While the White House and politicians said it was too soon to talk about gun laws in the immediate aftermath of last week’s Connecticut school shooting, social media users resoundingly disagreed.
By Friday night, only hours after the shooting, roughly one-third of Twitter and blog posts about the shooting were about changing America’s gun laws – with the authors arguing both for and against – a radical change from previous high-profile shooting tragedies, the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism reported Thursday. Twitter users and bloggers wanted to have the conversation immediately, and gun law chatter was more popular even than expressions of sympathy – 28 percent to 20 percent.
The 28 percent figure represented the percentage of posts on Twitter and blogs related to the Newtown, Conn., shooting that mentioned gun laws over the first 72 hours after the shooting. That compares to only 3 percent of the social media discussion in the aftermath of the Tucson shootings last year in which Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was seriously injured and six others were killed.
In Pew's analysis, 25 percent of Newtown-related tweets and 20 percent of blogs offered sympathy or prayers for the victims.
"There was this outpouring of emotion, but it was aligned with a sense that we have to do something about this," said Amy Mitchell, deputy director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "What we're seeing is not only a good deal of conversation in general about gun law and gun law reform, which we haven't seen in other recent shootings, but that conversation came from the get-go."
There's no way to know if that surge in gun law chatter impacted the political debate in Washington, or has helped create an atmosphere more conducive to gun control debate, but the outpouring had at least one immediate impact. After receiving an avalanche of negative comments, the National Rifle Association temporarily took down its Facebook page last week. It's since been restored.
Supporters of tougher gun laws were a majority in Pew's study. On Twitter, 64 percent called for reform, while 21 percent defended gun rights and 14 percent offered neutral comments. Some 46 percent of blogs posts called for reform, with 21 percent opposed and 32 percent taking neither side, Pew says. Facebook posts were not considered in the study because privacy settings limit research, Mitchell said.
Social media chatter followed a very different tack after the Giffords shooting: While just 3 percent discussed gun control, 34 percent involved political commentary, “mainly about the heated political discourse in our country and its possible relationship to the shooting, “ according to the study. Twenty-nine percent involved straight facts.
Pew also compared the Newtown social media reaction to posts published after the Trayvon Martin shooting in February. Anger at his alleged killer, George Zimmerman, accounted for 21 percent of chatter on Twitter, followed by sympathy for Martin, at 19 percent. Discussion of gun laws, and specifically Florida's Stand Your Ground statue, accounted for only 7 percent of the posts.
Did all this social media chatter about gun control have an immediate impact? Looking at President Barack Obama's reaction to the Newtown tragedy may be instructive.
When Obama delivered his initial comments on the Newtown shooting on Friday, he made only a vague reference to gun law reform, saying, "We’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this." White House spokesman Jay Carney was more specific, saying "today is not the day" for the discussion in a press briefing.
Gun law reform supporters were deeply critical of the administration's reaction.
"The White House says 'today is not the day' to talk about gun legislation. Correct. That day was yesterday," became a common Facebook update and tweet, echoing a statement made by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
By Sunday, Obama's tone had changed.
"In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens ... in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this. Because what choice do we have?" he said at a vigil service in Newtown.
Does Mitchell think the steady social media drumbeat helped nudge Obama toward action?
"We can't draw an exact cause and effect here," she said. "But clearly the conversation in social media is a very big part of the way information flows now," she said. "If you think about the cycle of information and reaction, and the way the government works, leaders are reacting to events and to the public, and what resonates with the public, and these things all continue to play off each other as time goes on.”
Social media expert Steve Rubel, an analyst at public relations firm Edelman, cautioned against giving social media too much credit for the current atmosphere in which discussion of gun control suddenly seems safe.
"Sometimes social media is directly responsible for driving shifts in public opinion,” he said. “But what can get overlooked, however, is how it's a mirror and a magnifier of what's happening in society. (There's) a heightened interest overall. Social may be reflecting a larger conversation, much of which is happening offline as well."
Other research appears to confirm Pew's findings. For example, there's been a huge spike this week in search engine requests for the term "gun control" -- a much larger spike than after the Virginia Tech shootings, the Giffords shooting or the Aurora shootings.
"So yes, the social increase is unusual," Rubel said. But it's unclear if social media impact has staying power, and whether it's a match for the standard snail's-like pace of federal legislation. "What will be important to watch is whether the unprecedented interest is so large that the issue remains at the forefront," he said.
Even if the social media surge doesn’t last, Pew’s Mitchell says its impact should not be underestimated.
"If we think about the narrative and agenda that gets created around certain news events, more and more that narrative has many different players, and the public is one of them to the degree that they couldn’t be five or six years ago," she said.
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