This time feels different: How the Parkland students are building a nationwide movement

In the week since the tragic shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, we’ve been inspired by how the remarkable students there have launched a movement that’s reverberating nationwide.

As communications practitioners, we spend our time thinking about how ideas and information spread online and in the mass media — and how the rules continue to change as the traditional barriers to entry disappear.

We’ve watched with frustration as the country has reacted to mass shooting after mass shooting but ultimately failed to act. But one week out from Parkland, something is different:

Media and public attention is lasting longer than many recent mass shootings: Americans’ focus on Parkland has been more sustained than we typically see. Google Search trends show that search interest has remained high relative to Las Vegas, Orlando, Sutherland Springs, and other recent shootings. As of this writing, gun-related content remains on the front pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Bloomberg and others.

NRA funding is attracting more interest than ever before: After the horrific Las Vegas shooting, Americans took to Google to learn more about how the NRA influences policy by funneling money to candidates. We see this pattern after all American mass shootings. Something about Parkland has been different. So far, search interest for “NRA funding” and related terms is 7X higher than Las Vegas and 16X higher than Orlando.

Students are rallying and pressuring lawmakers across the country: As the gun control conversation has spread online, thousands of students have organized local protests and walkouts.

What about the Parkland shooting, and the movement its spurring, is unique? Parkland students are “digital natives” who understand how to communicate online.

In the face of unbelievable trauma, they turned to their phones to share: The first reports from Stoneman Douglas High School didn’t come from local news reporters, they came from inside the hallways and classrooms of the high school. Seeing the personal accounts of the shooting in real-time from students changed the way we experienced this horrific event.

They communicate authentically, unapologetically and fearlessly: In the days following the shooting, a committed group of students like Emma Gonzales and David Hogg in Parkland have shown how powerful authentic digital organizing can be — and it comes naturally to them. It’s raw. They are fired up, and they aren’t holding back. Their voices and their energy are a refreshing change from the typical partisan arguments. There is something particularly powerful their blunt message (“We call BS!”) — that cuts through the noise. Peter Hamby put it this way on Twitter: “High schoolers and college students intuitively understand the flow of information, messaging and the power of images in the digital era — better than most decision-makers in Washington and New York.”

They understand that in today’s fractured media landscape, you have to communicate everywhere: Within hours, Parkland students were using every social channel available to them to get their message out. They used personal social media accounts and created new pages for their Never Again movement and March For Our Lives event. As of Tuesday night, Buzzfeed reported that one of the students had participated in more than 50 press interviews.

They’re responding to attacks and conspiracies in real-time: Perhaps the darkest side of these students’ remarkable campaign are the right-wing conspiracy and personal attacks being waged on them. But rather than let these slow their campaign down, they have addressed conspiracies head-on by making light of them and providing the real facts when warranted.

We’re excited to see students across the country continue to build this movement in partnership with groups like Everytown For Gun Safety and The Brady Campaign, who have been doing great work in this space for many years.

These students remind us all that a small, dedicated group of passionate people with the right set of tools can do remarkable things.

It’s our hope that Parkland will spark both conversation and action.