With the continuing conversation around Parkland nearly a month after the event, we look at the data to see how the conversation on social has been different this time around.
After the tragic shooting in Parkland, Florida, it felt like we were about to fall into the predictable cycle of things. Sorrow, blame, mourning, vacillation, lack of meaningful change, and then everything buried by the next big thing in the news cycle. It all felt very predictable in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.
Except, this time it’s different.
Has the growth of social media changed the way we react to mass shootings?
There have been six major mass shootings in the U.S. since we began collecting our data in 2014, and for this study, we chose to look at the last four, all of which have occurred since 2016.
These were, in chronological order, the Pulse nightclub shooting, the Las Vegas shooting, the Sutherland Springs church shooting, and the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting (also being called the Parkland shooting), which will be our principal focus here.
The first thing we needed to understand was the content consumption patterns in the immediate aftermath of the events.
Generally speaking, there was a huge increase in conversations around the topic in the few days around the shooting, followed by a rapid decline to almost nothing just days after the event.
The graphs below show the engagements on web content around guns (green), gun control (blue), and the NRA (red) for the four shootings referenced for one week before and three weeks after the event.
The trends are obvious when seen together, but what is perhaps more striking is the difference this time. At Sutherland Springs and Las Vegas, and to an extent Orlando, there is a very clear increase in engagements on web content around those keywords the day of the shooting.
The difference in the conversation around the Orlando shooting comes as it received more exposure due to the shooting ties to ISIS. which caused the conversation to continue into the next week, though again there are two clear peaks in engagement.
We can see this pattern of rapid increases and declines in engagement repeated in other tragic events, such as Hurricane Harvey in August 2017 and the terrorist van attack in New York in October of 2017. Both those graphs are shown below over the same time frame as we analyzed for the shootings, one week before to three weeks after the event.
Has the reaction to Parkland been different?
There is no such trend with the Parkland shooting, and it is hard to spot any definitive pattern to the engagement data. The engagement peaks and troughs repeatedly over the three week period following the shooting, are variously dominated by the NRA, by talk of gun control, and by content just about guns in general.
The peaks are 2x higher than previous, and even the troughs regularly numbering in the millions of reactions to the content.
Most importantly, though, if we are to say that there is something different happening this time, is the fact that the conversation is still ongoing three weeks later, with content on these topics still garnering hundreds of thousands of engagements long after it would traditionally have faded into memory.
All that is important, of course, but in terms of real-world consequences, what is perhaps most striking in the data is the sheer amount of attention the NRA got this time around, which we will come to presently.
Normally, after a mass shooting, the NRA gets a fraction of the attention that a keyword like ‘guns’ or ‘gun control’ might get. That all changed this time, thanks to active campaigning against the organization that caught fire on social media.
A mere glance at that chart shows the sheer amount of conversation that content about the NRA drove this time versus previous occasions. The overall engagement for gun control content was roughly 2x that of the Orlando shooting, but content about the NRA received over 7x the attention it did on that occasion. Discussion of the NRA and its role has gone mainstream.
A big driver of this was a piece in ThinkProgress calling for companies to sever their corporate ties with the NRA, which garnered over 220,000 interactions across social. This heightened reaction, particularly on Twitter, was sparked in part by some of the survivors of the Parkland shooting who used their social media nous to advocate for the cause.
This article, alongside a number of follow-up articles outlining brands that had ended discounts with the NRA, drove a huge amount of conversation in the wake of the shooting, and drove the conversation in a way that it has traditionally not normally gone.
As a result of this response on social media, the NRA lost partnerships with Hertz, Delta, United, and First National Bank amongst a number of others.
Beyond these calls for the NRA to lose its partnerships, the top stories principally focused on two things. The first was ridicule for the idea of arming teachers as a solution for stopping school shootings.
The second, and more interesting, has been a focus on the survivors of the shooting and their campaign to minimize the chances of a school shooting ever happening again by mounting a number of campaigns and protests.
So what’s different this time? After all, social media has been around for the tragic moments of recent history, and yet it is only this time that events have evolved differently. This is partly to do with the survivors themselves and how they have taken the cause under their collective wing. We’ve noted before how willing Gen Z is to engage with political causes on social, and this is a manifestation of that, telling their own emotional story to push for political change.
People who are afraid of this movement because it’s “too political…”
Shooters like the one at my school don’t aim for red or blue.
This is about the lives of everybody, red, blue, or however one may identify.
The only partisanship here is those with us and those against us
— Cam (@cameron_kasky) March 8, 2018
Social media has allowed these young men and women to organize a response and draw out the conversation in a way that had not been possible before in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, where news is always breaking.
Social media has amplified voices and brought real change
All of the action on social has led to real-world consequences this time. As mentioned, the NRA has had high-profile branded partners end discounts with it. Some stores have said they will stop selling guns to anyone under the age of 21, and laws have even been signed in Florida to prevent sales to anyone under that age. A real-world effect spurred by social media may have seemed unthinkable in the past.
This is in part down to the sheer persistence of the survivors of the Parkland shooting, who have had their voices amplified on social media to turn the moment into a movement. They have not allowed their movement to be buried by the next meme or the continuing news cycle, and are using social media’s bullhorn effect to make sure their voices and stories are heard.
It shows the power of social media that these teenagers can have such a huge effect on the conversation at a national level. The capturing of a moment is something that is often uniquely possible on social, and with the mass gun control walkouts planned for schools across the country today, this is clearly not a movement that is going away anytime soon.
For all the talk of the negative impact it can have on our lives that occasionally get bandied around, this movement really does prove that old adage, from back in the early days of social platforms, that social media can give voice to the voiceless.