan Minoff, tweeted, “snapped,” and texted depictions of the terror unfolding around them, Donovan said, most were likely just trying to let people know they were still alive, to share information, or to process the chaos as best they could.

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Some Stoneman Douglas students, though, intentionally sought to document the shooting for historical, journalistic, or advocacy purposes, sharing updates and interviewing their fellow students.

These types of social-media uses are double-edged, experts said.

As they’re recycled on social media and repackaged by cable news, such raw and graphic images have the potential to traumatize even students who weren’t directly involved, fueling “contagion,” said Rob Coad, a high school psychologist in Illinois who serves on the school safety and crisis-response committee of the National Association of School Psychologists.

But Donovan said teenagers are also keenly aware of the impact social media has had on lawmakers and institutions when it is used as a “tool of witness”—as has been the case in other recent tragedies, such as police shootings of unarmed black citizens.

“It’s a way to fight back, not with weapons, but with evidence,” Donovan said.

Scrutinizing the Shooter’s Social-Media History

As soon as Nikolas Cruz was identified as the shooter at Stoneman Douglas High, law enforcement and the news media began scouring the troubled young man’s social-media accounts, which have since been deleted.

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel quickly told media outlets that Cruz’s posts were “very, very concerning.” Fellow students said Cruz’s accounts were full of images of guns and dead animals.

And then came one media report after another: Cruz had posted a threat to become a “professional school shooter” on YouTube, prompting a tip to the FBI that was never followed up, Buzzfeed reported. A series of Instagram messages described to Buzzfeed by other students detailed angry threats made by Cruz after a breakup with a girlfriend. Florida’s Sun-Sentinel reported that the local sheriff and child-welfare agencies had investigated Cruz after he documented cutting himself on Snapchat. CNN reported on a private Instagram chat group in which Cruz allegedly spewed racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic hate.

In response, social-service workers, law enforcement, and even students and school staff members alike have received criticism—including from President Donald Trump—for not recognizing Cruz’s warning signs.

“Every single red flag was being thrown up by this kid, four days after his 18th birthday, and nothing was done to help him,” Gordon Weekes, one of the public defenders involved in Cruz’s case, told the Sun-Sentinel. “The system didn’t only fail him, it failed the entire community.”

Advocating and Organizing

Even as he huddled in a school closet with classmates, Stoneman Douglas senior David Hogg began using his smartphone to advocate stronger gun-control measures.

“I call on the legislators of this country to take action and stop this from happening,” Hogg said in one video. “Thousands of people have died from gun violence, and it’s time to take a stand.”

That stance quickly grew into a full-fledged, social-media-driven advocacy campaign involving mostly older students at the school.

Hogg and others amassed tens of thousands of Twitter followers as they aggressively challenged elected officials such as Trump, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican.

The students quickly pulled together a trip to Tallahassee, where they unsuccessfully lobbied state lawmakers to approve a ban on the type of semiautomatic rifle used in the Parkland shooting.

Fueled by a rousing speech by senior Emma Gonzáles, a video of which quickly went viral, the students began organizing a national march and student walkout—and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from the likes of celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey.

Although society’s responses to school shootings have tended to follow a predictable trajectory, such student-led activism in the wake of a school shooting feels new, said Donovan of Data & Society.

“Social media has democratized the ability to broadcast,” Donovan said. “It allows new voices to be replicated over and over through networks.”

Confronting a Troll Backlash

Nearly as soon as the Parkland shooting hit the news, internet trolls struck, posting on 4chan (an anonymous online bulletin board) apparently false information ostensibly tying Cruz to an obscure Florida-based white-nationalist group.

The disinformation was picked up by the Anti-Defamation League and then numerous news outlets, spreading widely before ultimately being debunked.

Similar disinformation campaigns took root after the Stoneman Douglas students gained traction with their gun-control message. Hogg, who said publicly that his father is a former FBI agent, became a particular target.

Hoaxers created a fictitious profile to try to convince people that he had actually graduated from high school in Los Angeles in 2015. Social-media trolls began falsely deriding the high school senior as a “crisis actor,” or government operative paid to act like he was mourning at a staged tragedy. And far-right conspiracy blog “exposed” Hogg in a post that described him as a “pawn for anti-Trump rhetoric and anti-gun legislation.”

Donovan of Data & Society described such “disinformation” as a part of a concerted attempt to silence the Stoneman Douglas students, by discrediting them and tacitly encouraging readers to harass them online.

That effort received a big boost when Donald Trump Jr., the son of the president, “liked” multiple tweets promoting the conspiracy theories about Hogg.

Along with his father, the teenager took to cable news and social media to refute the false claims.

But it can’t be up to individuals alone to fend off such attacks, Donovan said. Lawmakers and social-media platforms must play a role, too.

“We have to think what legislation and regulation can make this kind of disinformation more difficult,” she said, and “companies need to be more responsible for moderating content.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 2018 edition of Education Week as On Social Media, Teens Witness, Grieve, Organize


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