#NeverAgain MSD: from outrage to movement for gun control

13 minutes to read
Article
Mehreen Sarfaraz
01/07/2019

Teens from Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD) high school, whose school was involved in a deadly shooting have ignited a movement known as the Never Again MSD. They stand for gun control and advocates for tighter regulations against gun violence. The movement, which originated online as the hashtag #Neveragain and later made other hashtags such as #Marchforourlives, has made its way offline and impacted the offline world.

The Never Again MSD movement and the process of assembling massive protests against gun violence and for gun control online and offline will be analyzed. The analysis will consist of the origins of the movements online and how it stimulated action in the offline world.

In what follows, I will look at social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, US news articles, and the main website of the movement, called March for Our Lives, in a search for information regarding the background and message of the movement.

#Neveragain: how did it start?

On February 14th, 2018, Majory Stoneman Douglas Highschool in Parkland, Florida was subject to open gunfire killing seventeen students and staff members. Seventeen others were also injured. The students who survived were severely traumatized, and a number of those students were so angered and frustrated with the lack of safety at the school that they decided to vent their frustration on social media. One of the creators of the movement, Cameron Kasky, for instance tweeted, “Can’t sleep, I’m not scared or nervous… I’m just angry” (Witt, 2018). Several other students did likewise.

Kasky was invited to CNN and other talk shows to talk about the shooting. Three days later, after a candlelight vigil, Kasky decided to invite a few friends over to his house, and the movement was born (Witt, 2018). The name of the movement was decided and shared, as Kasky wrote on his personal Facebook page “Working on a central space that isn’t just my personal page for all of us to come together and change this,” he posted. “Stay alert. #NeverAgain.” (Witt,2018). Thus, they launched their Facebook page Never Again MSD.

A few days after many other students began joining Never again MSD. Jaclyn Corin, a member who lost a friend in the shooting, posted on Instagram about meeting with Florida congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Coryn's post urged people to contact their local and state representatives about stricter gun laws and gained a lot of attention (Witt,2018). Members began meeting with many state representatives, until it led to a rally in Tallahassee, attended by hundreds of Douglas students. 

The members’ social media accounts garnered thousands of followers, and members became keynote speakers at several Florida rallies which were broadcast nationally (Lowery, 2018). With the help of NGO Everytown for Gun Safety, the students held a demonstration in Washington DC condemning gun violence on March 24, 2018. Many celebrities (including Oprah Winfrey and George Clooney) sponsored and promoted the event. Organizers estimated that about 800.000 people attended the March For Our Lives (Reilly, 2018). Protests ensued nationwide.

What Never Again MSD stands for

According to Silverstein (2003) message is the communication of a whole brand; it is everything that embodies an individual or a movement from identity and style to image and standpoint on issues. Silverstein (2003) discusses how standpoint on issues is one of the things that contributes to the overall message of a politician, or in this case a movement. Communication about issues is what leads to the formation of an identity - “they always rely on discussion of- as they are called in politics- ‘the issues’.” 

In the case of Never Again MSD, the issue is gun violence. As stated on the movement's website: “Not one more. We cannot allow one more person to be killed by senseless gun violence” (March for our lives, n.d.). This represents their unwavering standpoint on the issue of gun violence, which started the movement. Furthermore, they aim to create a safer place for people of all ages, although the emphasis is on youth: "We cannot allow the normalization of gun violence to continue. We must create a safe and compassionate nation for our youth to grow up in."

The above quote not only portrays the position of the movement on this issue, but it also represents who this movement is for: it is inclusive and for all youth. During an interview with MSD student David Hogg, he called out the media for covering the school shooting inaccurately, saying “black students weren’t give a voice” (Hemedy, 2018). Antiracism is a consciously articulated stance within the movement, not only recognizing discrimination against black voices during the school shooting, but also showing support for “the communities who have always stared down the barrel of a gun” (Hemedy, 2018).

This illustrates how Never Again MSD acknowledges the Black Lives Matter movement - a movement also sparked by accounts of gun violence against Black people. Another Parkland shooting survivor, Aalayah Eastmond, proclaimed in a speech at one of the rallies, "Yes I am a Parkland survivor and an MSD student, but before this I was a regular black girl and after this, I am still black, and I am still regular, and I will fight for all of us" (Hemedy, 2018). The Never Again MSD stance on these issues is clearly demonstrated through this saying by Alex Wind: "It's not about race. It is not about your sex. It is not about ethnicity. It is not about gender. It is not about how much money you make, What it comes down to is life or death" (Hemedy, 2018).

