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The rise of social networks has proved to have a profound impact in politics. The Arab Spring highlighted the potential of social media to transform politics in nations long dominated by authoritarian rule.
To better understand the potential impact of social media on young Americans in participatory politics, scholars at Mills College and the University of Chicago have undertaken the Youth Participatory Survey Project, which produced a report that surveyed nearly 3,000 people in the U.S. between the ages of 15 and 25.
The survey revealed a number of major findings, some of which bucked traditional notions. For example, the digital divide is nearly non-existent. At least 94 percent of each racial and ethnic group reported having access to a computer that connects to the Internet. In addition, race and ethnicity do not seem to be major factors in determining who engages in participatory politics. The highest rate of engaging in participatory politics is Whites (43 percent), while the lowest is Asian Americans (36 percent), a small difference compared to the gap in voter turnout by race.
In addition, Dr. Joseph Kahne, co-principal Investigator on the project, explained that engaging in interest-driven online activities—like participating in online communities organized around hobbies or playing a video game—actions that weren’t explicitly political, are strongly related to whether or not youth got involved in the political process.
“We hypothesized that, in these spaces, young people are developing what we call ‘digital social capital’ where they’re learning norms, building networks and developing skills that relate to political life,” Kahne said.
Defining Participatory Politics
The study defines participatory politics as “interactive, peer-based acts through which individuals and groups seek to exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern. Importantly, these acts are not guided by deference to elites or formal institutions.” Examples of participatory politics include creating a political blog, sharing a news article on a social network, and signing a petition.
Participatory political acts have the ability to reach large audiences and mobilize networks, shape agendas through dialogue with political leaders and allow participants to exert greater urgency through the circulation and production of political information, according to the study. The survey found that 41 percent of youth engage in at least one form of participatory politics, a rate nearly identical to many institutionally based activities.
Although new media and participatory politics offer a great opportunity for youth to have their voices heard, challenges remain. With the Internet, youth are being presented with an unprecedented amount of information. As a result, the potential for misinformation is high. The survey found that 84 percent of young people said that they would benefit from learning more about how to tell if news and information they found online are trustworthy.
“If we could give youth the tools so that they can assess credible information, they can really use new media to enhance their political lives,” said Dr. Cathy Cohen, the project’s co-principal investigator with Kahne.
Kahne explained that, in addition to addressing the misinformation problem, youth must receive support to translate the voice provided by new media and participatory politics to actual influence. He believes that this is an issue that schools should be in a position to address.
“There’s a hunger among young people for help and support, both with the consumption of media as well as with the production,” he said.
“It’s one thing to know how to use Twitter, and it’s another thing to know how to use Twitter effectively. Media literacy isn’t just literally about how you do these functions on your iPhone. It’s also about do you have thoughtfulness and integrity and strategy as you produce and disseminate media?” Kahne added.
Media Literacy Counts
For her part, Cohen has advocated that schools “provide students with digital literacy curriculum that is accessible, relevant and engaging.” She also pushed for after-school programs and community-based organizations to reach the youth who may not be located in schools.
Los Angeles high school teacher Antero Garcia, who is a UCLA doctoral student, has urged teachers, regardless of subject area, to consider themselves as civic educators. He said teachers should be “thinking about their role in helping students see themselves as participating in the larger system and that the system isn’t just about traditional forms of political participation, but sharing and evaluating media, being able to critique, being able to comment, being able to produce.”
“There’s a big distinction between media literacy—being able to read and interpret information—and critical media literacy—being able to understand issues of power behind the media, being able to critique information, look at valid forms of argument, and know who’s making these arguments and where they’re coming from,” Garcia noted.
Jonathan Lykes, a 2012 graduate of the University of Chicago who worked on the Black Youth Project, explained that not all mechanisms of participatory politics are effective at leading to an influence because they lack commitment. For example, clicking the “like” button on an article posted on Facebook or signing an online petition is not considered a strong action.
Lykes urges people to use new media as a way to organize and meet in person to accomplish more substantive things in society. He says he sees new media as a “tool to bring each other together to organize, to advocate, to agitate and to educate each other on the issues happening in society.”
“We have to pay attention to how youth connect and organize through new media. It’s going to change the world we live in,” Lykes said.
Although the opportunities for youth to participate in the political process are increasing, the majority of youth still do not engage in either participatory or institutional politics. Cohen explained that, although great potential exists to reinvigorate youth politics, changes need to occur to support youth and to appeal to them. She said the report data collected “is telling explicitly political organizations that they need to think about how to craft messages that are not only deep and rich, but also culturally fun and engaging.”
Sam Boyer, a software engineer focusing on social platforms, hopes to address these challenges facing youth from a different perspective. He explained that online social platforms often don’t account for the quality of content being shared.
“There’s no way to differentiate algorithmically between a higher quality share and a lower quality share so that it’s not left entirely up to the subjective perspective of the user,” he said. “There’s so much information online that it’s a question of not only is it true or false, but also a question of is it worth spending your time on?” As a result, he added, it’s often the most sensational information being shared instead of the most substantial.
Boyer said that new media offer great opportunities for giving youth a voice and even influence but that more meaningful, targeted platforms need to exist. He explained that “LinkedIn and Facebook have nearly the same functionality, but people go to LinkedIn with the expectation that they’ll have professional interactions.”