The Parkland shooting survivors are children. Remember that when they go viral. | Opinion

PARKLAND, Fla. — In person, Sarah Chadwick and Jaclyn Corin are fierce. And young.

Meeting Sunday outside the Yogurtology shop two blocks from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, these two mass shooting survivors wore matching gym shorts and lanyards. Chadwick’s had a koala clipped on.

I don’t mean to diminish them. I’m actually star-struck: These students have channeled a personal hell into one of the most potent online forces since @realDonaldTrump. Never before have survivors of gun violence stayed on the national agenda for so long.

But it’s easy to forget they’re children, waging battle in some of the nastiest corners of the Internet even while they process a trauma. That’s what makes them so effective — and also especially vulnerable.

You might know Chadwick, 16, as the Parkland kid who tweeted expletives at the president and deftly deflects attacks from politicians, gun-rights partisans, crazies and media personalities who don’t have qualms about picking on kids. Corin, the 17-year-old class president turned gun-control activist, is the one who tweeted, “Sorry, @NRA, the children are winning.” (On Wednesday Florida lawmakers imposed a waiting period and raised the purchasing age for long guns.)

What makes Chadwick and Corin interesting to a tech columnist is that in the wake of terror, they ran headfirst to a particularly treacherous online space: Twitter. It’s so nasty that even well-paid, grown-up celebrities such as Leslie Jones and Lena Dunham have decided to step away. On Twitter, Parkland kids have been called “crisis actors” and made pawns in conspiracy theories. They’ve been told they aren’t grieving properly. They’ve been threatened.

“Social media can be used for tremendous good and horrible things, and sometimes both at the same time,” Corin told me.

Will these kids be all right? I came away from our conversation inspired by their bravery – and fearful that technology is putting them back in harm’s way. If Silicon Valley’s geniuses can’t control social media’s dark side, how can a teenager?

For Corin, it has affected her personal relationships. “I have lost a few close friends who feel like we are doing this for personal gain or attention,” she said. “It is a really hard thing to choose between helping the nation or your best friend.”

And nobody knows what the impact is of having thousands of strangers come after you because you survived a mass shooting. “The worst ones to me are the people who don’t even believe the shooting happened,” Chadwick said. “I turned off my DMs [direct messages] on Twitter for that reason.”

She continued: “Or when people accuse us of having an agenda. Did we have a political agenda before this? No. Honestly, I would give anything for this to have never happened.”

Then there’s the violent threats. Their parents, who Corin said are keeping out of the spotlight at the insistence of their children, now track their online activity — but what can they do? Corin says her father scours Twitter for threats, and has asked her to not go out alone.

What’s Twitter’s responsibility to the kids? Its executives certainly like to take credit for the service’s positive social impact. After the Parkland shooting, it verified the student accounts, giving them a blue check mark usually reserved for celebrities, politicians and journalists. It also says it brought in a “swarm” of resources to remove abusive tweets and delete spam accounts targeting the children, though it wouldn’t say how many messages or accounts it has blocked. Its policies don’t give members under 18 special consideration.

Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey, who has been retweeting some of the Parkland students, last week launched a new effort to make the service less toxic. That isn’t an easy problem to solve in balance with free speech — and it’s turning into a major liability for Silicon Valley giants.

jack tweeted “We’re committing Twitter to help increase the collective health, openness, and civility of public conversation, and to hold ourselves publicly accountable towards progress.”

Hogg, who was the target of a YouTube conspiracy claiming he was a paid actor, told my Post colleague even he wouldn’t want to “censor” anyone. “They only way that we are going to prove that we’re not actors is to let them say what they want,” he said.

The Parkland students and their supporters might think they’re winning. But it really is a matter of perspective. People who don’t believe the school shooting ever happened think the kids are losing.

The same tech that makes Twitter an unprecedented platform for these teens also makes it an potent weapon for harassment.

“We are not going to give up this platform,” Corin said.

It doesn’t help to patronize young people, who are savvier at using the Internet than any generation before. But we adults should be wrestling with the consequences of the online world we’ve created — especially if we’re sending children into battle there.

Geoffrey A. Fowler is The Washington Post’s technology columnist.

Original Post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *