I don’t want your condolences you fucking piece of shit, my friends and teachers were shot. Multiple of my fellow classmates are dead. Do something instead of sending prayers. Prayers won’t fix this. But gun control will prevent it from happening again. — Sarah Chad, Marjory Stoneman Douglas student, on Twitter, February 14, 2018
The brave students of Parkland, Florida, who saw seventeen of their classmates and teachers murdered on Valentine’s Day, are doing something astonishing: courageous grieving—and a strategic counteroffensive in the twin fogs of disinformation and gunsmoke. Their uprising provides a new model for all of us who live in two worlds: The real one, where the blood is, and the digital one, where the lies are.
Virginia Heffernan (@page88) is an Ideas contributor at WIRED. She is the author of Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art. She is also a cohost of Trumpcast, an op-ed columnist at the Los Angeles Times, and a frequent contributor to Politico. Before coming to WIRED she was a staff writer at the New York Times—first a TV critic, then a magazine columnist, and then an opinion writer. She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia and a master’s degree and PhD in English from Harvard. In 1979 she stumbled onto the internet, when it was the back office of weird clerics, and she’s been in the thunderdome ever since.
The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas are civilian teenagers, not trained soldiers, but their presence of mind as citizens of these two worlds kicked in during the massacre. They sent texts while under fire—not just expressing fear and love, but creating contemporaneous notes about what was happening to them. “Sam,” one brother texted another, “My teacher died. And he’s sitting in the doorway.” A student named Kaitlin Carbocci received a text from her sister, also a student at the high school: “kaitlin I am not joking they just shot through the walls someone in my class is injured.”
Many of these messages have been presented as heartbreaking—and they are—but their specificity also seems keenly designed to thwart future efforts to rewrite history. A tweet by @Luvanth at 2:42 pm was the first to trigger a newsroom alert. "There's a real school shooting going on right now i'm not even playing i just heard 10 gunshots there's police everything i'm shaking." Later, another student tweeted: “Just to make it known, for those who might not know Douglas or be near Parkland, that the building the shooter chose was well known as the ‘Freshman building’ its wasn't all 9th graders but had the highest amount of young students. He knew that, everyone who went here knew that.”
And the students not only noted facts, they made video, which instantly built an evidentiary archive to counter the disinformation that now pounces on every mass shooting. No Alex Jones was going to claim that the friends, classmates and teachers of these students were not murdered in cold blood by a teenager wielding an AR-15 military-style rifle. Videos by students appeared on social media while the attack was still underway. In one, students, some shaking with fear, raise their hands while police officers storm the room. In another video, a hurt student is carried out of a classroom.
Their notes, video, and testimony is already, just days after the event, creating a fuller and more direct record of this massacre than any before it.
But telling the truth isn’t enough on the broken and infected internet of 2018—and the students, who were barely born when Facebook launched, know this. They had to quickly move to counter lies, half-truths and hypocrisy that might obscure the truth of the day. (Indeed: Disinformation, much of it pushed by pro-gun Russian groups and botnets, appeared immediately, some of it connecting the shooter, Nikolas Cruz, to far-left groups and spotlighting his mental illness, which the president promptly picked up and tweeted about.)
The students did not stand for this. In interviews, posts, and tweets, they brought antibodies to the info pathogens. Newtown parents, Las Vegas adults, and other survivors of recent mass murders have not been digitally confident this way: They have been slower to recognize memes as memes.
Telling the truth isn’t enough on the broken and infected internet of 2018—and the students, who were barely born when Facebook launched, know this.
But on day one the Parkland students pulverized weak memes like “thoughts and prayers.” And when Tomi Lahren, the rightwing firebrand, tried the usual palaver about how liberals and lunatics—not guns—are to blame for the deaths, tireless Kyra, as @longlivekcx, tweeted: “A gun has killed 17 of my fellow classmates. A gun has traumatized my friends. My entire school, traumatized from this tragedy. This could have been prevented. Please stfu tomi.”
It takes uncommon courage and clarity to set celebrities like Lahren straight, not to mention the president of the United States. Maybe the kind of courage and clarity that only an adolescent aware of her power online, her mind sharpened by tragedy, can lay claim to.
So the students are making their incontrovertible record. They are distributing it in social media and mainstream media, giving interviews, publishing editorials and saturating the airwaves with the truth. In the meantime, they are crowding out lies and dismantling them: calling bullshit on gibberish from the GOP and the president.
As one student who tweets as @sighnatasha said, “to the republican legislators who will continue to ignore the american people and their cries for gun control and gun laws just to continue to receive money from the NRA: a big fuck you. your own people are being killed daily. the elections in november shall speak.”
And as Cameron Kasky, a 17-year-old junior, put it, “Everything I’ve heard where we can’t do anything and it’s out of our hands and it’s inevitable, I think that’s a facade that the GOP is putting up.”
In a final step, the Parkland students are refusing to retreat. While excoriating Congress and President Trump for hypocrisy and cowardice, they are also demanding concrete reforms. In many cases, they are asking for the outright dismantling of the NRA. On Friday, at a neighboring high school in Parkland, dozens of students protested the NRA and Trump’s gun policies, warning the president, who has announced a plan to visit, to stay “far away” from their town.
This uprising might be just getting started. Two days after the Parkland shooting, on Friday, special prosecutor Robert Mueller announced a grand jury’s indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities for waging “information warfare,” since 2014. Using fake American personas, social media platforms and other digital media to advance their infiltration and influence, defendants allegedly engaged in a conspiracy to defraud the United States, sow cultural and political divisions and defeat Hillary Clinton. As the Parkland students seem to grasp intuitively, the war has been on the internet for years. Smear campaigns, propaganda and disinformation have become the internet’s stock in trade.
But the Parkland students also see the internet as a place to defeat lies with truth. It is testament to their brilliance and their bravery beyond measure that, in their darkest hour, they have taken up the fight for truth. May the rest of us have the sense to join them.
When Tragedy Strikes
- Breaking news always creates an opportunity for trolls to grab attention—and the Parkland shooting is no exception.
- Every tragedy comes with a slew of misinformation. Be sure to separate fact from fiction.
- Staying glued to Twitter might seem like the ultimate bad use of your time during a real emergency—but in fact, first responders are developing new tactics for when an emergency goes viral.
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