Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Emma González now has more than a million Twitter followers, more than both the National Rifle Association and its spokesperson Dana Loesch, as González and her fellow students continue to use the platform to drive attention to their cause.
It's now been nearly two weeks since the attack in Parkland and—in a break from the usual grim routine of mass shooting coverage—it continues to dominate the news. One big reason for that has been savvy social media use by González, who first tweeted from her account on Feb 18, and her fellow students, several of whom have also amassed large Twitter followings. As of Tuesday morning, David Hogg had 352,000 followers, Cameron Kasky 240,000 and Sarah Chadwick 237,000. All of those accounts appear to be rapidly gaining users by the thousands, as all four students push their campaign for stronger gun laws.
The students’ movement has helped keep the issue of school shootings and guns in the headlines for almost two weeks. Now, the key question facing them is whether, as time marches on and the cameras leave Parkland, they will still be able to command the nation's attention.
Not on their own, according to Daniel Kreiss, a professor at the University of North Carolina's school of journalism who has studied politics and new media. "What we know is that periods of sustained mass media attention are more likely to result in policy changes," he said in an email. "What I suspect is that the Parkland student's Twitter followings will be influential if they can leverage them for journalistic, mass media attention."
Facebook can be an excellent tool for organizing he said, but Twitter less so. He added that messages on Twitter are more likely to reach activists and partisans. To reach a more general audience and move policy, the students will need to find a way to keep big outlets interested in the gun debate. "At best, I think, Twitter can help set the agenda for the professional press," Kreiss said.
Georgetown professor Leticia Bode, who also specializes in political communications and new media, struck a similar note: "I think social media is one tool that is keeping the conversation alive, but I'm not sure it would work in isolation," she said. "Right now it's being used in combination with traditional media coverage and live events."
But she acknowledged that the students’ success has so far exceeded her expectations. Whatever happens next, she said, "I can definitely say we haven't seen anything like this before."
Across Twitter, fellow activists and allies celebrated González passing the NRA and Loesch in followers and then cracking one million. She and her fellow students have posted a mix of activism and emotional release on their accounts. In the last day, González has used Twitter to go after FedEx, which has said it will keep its discounted rate for NRA members. She retweeted several people criticizing the company, including a classmate who had responded to FedEx’s press release on the matter, “tldr, you’re not with us. okay! next!!!”
In addition to FedEx, Hogg has used his account to target Amazon, which has continued to host NRA TV on its platforms. He tweeted Tuesday, “So how else should we pressure @FedEx to end their relationship with the NRA? Same question for Amazon also I've been trying to cancel my prime membership along with everyone else that doesn't want to support @NRATV how should we go about that?”
In addition to activism—and pointed comments at President Donald Trump—students’ tweets about their experience have also gone viral.
“Yes we smile and laugh sometimes and yes we get put down for it, but what people don’t see is the panic attacks we have, or how every time someone drops something heavy we all freeze, you don’t see us sitting in the dirt at the memorials crying our eyes out,” Chadwick wrote over two tweets. “You don’t get the feeling we get in our stomachs every time we look at that building or hear his name. The number 17 isn’t different for you like it is for us now. You don’t understand so don’t tell us how we should be acting.”
While those tweets are obviously compelling on their own, when they go viral, they draws more eyeballs to the students’ accounts, which give greater audience to their political posts.
The students’ focus on FedEx, Amazon and other high-profile companies will help drive media coverage, Bode said.
“They're shifting both the narrative and the target of the narrative—not just focusing on government entities like lawmakers in Tallahassee or Washington, but also pointing out the role corporations have to play. This kind of activism—broadly referred to as political consumption—gives another pathway to seeking change,” she said.
So far, the students’ efforts to continue drawing mass media attention appear to be effective. Late Tuesday night, González retweeted a video from Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show account. In the clip, Fallon praised the students and said that he and his family would be joining them for their march in Washington on March 24.
“This is a real revolution,” Fallon said.