Nearly 5 million Twitter users, as of this writing, have watched a SWAT team evacuate students from inside a classroom at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Wednesday afternoon. A 19-year-old former student had showed up to the school with an AR-15 assault rifle and started firing.
The video of the evacuation is just one of many graphic visuals from students inside the school during Wednesday’s mass shooting, which killed 17 people and injured at least 14 others in Parkland, Florida.
Survivors of previous school shootings and other violent incidents have turned to social media, but the flood of posts color Wednesday’s tragedy differently; photos and videos, particularly on Snapchat, of the chaos unfolding at Stoneman Douglas have reverberated around the internet. Some students documented themselves hiding in classrooms, while others shot video of people running from the school.
The country has experienced an average of one school shooting a week since 2013, and nearly 80 percent of teens now use Snapchat and Instagram. As tech platforms continue to modify how users post content, documentation of these mass shootings could change the way we understand and experience them. Just two days before the Florida shooting, in fact, Snapchat opened up web access to its Snap Maps tool, allowing anyone to see publicly shared snaps in specific geographic areas. That has the power to make school shootings more accessible as they unfold — and more of a reality.
As TV news cameras showed law enforcement gathering outside the south Florida school on Wednesday afternoon, a portrait of what was happening inside the school started to take shape on social media.
While police were escorting some students out of the building with their hands above their heads, one student tweeted a panoramic photo of himself and his classmates hiding in a closet. Meanwhile, another student’s tweet was gathering almost 10,000 retweets. The photo he tweeted shows the view of his classroom from a spot tucked under his desk.
Other videos taken from the scene include the sound of multiple gunshots and the screams and cries of those hiding. The shooter, who began his attack by pulling fire alarms and releasing smoke grenades, moved through the building amid the confusion in a gas mask.
Others still in the building also contacted friends and relatives directly, who began tweeting screenshots of the texts. One student, who left the school unharmed, for example, texted her parents while hiding. She wanted to tell them that in case she didn’t make it, she loved them.
After police identified the shooter, details about his life began to trickle out. Just as students had used social media to broadcast details of the shooting, the 19-year-old with the gun had an online presence of his own that police later called “very, very, disturbing.”
In the weeks and months before his attack, he had shared photos of multiple guns and other weapons, including an AR-15 rifle like the one used to carry out Wednesday’s mass shooting, on his Instagram, and left troubling comments on YouTube. Though the FBI received reports about the shooter’s online activity, the agency ultimately took no action, and the gunman, a former student at the school, later legally purchased his weapon.
But the question remains whether lawmakers in Washington or Tallahassee will take notice. With Republican control of the federal government and no substantive policy action to prevent mass shootings in the foreseeable future, it’s unclear if this surge of videos, tweets, and photos — including the threatening posts shared by the attacker — will change any policies.
“I noticed that my Tweets have gone a little... viral,” wrote one Stoneman Douglas student, whose tweets were widely shared during the shooting. “I appreciate that people found comfort in my updates, but this ‘Twitter fame’ wasn't worth 17 lives.”
Emma Fidel contributed reporting.
Cover image: Students react following a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a city about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Miami on February 14, 2018. (MICHELE EVE SANDBERG/AFP/Getty Images)