Clearing stating their stance on multiple issues not only gives this movement a certain identity, but clearly shows their message. Furthermore, the representatives of the movement are always 'on message'. Staying 'on message' is constantly producing a consistent image of one’s standpoint through time (Silverstein, 2003). The members of this movement maintain the consistency of their image: the main faces of the movement are always young students, and this is something that has been done from the beginning. Additionally, consistency in their image is upheld through talking about issues in their rallies and consistently bringing members from diverse communities to rallies.

Social media contributes massively to the consistency of their image as well. After all, social media was the only way they could communicate with their audiences before they got access to mainstream media. Thus, their image and style was first and foremost established through Facebook posts and tweets.

Ideology of Never Again MSD and repelling hegemony

Every movement has an ideology. According to Blommaert (2005), an ideology is a perspective on the world, shared by a group of actors. It is often associated with a certain set of symbolic representations, such as discourses, images and stereotypes, as well as with certain behaviors and ideals. First and foremost, the ideology of the Never Again MSD movement clearly lies with the issue of gun violence and it’s complete eradication through gun control. Additionally, they strive for equality amongst different communities in relation to gun violence, and they see gun violence as something that brings diverse communities together.

They strive to create a society where no individual has to fear gun violence regardless of which community there from, but they do recognize the privilege that some members of society have. Not only do they recognize this privilege, but they actively try to fight it as well, through marches and by giving minorities a voice during rallies. Given the deep cleavages and inequalities in American society, the movement can be seen as anti-hegemonic.

The leaders of this movement have repeatedly said this movement is ‘nonpartisan’ relative to politics. However, the movement’s identity does lean more towards a progressive-liberal position within the political system. As we know, the National Rifle Association (NRA) is one of Donald Trump’s biggest supporters (Cummings, 2018). The Never Again MSD movement is clearly against the NRA, and members even expose politicians who take campaign contributions from the NRA (McLaughlin, 2018). 

The role of social media and algorithms

The Never Again MSD movement originated online and is a result of tweets and posts of members going viral. The number of retweets and shares is what made the movement and the members of the movement gain popularity. Maly (2018) reminds us: “Numbers matter.” Due to popularity being a quantified concept in the digital world, it is prone to manipulability. This, Maly says, “gives birth to  a new kind of populism and new type of activism, algorithmic activism” (Maly, 2018). He further states that “Interacting with a post triggers the algorithm of the medium , which boosts the popularity rankings of this message and its messenger” (Maly, 2018).

The Never Again movement is a clear representation of algorithmic activism. Countless interactions with the posts of the students encouraged the students to form the movement. Two to three days after the shooting at MSD, students' tweets started going viral, with tweets generating between 2000 and 6000 likes and being retweeted from 300 to 2000 times. Cameron Kasky and Emma Gonzalez, two of the founders of the Never Again MSD movements, can be used as examples here.

tweet by Kasky talking about March for our Live event

tweet by Emma

Both tweets show large numbers of likes and retweets, but this is only part of what virality does. It also provokes increased mutual visibility for people and messages interacting with these tweets, creating a community. The more interactions a tweet generates, the more chance it will have to be featured as a Twitter Highlight, again increasing the chance that these tweets will reach potential new audiences (Maly, 2018). Therefore, the numbers of interactions with Gonzalez and Kasky are not only crucial to creating a perception of popularity, but also important in reaching new and bigger audiences algorithmically.

Kasky and Gonzales used the hashtags #NeverAgain and #MarchForOurLives in every tweet, creating a hashtag trend as their tweets generated massiveamounts of likes and retweets. Furthermore, they both knew that they had to prioritize time (since virality can be short-lived) and use hashtags that would keep discourse frames active for several months. It lead to more people talking about the issue of gun violence with the use of these hashtags, and allowed other events to be tagged to the original ones through the hashtag, with even larger audiences as an effect.

As for Facebook, the Never Again page (shown above) was the first page made by the movement on Facebook on February 16, 2018, effectively launching it online. Since then it has gained more than 150,000 likes and around 165,000 accounts follow the page, which means that posts from this page can appear on the timelines of hundreds of thousands of people. However, it hasn’t been active in recent months.

