Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Online, Shaping a Narrow Debate After Newtown Shooting

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, December 18 2012

When President Barack Obama spoke Sunday at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn, he promised to take action to fix what's broken in an American society that could not protect 20 young children and seven adults from death at the hands of a single disturbed person, and could not protect that killer from himself.

"We can't tolerate this anymore," he said. "These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law -- no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society."

But he was really just setting the table for a narrower conversation about gun control.

Most people, or anyway, most people on Twitter, seem to have got that point:


The dominant focus of the national conversation is now on guns and gun violence, an important and historically intractable debate that may well finally reach a new phase after the Newtown tragedy. But it has appeared in the context of a political fight, a back-and-forth between people who have always supported gun control and people who have always opposed it. Other commentators are are seeking to deflect attention to other objects of concern, like violent video games, for the most part redrawing the same lines.

In the breadth of his remarks, Obama specifically included "mental health professionals," "parents," and "educators." But that nuance has been left behind by a national conversation that began far in advance of all the facts coming out about Newtown or about the troubled young man who put its residents in the news. Before Friday had even ended, and even before anyone in the media had correctly identified the killer at the center of the tragedy, activists had begun to circulate gun-control petitions. Dozens of people gathered at the White House to demand action before the sun had even set on that terrible day.

Senseless acts of violence are often followed by a search for fuel to stoke the fires of public outrage. At BoingBoing, Maggie Koerth-Baker compassionately calls this part of the bargaining stage of grief. In the mad scramble after tragedy, as reporters hunt for the story and we all hunt for meaning, the desire to construct a single, tangible villain — one failure to remedy or one simple group to put away — races ahead of truth's deliberate approach.

There is certainly more attention now on simple villains than on complex problems. Here are some of the things that the American public is now asking of Obama's administration, in the wake of the Newtown shootings, on The White House's "We the People" e-petitioning site. The numbers are as of Tuesday afternoon:

In some corners of the web, people are starting a conversation about the relationship between behavioral illness, violence, and problems with how our country responds to both. A point-counterpoint between two bloggers about support for parents of troubled kids did, briefly, become online news in a way one could easily argue was not possible before the Internet. They are reaching consensus and, maybe, forming a coalition that will start a debate of their own. In another corner of the blogosphere, Christine Monnier, a professor of criminal justice and sociology at College of DuPage, and criminology blogger Todd Krohn, both suggest that guns are a central issue, but not the only issue, in a broader conversation about the causes of violence in American society. Krohn argues that the profile of a "spree killer" is a mid-twenties male who has been aggrieved in some way and been "branded antisocial in demeanor" in the years leading up to their crime. Guns amplify the violence, but horrific violence in schools happens even in countries without widespread access to guns. Perhaps voices carrying ideas like these carry farther now than they might have 20 years ago, but the front-page news is still that Adam Lanza was a "ticking time bomb". The New York Daily News named a behavioral disorder in describing Lanza, but did not go to the trouble of confirming prior to publication what, precisely, professionals think had ailed him — as if his mental history was entertainment rather than material to a national debate.

Meanwhile, the public debate has already been framed as if guns and guns alone are worth discussing as the helpmates of violence. The White House has the tools at its disposal to broaden the conversation, but has, at least so far, stopped short of using them. The closest the administration came to doing that online was to send out an email Monday night encouraging Americans to watch video of the president's remarks in Newtown, where he explained the goal his White House would set in the wake of this latest tragedy.

"This is our first task -- caring for our children," Obama said on Sunday. "It's our first job. If we don't get that right, we don't get anything right. That's how, as a society, we will be judged."

News Briefs

RSS Feed wednesday >

Another Co-Opted Hashtag: #MustSeeIran

The Twitter hashtag #MustSeeIran was created to showcase Iran's architecture, landscapes, and would-be tourist destinations. It was then co-opted by activists to bring attention to human rights abuses and infringements. Now Twitter is home to two starkly different portraits of a country. GO

What Has the EU Ever Done For Us?: Countering Euroskepticism with Viral Videos and Monty Python

Ahead of the May 25 European Elections, the most intense campaigning may not be by the candidates or the political parties. Instead, some of the most passionate campaigns are more grassroots efforts focused on for a start stirring up the interest of the European electorate. GO

At NETmundial Brazil: Is "Multistakeholderism" Good for the Internet?

Today and tomorrow Brazil is hosting NETmundial, a global multi-stakeholder meeting on the future of Internet governance. GO

Brazilian President Signs Internet Bill of Rights Into Law at NetMundial

Earlier today Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff sanctioned Marco Civil, also called the Internet bill of rights, during the global Internet governance event, NetMundial, in Brazil.


tuesday > Reboots As a Candidate Digital Toolkit That's a Bit Too Like launched with big ambitions and star appeal, hoping to crack the code on how to get millions of people to pool their political passions through their platform. When that ambition stalled, its founder Nathan Daschle--son of the former Senator--decided to pivot to offering political candidates an easy-to-use free web platform for organizing and fundraising. Now the new is out from stealth mode, entering a field already being served by competitors like NationBuilder, Salsa Labs and And strangely enough, seems to want its early users to ask for help. GO

Armenian Legislators: You Can Be As Anonymous on the 'Net As You Like—Until You Can't

A proposed bill in Armenia would make it illegal for media outlets to include defamatory remarks by anonymous or fake sources, and require sites to remove libelous comments within 12 hours unless they identify the author.


monday >

The Good Wife Looks for the Next Snowden and Outwits the NSA

Even as the real Edward Snowden faces questions over his motives in Russia, another side of his legacy played out for the over nine million viewers of last night's The Good Wife, which concluded its season long storyline exploring NSA surveillance. In the episode titled All Tapped Out, one young NSA worker's legal concerns lead him to becoming a whistle-blower, setting off a chain of events that allows the main character, lawyer Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), and her husband, Illinois Governor Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), to turn the tables on the NSA using its own methods. GO

The Expanding Reach of China's Crowdsourced Environmental Monitoring Site, Danger Maps

Last week billionaire businessman Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce company Alibaba, appealed to his “500 million-strong army” of consumers to help monitor water quality in China. Inexpensive testing kits sold through his company can be used to measure pH, phosphates, ammonia, and heavy metal levels, and then the data can be uploaded via smartphone to the environmental monitoring site Danger Maps. Although the initiative will push the Chinese authorities' tolerance for civic engagement and activism, Ethan Zuckerman has high hopes for “monitorial citizenship” in China.


The 13 Worst Bits of Russia's Current and Maybe Future Internet Legislation

It appears that Russia is on the brink of passing still more repressive Internet regulations. A new telecommunications bill that would require popular blogs—those with 3,000 or more visits a day—to join a government registry and conform to government-mandated standards is expected to pass this week. What follows is a list of the worst bits of both proposed and existing Russian Internet law. Let us know in the comments or on Twitter if we missed anything.


Transparency and Public Shaming: Pakistan Tackles Tax Evasion

In Pakistan, where only one in 200 citizens files their income tax return, authorities published a directory of taxpayers' details for the first time. Officials explained the decision as an attempt to shame defaulters into paying up.