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How student survivors of the Florida school shooting are using social media to demand change

“As teenagers, we know how to use social media and we know how to take advantage of it.”

Before 14 February 2018, Delaney Tarr used Twitter to share pictures of dogs, screenshots from her favourite Netflix shows and drawings by artists she admired. After a gunman murdered 14 of her classmates and three of her teachers at a high school in Parkland, Florida, the 17-year-old's online presence changed. Since then, her Twitter profile has been made up of moving tributes to her dead classmates, strongly worded arguments with Fox News presenters, and a hashtag: #NeverAgain.

“When the tragedy happened, we realised that this was how we were going to reach as many people as possible,” Tarr told me when we spoke on the phone.

“Even if you look at the current president of the United States, he uses Twitter in a way that is unprecedented. And as teenagers, we know how to use social media and we know how to take advantage of it.”

Tarr is one of hundreds of Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD) High School students using Twitter to make their voices heard. As well as #NeverAgain, they have set up crowdfunding pages to pay for marches and memorials and organised a national school walkout day (planned for 20 April).

During the attack, many students tweeted about what was unfolding in real time – with 14-year-old Aidan Minoff posting pictures from underneath the desk where he was hiding. “My school is being shot up and I am locked inside. I’m fucking scared right now,” he wrote in a tweet shared more than 20,000 times. Many more students uploaded videos of the shooting to the messaging app Snapchat.

In a tweet (since deleted) sent on the day of the attack, right-wing pundit Mark Dice criticised the students. “Someone tell Generation Z kids that in the event of a school shooting, they should call 911 instead of posting video of it on Snapchat,” he wrote.

This ridiculous comment was informed by the assumption that social media is inherently frivolous. It isn’t. “I’ve seen all the criticism and I’ve seen some valid points saying that it is too sensitive to see those videos,” Delaney Tarr said, referring to Snapchat clips showing bodies on the floor, pools of blood, and students cowering in fear. “But, ultimately, they’re giving you an experience that nobody has had before.

“You’re hearing the gunshots that we heard, you’re seeing the blood that we had to see. It is something that will haunt you just as it is haunting all of us.”

Nikhita Nookala is a 17-year-old MSD student who tweeted from her hiding place: “im in a closet”. “It was the only thing I could do at the time,” she told me over email. Along with her terrified peers, she received frequent Snapchat updates from her friends elsewhere in the school. “Images were the only thing that we had as proof that our friends were safe,” she told me. “And now those same images can be used as evidence in court against the man that killed our friends.” On the day of the shooting, Nookala also sent a tweet to Donald Trump. “Why was a student able to terrorize my school mr president,” she wrote in reply to Trump’s message offering “condolences” to the victims.

More than 660,000 people have seen her tweet, while five million watched an online video of a SWAT team evacuating a classroom at the school, posted online by a pupil’s sister. In it, one child’s hands can be seen trembling uncontrollably. Will any of this make a difference to America’s gun control debate? “Ultimately, I think people are more willing to change when they can see the damage that has been done,” Delaney Tarr said. Nikhita Nookala agreed: “Having our voices heard is the most important thing we can do right now.”

Snapchat videos will undoubtedly provoke emotions in a way that the traditional media cannot. But some of the posts are hugely affecting not only because they show bloodied bodies, but because they remind us the victims are children, using emojis to illustrate their pain.

“My teacher died,” reads part of a text message exchange between two brothers trapped in the school. One brother screenshotted the texts and gained 150,000 retweets when he later shared them on Twitter. “Don’t do anything,” one brother wrote to the other. Then: “Don’t DO ANYTHING”. After getting no reply, he sent another message: “You understand?”. Then another. “Matthew.” Another: “Please answer me.”

To read these texts is to feel the moment-by-moment agony of the students. This wouldn’t be possible without the mobile phones that allowed them to communicate and, later, to share their fraught exchanges.

It could be argued that these messages were too raw and personal to share widely, manifestations of a society obsessed with personal revelation and putting everything online. I disagree: sharing these texts is an inspirational act that allows the entire world to feel the students’ pain.

On 24 November 2017, thousands of people were caught in a moment of collective panic at Oxford Circus in the West End of London. The Tube station was evacuated and police swarmed the streets in response to what turned out to be a false terror alarm. My boyfriend’s offices are located just off Oxford Circus; we used Facebook Messenger to stay in contact during the chaos. Because I didn’t share our exchanges on social media, they are ours alone. But by taking their most intimate messages and posting them online, the Florida high school students can shock us out of our usual desensitised response to all-too-common American mass shootings.

“We’re not going to be quieted,” Delaney Tarr said, explaining that Twitter will give students such as her a voice after the news cycle has moved on from the latest act of gun violence. “We’re not going to be silent. We’re going to keep fighting for this until there is some change.” 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia

Italy's populist Five Star Movement (M5S) party leader Luigi Di Maio. CREDIT: GETTY
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Five Star’s “just fix it!” politics and the new age of digital populism

 In the Italian election, Five Star made radical and exciting promises – like a monthly universal basic income of around €780.

