A Grain Of Saul: No, The Parkland Survivors Are Not 'Actors.' But They Are Winning.

Despite the far-right's attempts to smear the teenagers, they continue to prevail.

A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.  

You know you have a good argument when the only response the opposition can muster is to smear you.

In the last week, survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, displayed incredible bravery, intelligence and camaraderie after watching their classmates' murders. In return, they were not treated with respect. A threatened, angry mob was so desperate to take back the conversation that they opted for the lowest common denominator. Lying.

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In the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that killed 17 children and faculty, survivors of the unthinkable act became unified — against guns, against violence, and against adults who wouldn't listen. Together, they began pleading with legislators to change something. Unlike previous tragedies, where politicians and activists drove the narrative, it was the survivors who took the mic and stole the show. Not just any survivors, either. Teenagers. 

All across cable news and the internet, high school students who lost friends and classmates began speaking out about the need to limit access to guns. And they weren't naive. They weren't disorganized. They were tactful, intelligent, well-informed and emotionally invested in what they were doing. And they proved every adult who doubted them wrong.

In fact, their message was so well-crafted, so moving and so unified that — almost immediately — far-right media outlets began accusing the children of being "coached" by the Democratic party.  As someone who covers politics for a living, I can assure you the DNC would be lucky to get coached by these kids. The Parkland survivors' message has been more cogent than any that's come from the Democratic party in the last 10 years.

But as the days went on and the students dug their heels in, refusing to allow this tragedy to be just another headline, the smears got uglier. First, well-known conservative commentators spoke dismissively about the survivors. Disgraced former Fox News host Bill O'Reilly asked if "the media" should be "promoting opinions by teenagers" who are "facing extreme peer pressure." Dinesh D'Souza, well-known for his mud-throwing, mocked student protesters in a tweet, saying an unsuccessful bid to change gun laws was "the worst thing that happened to them" just days after their friends were murdered in school.

Then, far-right outlet The Gateway Pundit ran a story with the headline "EXPOSED: School Shooting Survivor Turned Activist David Hogg's Father In FBI, Appears To Have Been Coached On Anti-Trump Lines."

Of course, there was nothing to "expose." Hogg spoke openly about his dad's experience in the FBI on CNN (he is retired and not "in" the FBI). The article presented no real evidence Hogg had been "coached." The attacks on the FBI did, however, fit neatly into the absurd notion from the White House that the bureau fumbled its response to the Parkland school shooter because it was too busy investigating President Trump. (The accusation ignores the fact the FBI is an organization of 35,000 people, and that its Floridian offices are not believed to be directly involved with investigating the president.)

But that didn't stop the smear about Hogg from spreading like wildfire. Sensing an opportunity, the conspiracy theorists came swarming. They scoured Hogg's online profiles and found out that he — gasp! — once toured CNN's newsroom. They even discovered he had — brace yourself! — been on a local news channel. Of course, none of this would be surprising or even remotely interesting if you knew that Hogg was an active student journalist who, judging by his YouTube and Twitter pages, does a lot of solo reporting and filming. He even interviewed students while the shooter was inside their school.

Then things got even darker. The far-right began using the same tactics they did against former secretary of state Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election. Those far-right media outlets and commentators blasted a barrage of conspiracies across the internet claiming everything from the students being crisis actors to the shooting not happening at all.

Soon enough, a top trending YouTube video "proved" Parkland survivors were actors. InfoWars Alex Jones claimed Hogg "forgot his lines" on television. Others online claimed to have pictures of Hogg in different yearbooks or found dopplegangers who had appeared at other school shootings, definitive proof, they claimed, that the kids were frauds. The president's son, Donald Trump Jr., liked one tweet that claimed the Parkland survivors were "running cover" for the FBI and liked another linking to a video that suggested the mainstream media had concocted the shooting entirely. Sheriff David Clarke, who spoke at the Republican National Convention, joined in. Ted Nugent, who sits on the board of the NRA and visited the White House, pushed the conspiracy the kids were actors on Facebook.

Unlike in the 2016 election, though, the far-right wasn't attacking a political candidate with decades of baggage and a large, slow response team. Instead, it was attacking a nimble group of innocent kids with honest intentions who, by the way, grew up in the era of the internet. They stepped onto the Parkland, Florida students' court to play ball in a game they were not prepared for. And they began losing. Badly.

Sarah Chadwick, one of the more outspoken survivors, executed real-time debunking at one in the morning to the yearbook conspiracy being spread online. She dragged D'Souza for downplaying sorrows she experienced, noting she just witnessed her friends die. Cameron Kasky dunked on O'Reilly for talking down to him. 

The students pressured politicians to respond to them, destroyed misinformation with their own viral witticisms, and gave interviews to numerous media outlets — all while managing to poke fun at the conspiracies.

Emma Gonzalez, one of the survivors of the shooting, responded to the crisis actor conspiracies in a quote to BuzzFeed News.

"I'm thankful that there are people out there finding my doppelgangers for me," she said. "I've always wanted to have a party with a room full of people who look like me."

Gonzalez and classmates listen at the CNN Town Hall. POOL / Reuters

It worked. Their responses drowned out the absurd claims. An aide to Florida representative Shawn Harrison was fired after telling a reporter the Parkland kids were actors in an email. The public pressure forced President Trump to hold a listening session with survivors on national television. On Wednesday night, Parkland students and faculty participated in a riveting CNN Town Hall with Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson, Rep. Ted Deutch, and NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch. They forced Rubio, the most pro-gun politician on stage, into committing to gun reforms he had never previously committed to. Others met with Florida governor Rick Scott, who declined an invitation to the town hall, to discuss ideas about gun safety. D'Souza actually apologized on Twitter (not even the apology went well). Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, George and Amal Clooney, Oprah and other celebrities donated millions of combined dollars to March For Our Lives, an event organized by the students and Never Again, an organization Marjory Stoneman Douglas students founded.

All of these victories were inspired by the student's actions, despite the lies and smears from adults across the country who should have been moved by their resolve and their activism. 

Their success is not just a testament to their character and intelligence, it's a testament to the future of our country. 

Cover image via REUTERS/Jonathan Drake/File Photo.

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