And so here we are again. Another mass shooting – at a school, no less – has claimed multiple innocent lives, scarred survivors, and devastated a community. Collectively we mourn the senseless loss of life, cry for the tragedy of shattered innocence, and vow never to let it happen again. And then it does. And so here we are again.
Yet this time something has changed. Fueled by their own grief and anger, the students at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, have rallied to break the cycle, launching a campaign of protests, walk-outs, and activism to force lawmakers to take notice and take action. Using #NeverAgain, their message spread like wild fire across news media outlets and social media platforms, inspiring others to join the crusade and take a stand against gun violence. Parkland students became more than victims and survivors, they became the outspoken and unexpected catalysts for change in a broken system.
America (and the world) watched as a group of high school students became galvanized and organized to demand something more pressing than justice: a solution. But something else changed, too. Public reaction to the shooting, while initially sympathetic, began to fragment when the kids became more vocal about stricter gun control laws. Social media surged with conspiracy theories, including the notion that the Parkland survivors weren’t students at all, but “crisis actors” pushing a liberal agenda.
Conspiracy theories involving mass shootings are, unfortunately, nothing new. Sandy Hook is still widely believed to be a hoax by conspiracy theorists who have even resorted to harassing, stalking and threatening victims families. What separates Parkland from other mass shootings is how rapidly the conspiracies went viral on social media platforms, as well as the failure of those platforms to address the issue quickly enough. A video on YouTube, for example, smearing student David Hogg as an actor rocketed to the top of the platform’s trending list and garnered 200,000 views before it was removed. YouTube has since acknowledged the mistake (due to an algorithm) and removed the video, however others remain.
Response to the Parkland conspiracy theories was deafening.
To be clear, these kids are not actors, impersonators, conspirators, plants, agitators, or any of the other slanderous pronouncements levied against them; they are student survivors of an active shooter who wandered the halls of their high school, opened fire and claimed seventeen lives, in spite of what some believe. Publicly vilifying them while challenging their sense of agency and credibility in the wake of the unimaginable trauma they have endured poses a question we may not want the answer to: if mass shootings have become the new normal, have we reached a new low?