One evening in 2004, after finishing a performance of his comedy show Black Out, Beppe Grillo was approached by a tall, austere-looking man called Gianroberto Casaleggio, an IT specialist who ran a web consulting firm. He told Grillo that he could create a blog for him that would transform Italian politics. The internet, Casaleggio explained, would change everything. Political parties and newspaper editors were no longer needed. They could be “disintermediated”.

Grillo, a household name in Italy, was not particularly interested in technology but he was interested in politics. The following year the pair created the promised blog and Grillo began writing about cronyism, green issues and the power of the web to smash what he considered a corrupt, elitist and closed political system. Thousands, then millions, of frustrated Italians flocked to his site. They began using another website,, to gather offline to discuss Grillo’s latest post, and co-ordinate campaigns and rallies. It was heady stuff.

In 2007, this fledgling movement held Vaffanculo Day (which roughly translates to “fuck off day”), an event directed at the suits in charge. Grillo crowd-surfed the thousands who’d turned out in Bologna’s main square in a red dingy. Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the respected centre-left newspaper La Repubblica, wrote an editorial titled “The barbaric invasion of Beppe Grillo”.

In the age of Russian trolls and algorithmic ads, it’s easy to forget how optimistic the mood around digital politics was in the late Noughties. Occupy, the Pirate Party and Barack Obama all seemed to presage the end of tired old hierarchies. They were getting a digital upgrade: open, inclusive and more democratic. Grillo led the charge: in 2009 he declared that his band of online followers would stand in elections as the Five Star Movement. The group refused state funding, capped its MPs’ salaries at the average national wage, and pledged to publish all proposed bills online three months before approval to allow for public comment. All major policy decisions would be taken by votes on the blog, including candidate selections.

Seasoned political analysts dismissed Five Star as a bunch of bloggers and kids, led by a clown. But the movement started achieving local successes, especially in Italy’s poorer south. By 2012 there were 500 local groups and in the following year’s general election, Five Star won 25 per cent of the vote. Analysts repeatedly predicted that normal service would be resumed – but it never was.

In the Italian general election earlier this month, Five Star won 32 per cent of the vote, and 227 seats, easily making it the largest single party. (Grillo, who is 69, distanced himself from Five Star before this triumph. He remains the “guarantor”, but the new leader is 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio.) In a hung parliament, Five Star is currently in a stalemate with Italy’s right-wing alliance (the Northern League, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the Brothers of Italy), which collectively secured more seats.

While Five Star has declared its commitment to direct democracy, many major decisions are taken by a small cadre, which has alienated some early supporters. Its occasional dalliances with power – the current mayor of Rome is Five Star’s Virginia Raggi – have been largely unsuccessful. Yet more than any other movement in Europe, Five Star demonstrates how digital upstarts can demolish years of cosy centrist consensus. Meet-ups are full of sparky, motivated activists – rather like the Corbynite Momentum – who combine online and offline techniques to deliver their message.

Five Star’s political ideas appear radical and exciting, especially to places blighted by economic stagnation. In the Italian election, Five Star promised a monthly universal basic income of around €780 for every adult.

Yet the movement’s rise also reveals the darker side of digital politics. Five Star is unashamedly populist and divisive, pitting the good, honest, ordinary citizen against the out-of-touch professional political class. Ever noticed how all populists, whether left or right, seem to love social media? Nigel Farage, Bernie Sanders, Marine Le Pen, Syriza and, of course, Donald Trump are all avid adopters. It’s partly because short, emotional messages, the populist stock-in-trade, spread so well online. Grillo frequently insults his opponents – he used to call the former Italian prime minister Mario Monti “Rigor Montis” – and new Five Star leader Di Maio recently called for the immediate halt of the “sea taxi service” that rescues migrants in the Mediterranean. There’s a receptive online audience for such content. And the blog is central to Five Star, just as Twitter is to Trump, because, it says, it allows it to circumnavigate the self-interested establishment, and deliver “the truth” straight to the people.

But the love affair runs deeper than clickable posts. The internet is inculcating all of us with new, unrealistic expectations. I call it “just fix it!” politics. Everything online is fast and personalised, answers are simple and immediate. The unhappy compromise and frustrating plod of politics looks increasingly inadequate by comparison, which fuels impatience and even rage.

Populists promise to cut through the tedium with swift and obvious answers, and in that sense they are tuned in to how we live as consumers. By contrast, centrist parties have struggled in the digital age because their watery, dull promises are weighed down by practical know-how and association with power. (“Boring! Traitors!”)

The rage of the jilted lover knows few bounds. This is the problem with all populist movements: what happens when things aren’t as easy as promised? A few days after Five Star’s stunning election result, dozens of young Italians turned up at job centres in Puglia, demanding their €780 monthly basic income. Should Five Star form a government, millions of Italians will turn up with them – and demand a lot more than a few hundred euros. 

Jamie Bartlett is the author of “Radicals: Outsiders Changing the World” (Windmill Books)

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game