May 31, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Uvalde tragedy captures America's fleeting attention

Online engagement for each day after select U.S. mass shooting incidents
Note: Includes incidents in Uvalde, Texas (2022); Buffalo, N.Y. (2022); San Jose, Calif. (2021); Boulder, Colo. (2021); Virginia Beach, Va. (2019); Parkland, Fla. (2018); Thousand Oaks, Calif. (2018); and Pittsburgh, Pa. (2018). Incidents in Buffalo and Uvalde happened less than 20 days ago; data used is most recent available. Data: Newswhip; Chart: Jacque Schrag/Axios

The shooting massacre in Uvalde garnered huge attention on social media in the immediate aftermath of the attack, but it's unclear how long that focus will last.

Why it matters: The attention to the attack shows the country isn't numb to shooting tragedies — it's overwhelmed by them.

Details: Data provided exclusively to Axios by NewsWhip shows a public surge of interest in the immediate aftermath, peaking above even the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

  • The interest, measured in social media interactions (likes, shares, comments) on news articles following Parkland, however, was sustained for a much longer period of time, as students who survived the shooting became vocal gun control activists.
  • The Uvalde tragedy, occurring just 10 days after the deadly shooting in Buffalo, New York, came as Americans were already trying to process another shooting tragedy, and provided momentum for a growing debate around gun control and extremism.

The big picture: School shootings have been able to spark debate around gun violence more than other kinds of mass shootings.

  • The highest level of interest in "guns" in the past five years came after the Parkland shooting, according to Google Trends data.
  • Since 2004 — the earliest Google Trends data is available — the biggest spike for discussion about "guns" came following the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting.

Engagement with the Uvalde story initially soared in the days following the shooting, as people eagerly scrambled to learn more about what happened.

  • Conflicting reports from law enforcement officials created an even bigger information vacuum that the public was desperate to fill, said Caroline Orr Bueno, a behavioral scientist who focuses on social media manipulation.
  • "On numerous occasions, there were multiple different stories being told by different officials — for example, we were told both that the gunman had barricaded himself in the classroom, and that police had 'contained' him in a classroom," she said.
  • "[O]nce the acute crisis is over, we usually expect to see much more reliable information that doesn’t continue to change," Orr Bueno noted. "But after the Uvalde shooting, that didn’t happen."

Between the lines: The unrelenting pace of mass shooting events in the U.S. has made it harder for a single event to rally the country's attention.

  • Gun control issues broadly tend to supplant attention to a single story in the aftermath of major attacks. But attention to that debate also tends to fade as the political news cycle shifts in response to other breaking news events.

Zoom in: The two stories about the Uvalde shooting that online readers engaged with most chronicled the breaking news about the shooting and the number of deaths.

  • Five of the top 10 stories covered the heart attack death of a grieving husband of one of the slain Robb Elementary teachers.

What to watch: It's unclear whether engagement with the Uvalde story will increase again as the story evolves.

  • In the case of Parkland, social media engagement began to increase later around the story when student survivors began to speak out publicly in favor of gun control.

Methodology: The chart is based on data from NewsWhip, exclusively provided to Axios, that shows how much social media engagement stories about select shootings received in the 20 days following each shooting incident.

  • Because the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings happened so recently, data for the shootings only reflects 16 and 7 days out from those incidents, respectively.
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