Dec. 17, 2012 — -- As news of the mass shooting of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn. spread on Friday, so did the social media reaction. Many shared their thoughts, sympathies and photos of the community in shock; others expressed their astonishment and disgust at the shooter.
Twitter and Facebook have now become go-to destinations for the public to share news and their reaction to it. That's not new -- there was a similar reaction after such events as the movie theater shooting in Colorado in July. But this time there was more than just mourning and sympathy for the families that spread.
There was louder talk of social and policy change. Voices hoping to effect change to prevent tragedies like this in the future.
A Call for Gun Control
Many of the first tweets in response to the news called for a focus on gun control. "Twitter unified calling upon @BarackObama for real gun control now http://uniteblue.com/guns/, " Zach Green, @140elect, tweeted.
A number of celebrities also tweeted about the issue. "Our thoughts go to every family who lost a loved one http://virg.in/otg #guncontrol #newtown," entrepreneur Richard Branson tweeted on Friday. According to Topsy, a social analytics service, there were over 80,000 mentions of "gun control" on Twitter on Dec. 14, the day of the Connecticut shootings. The NRA (National Rifle Association) was mentioned over 23,000 times on Friday as well. On Facebook, many shared similar thoughts and feelings as well as images of gun statistics, including how many people were killed by handguns in other countries.
There was discussion of the topic, but there was also pressure to do more. A petition to "Set a date and time to have a conversation about gun policy in the United States" on the petitions.whitehouse.gov website circulated on both Twitter and Facebook. As of this writing, it had 22,000 signatures.
Another petition on the White House site calling for the Obama Administration to "immediately address the issue of gun control through the introduction of legislation in Congress" also circulated and had received more than 140,000 signatures as of Monday afternoon. It has been one of the fastest moving petitions on the site ever.
"We are seeing a continuation of people turning to social networks as the new public square, the place you go for information to norm with people, but increasingly now, to make more of a political statement," Alison Fine, author of "The Networked Nonprofit," told ABC News.
The call for gun control and social media attacks of the NRA have met with opposition, but as of Monday afternoon, the NRA had not posted on its social media accounts since the Newtown shootings.
A Call to Focus on Mental Health
Gun control isn't the only area in which social media users are calling for action. Many have called for a change in how we deal with the mentally ill and our healthcare system.
A blog post titled "I am Adam Lanza's Mother," written by a woman named Liza Long, has been shared thousands of times on Twitter, Facebook and other media sites. "I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me," she wrote. Since being shared many have responded, though there was also criticism of her for making her son's case and photograph public.
Regardless, the piece has spurred an online conversation about the mentally ill. "Great Post I Am Adam Lanza's Mother It's time to talk about mental illness," @Anna Obrien tweeted. "'I Am Adam Lanza's Mother' An insightful depiction of how poorly Mental Illness is handled in the US," @ezraklein wrote. Others have shared on Facebook and personal blogs issues with the treatment options of the mentally ill in the U.S.
The discussion of the issues after Newtown seems much louder than in the wake of Aurora, but Marcia Stepanek, the author of the forthcoming book "Swarms: The Rise of the Digital Anti-Establishment," says she's not yet seeing the kind of behavior last winter that surrounded the SOPA and PIPA Internet bills in Congress -- large movements that could bring serious change. Or at least not yet.
"We're not seeing swarm activity," Stepanek told ABC News. "This is a more tempered response where people are airing calls to action around the need for something to be done. It still seems people are using Twitter and Facebook to air very strong opinions rather than organized network activity. It's viral outrage but not viral action ... yet."
There's no predicting what will happen next in the social media realm and whether it will push change. But as President Obama promised to "engage" on the issue, the social media masses might be the ones that make sure he keeps his word.
"I think what it [social media] has the potential to do is to hold his feet to the fire," Fine said. "When, a week from now, there isn't movement, the social networks can play an enormous part to say 'we are still here.' That's where they can keep alive issues that would have gotten quieter before."