Teenaged survivors of the Parkland, Fla. High school shooting have amassed huge followings on social media in the weeks since a gunman attacked their school, assembling powerful social media tools in the national debate over guns and mass shootings.
Senior Emma Gonzalez, who now has more than 1.1 million followers on Twitter, has seen her audience expand by tens of thousands of new followers each day since Feb. 19 according to data from SocialBlade.
Gonzalez now has more Twitter followers than the National Rifle Association, which has more than 600,000 followers, as well as NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch, who has almost 800,000 followers.
Senior David Hogg and junior Sarah Chadwick, two other students who have made multiple appearances on national television, each have hundreds of thousands of followers as well.
The teenagers have built their followings in part by being able to engage in the kind of combative, often humorous tweets that get social media attention. Their curt responses to conservative media personalities have earned tens of thousands of retweets.
Experts on digital media say the students, who grew up around social media, have been able to use Twitter more effectively than their anti-gun control adversaries.
Mike Horning, a communications professor at Virginia Tech, said that teenagers like Gonzalez and Hogg have spent their entire lives on the internet.
“They’ve grown up in these digital worlds where they can jump from one platform to another. They can learn it quickly and they have,” he said. “That’s a unique phenomenon."
That translates into an energizing charisma online that the NRA has not been able to compete with, said Alan Rosenblatt, a digital political strategist at the Democrat-aligned Lake Research Partners.
“During the election you talked about the enthusiasm gap between Trump and Clinton. Now there’s an enthusiasm gap between students and the NRA by large amounts,” Rosenblatt said.
That gap has been most visible in students’ scathing responses to gun control opponents on Twitter. In many cases, their tweets accrue many more retweets and likes than the original posts they were responding to.
In one tweet, for example, the NRA said that it wouldn’t be deterred by companies that dropped their discounts for NRA members. Marjory Stoneman Douglas student Jaclyn Corin jabbed back, giving the organization a sarcastic offer of“thoughts and prayers.”
The NRA’s tweet netted 22,072 retweets and 51,251 favorites. But Corin’s response earned over 10,000 more retweets more and almost 90,000 more favorites.
Other students also use a biting humor that resonates on social media.
“We should change the names of AR-15s to ‘Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate GOP campaign arm outraises Democratic counterpart in September House passes bills to secure telecommunications infrastructure Senators call for answers from US firm over reported use of forced Uyghur labor in China MORE’ because they are so easy to buy,” Chadwick wrote in a tweet that received over 80,000 retweets and almost 300,000 likes.
The survivors’ emergence as pro-gun control voices on social media is a new development in the response to mass shootings.
“They’re able to dominate the news cycle and discourse in ways we haven’t really seen after a shooting,” said Rosenblatt.
Social media researchers say that part of the students' viral resonance is explained by the raw empathy that the students evoke.
“The NRA gets into the minutiae of weapons and tells people they’re not experts and that they don’t understand what they’re talking about, while Hogg and others' rhetoric cuts right through that," Rosenblatt said. “His emotion and integrity overrides anything a gun policy expert can bring to the issue.”
Jason Kint, the CEO of media trade association Digital Content Next, said the students’ tweets succeed in part because of their authenticity.
“I think that there’s no doubt that authenticity captures more attention and works better on social media,” Kint said. “People want a real person on the internet.”
It’s unclear whether the students will be able to turn their massive social media presences into momentum for gun control.
“For the same reason that they can attract that following quickly, the public’s attention can change and they can lose interest quickly too,” Kint said.