Kids these days. Eyes always on a screen, fingers tapping out texts and tweets and who knows what else about memes, or makeup and music — and, oh yes, about mass shootings and the need to ban the weapons that made it so easy for one young man to murder 17 of his peers in Parkland, Fla., last week.
The teenagers at Stoneman Douglas High School grew up online. So it makes sense that when they grew up again all at once — as a gunman’s AR-15 assault rifle turned them from students into survivors — the tragic coming-of-age story took place on the web, too. That’s for better, and for worse.
The worse is all too familiar. An apology from Dinesh D’Souza is far rarer than a gun homicide, but the political commentator had to issue one after a tweet on Tuesday in response to a photo of devastated students watching Florida representatives vote down a ban on assault-style weapons. “Worst news since their parents told them to get summer jobs,” D’Souza said. (He claims he was mocking “media manipulation,” not the children.)
That nasty tweet only increased sympathy for the students. More troubling is the propaganda campaign that began less than 24 hours after the shooter walked away in cuffs. Russian social-media accounts — the same sort that sowed discord in 2016 — sounded off in fury against proponents of gun restrictions. The conspiracy theorists called the shooting a “false-flag” operation, designed by the government to collect the citizenry’s guns.
A 17-year-old, who just days ago witnessed one of his former classmates slaughter almost a score of others, had to look at a camera and tell CNN that “I am not a crisis actor” after Infowars, Gateway Pundit and others claimed that his father, a retired FBI agent, had coached him to become an “overnight celebrity” for the left. First Son Donald Trump Jr. liked two tweets that painted the student as a deep-state pawn.
This time, though, something was different. First, classmates of those killed replied to “thoughts and prayers” with calls for change, often laced with laudable snark. From there, they started a hashtag, which rallied others around them as they drove from funerals to television interviews to funerals and back again. They even pounded the pavement, six hours away, in Tallahassee petitioning for legislation that would take AR-15s and their ilk off the shelves. On Wednesday, some of them met with state lawmakers. At the same time, in multiple states across the country, students who had seen the social-media campaign walked out of their classrooms in solidarity.
We’ve caught glimpses of the potential for positive, web-produced change before. There was the Arab Spring abroad, and Occupy Wall Street here at home. But the dawn of democracy in the Middle East has dimmed, and those protesters eventually left those parks with policy, if not politics, pretty much the same as it ever was.
With the Parkland survivors, though, we’re not seeing the same adhocracy that has petered out time and again. These kids are bound not only by common loss, but by common location and face-to-face connection. They’ve been organizing for years as they racked up extracurriculars to decorate their college applications, and now they’re organizing again for something that really is life or death. They know what they want, and they know better than anyone what works and what doesn’t on the web — what riles people up, what draws them in, what prompts them to like and to share and to feel ashamed. Only the online generation could create so perfect a test case for the power of the online engine that thrums through every aspect of society today.
But it’s not only web savvy that has made a collection of children a torment for the National Rifle Association. These kids have another power the rest of us don’t: their innocence. False flags and crisis actors are the best their opponents can do. Naysayers can’t find photos of these students breaking bank windows or punching counter protesters. They can only find selfies with pets, pictures of prom invitations, swimming highlight reels and video covers of favorite songs. There is no kompromat here, only reminders of what we’ve lost already and what else there is to lose.
This is the world tech giants always wished they were creating. A distinct community is working with each other, online and off, and then going back online to build a broader community by, basically, telling the truth. By the looks of it, the cross-country conversation they’ve started won’t end anytime soon. We already know all about the dark forces of the web, and now these kids are showing us some light.