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.”

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

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 freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh

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