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Focus Stays on Gun, NRA Debate After Mass School Shooting

“The ECHO” is a publication of The George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. This edition covers political activity on Twitter in the United States Feb.15-21, 2018. All data from this post, as well as our methodology, is available on our PEORIA Project website and weekly by email (subscribe here). Also available on our website is the first edition of The ECHO Quarterly, summarizing three big things this research can teach campaigns and elected officials. We will be presenting a deep-dive of our #metoo research at GSPM’s upcoming conference “Reimagining Disruption” on Feb. 28 (register here), so The ECHO will return the following week on March 8.

This time it seems different. The usual cycle of a mass shooting followed by thoughts and prayers, and pleas by opponents of gun control that this is not the time to discuss the issue while people are grieving, was turned on its head by the survivors of the Valentine’s Day school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students traveled to the state capitol to hold meetings and a rally but also took to social media where they focused the post-shooting discussion with the hashtag #NeverAgain, which boosted not only tweets about the shooting but also those on the role of the National Rifle Association, gun control and their two U.S. senators.

In the meantime, the main story of the week was the indictments of Russian nationals in their attempts to impact the 2016 presidential election. This issue of The ECHO will also check in with the upcoming special election to represent Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district.

Newsmakers. Previous mass shootings follow the pattern above where focused discussion on gun control quickly dissipates by entreaties to provide the survivors space to grieve. This seemingly sensitive reaction has been an effective political tactic to drive out focused discussion of changing gun policy. Based on our previous reporting, a mass shooting focuses Twitter on the issue for a few days and then it drops off the national discussion, as outlined in last week’s edition of The ECHO. The fact that it didn’t happen this week – tweet volume actually increased during the week – is a testament to the surviving students, staff and their families who decided the time was right now to discuss gun control.

Gun Control and Gun Rights Cartoons

This week, survivors and supporters began tagging posts with #NeverAgain, which added to the usual #PrayFor hashtags we have come to expect after mass shootings or natural disasters. The result was 3,148,838 related posts about the Parkland shooting, (up 362 percent over last week), 2,754,713 posts (up 599 percent) about gun control and changing gun laws, and a week-leading 3,389,007 posts about the National Rifle Association (up 448 percent). Altogether, there were 9.2 million related posts in the first week, which makes this the most tweeted-about topic in its first week that we’ve covered since The ECHO launched late last summer.

In addition to the NRA and the issue of gun control, both U.S. senators from Florida saw significant increases in attention from Twitter users. While tweets about Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson were up 123 percent pre-Parkland, conversation about him jumped 201 percent to 50,344 related tweets. Tweets about Republican Sen. Marco Rubio were up 153 percent on 679,389 posts, vaulting him to the top of our weekly leaderboard among newsmakers. Both senators and the NRA were represented at the CNN Town Hall about gun control on Wednesday night, which spiked Twitter volume directed at all three.

As anticipated in last week’s edition of The ECHO, the volume of tweets about President Trump was up 45 percent from the previous week to 8,159,641, which is about a third over his rolling average on the platform. The administration had said the president intended to visit Parkland but ended up holding a listening session at the White House, which drew significant attention.

Investigation and indictments. This week, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigative team indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian corporations for conspiracy and hacking to influence the 2016 presidential election. On most weeks, this would have been the top story as it revealed an organized, well-funded and widespread effort to push Trump at the expense of Hillary Clinton in 2016. Trump responded, reflexively on Twitter, with a tweet redirecting the blame at his predecessor. Twitter volume related to Mueller increased 291 percent week-over-week on 242,846 related posts. Chatter about the investigation and the indictments attracted 176,596 tweets, 162 percent over the previous week.

Elections. The race for Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district’s open seat is entering its stretch run ahead of March 13 voting, and Republican Rick Saccone holds a five-point lead over Democratic opponent Conor Lamb, down about a point from a previous poll using the same type of demographic weighting. This is happening in a district where President Trump has over a 50-percent approval rating and where the Cook Political Report has the district at R+11, a significant expected edge for Republicans. The signals are mixed and there is a lot of statistical polling noise given the sampling sizes in this relatively quiet race. Our data shows Lamb’s tweet volume, who has held the advantage over Saccone in our tracking on the platform, was down 12 percent (on 29,413 related posts) from the previous week but still more than double what Saccone had (13,417 related posts), despite his surge of 63 percent week-over-week.

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