March for our lives facebook page

Another Facebook page dedicated to rallies and marches of the movement called March for Our Lives was made on 18th February 2018, and this account is still active currently.  As seen above it has more than 280,000 likes and over 302,000 followers - a huge reach for a Facebook page.

facebook post

A recent post made on 14th December 2018 commemorated the students who died at Sandy Hook Elementary School six years ago. This post has around 3,800 reactions, 124 comments and approximately 1,700 shares. Here too, these numbers point towards high visibility of this post, since the number of interactions (especially shares) will have the viral effects described earlier (Maly,2018).  

The algorithms triggered by the numbers of interactions on these posts and tweets have led to the rapid growth of this movement online and increased its following and support. Thus, this encouraged the members of the movement to lead the movement offline by conducting marches and rallies through the help of social media. This shows the importance of social media and the role it has played in making this movement grow and gain support.

Mobilization of Never Again MSD

The Never Again MSD Movement started from the online public sphere but created a public space offline through the help of social media. It is a textbook example of what Gerbaudo (2012) calls a “choreography of assembly”: the construction of a public space which is made “visible through the use of social media by directing people towards specific protest events”. Therefore, social media is used as a tool to assemble people “to choreograph collective action offline” - a form of mediation which informs people on what to do, where, when and how, while broadcasting any message by the members of the movement themselves.

Facebook, according to Gerbaudo, “is used to form groups, covert and overt - in order to establish those strong but flexible connections”. The Never Again MSD movement utilized their March for Our Lives Facebook page in creating an "event" for the marches. Those event pages inform people interested in attending about the place and time of the event. The event on March 24th was the first march against gun violence in Washington DC - an overwhelming success, as we saw earlier. 

Furthermore, there were many rallies and march events held in the US after the first march; these marches are still ongoing which shows that these events were successful. Movements originating online are often thought to be ‘leaderless’ (Gerbaudo,2012). This is not the case with the Never Again MSD movement: the students are the leaders of this movement, and they can draw on the support of many people and organizations assisting them in setting up these marches in a structural and organized way around the country. What the table of events and rallies also shows, is that the movement is not a one-off phenomenon but has been able to consolidate itself as a public force over a longer stretch of time.

In conclusion, social media is the reason why this movement came into existence and why it has acquired the prominent position it has in US public life. The Never Again MSD movement was able to stay 'on message' thanks to social media which gave them a platform and helped them communicate with their audience and maintain their image. Furthermore, it solidified their ideology amongst their target audience and media. The reason for the growth and massive support of this movement traces back to social media and its algorithm.

This is a result of algorithms increasing the visibility of the posts of the movement and the clever use of hashtags by the movement's leaders. Lastly, the movement's algorithmic activism led to choreographing collective action offline through creating events and using Facebook pages in support of such events, attracting many hundreds of thousands of participants. Never Again MSD is an excellent example of what loose and traditionally powerless groups can achieve when they exploit the potential of social media, have a clear message, and are determinated to go ahead relentlessly with their actions.

References:

Blommaert, J. (2005). Discourse: A critical introduction. Cambridge University Press.

Gerbaudo, P (2012) Tweets and the Streets: Social media and contemporary activism. Pluto Press

Ghorayshi, A. (2018, February 17) This Florida School Shooting Survivor Just Called Out Trump And The NRA. Buzzfeed News

Hemedy, S. (2018, March 25) The Parkland kids keep checking their privilege. CNN

Lowery, W (2018, February 18) He survived the Florida school shooting. He vows not to return to classes until gun laws change. Washington Post

Maly, I. (2018) Populism as a mediatized communicative relation: The birth of algorithmic populism. Tilburg University

March For Our Lives (n.d.) mission-statement.

McLaughlin, E. C. ( 2018, February 18) Parkland students say, 'We are going to be the last mass shooting'. CNN

Reilly, K. (2018, March 24) Here's the Size of the March For Our Lives Crowd in Washington. Time

Silverstein, M. (2003) Talking politics: The substance of style from Abe to "W". Prickly Paradigm Press Chicago

Witt, E. (2018, February 19) How the Survivors of Parkland Began the Never Again Movement. The NewYorker.