“Young people are the future” is a phrase you see touted by journalists, researchers, political pundits, and the general populous. The youth and young adult population of our country is one to have much effect on a variety of sociopolitical factors, such as the economy, the spread of information, and especially our political landscape. As older generations come to pass, more of the younger population become activated voters ready to participate on the political battlefield and this, combined with their generally fiery and somewhat indiscriminate nature make them a surprisingly powerful section of the American electorate.
Haphazard as they may seem, young people are more connected than they ever have been. The advent of social media within the last decade has catapulted the political process into an entirely new realm, as the speed at which information travels has become lightning fast where it was once comparatively slow. Social change can happen instantly, people can have their emotions and ideologies changed at the drop of a hat, and political careers can be built and destroyed overnight. Social media’s easy-access and user-driven format has created a unique environment wherein a user has the power to access and spread whatever information they like as well as communicate and discuss with other users on the information that they both consume. As the University of Arkansas summarizes: “Social media has helped increase communication and information travel internationally and across borders (All Too Easy: Spreading Information Through Social Media).”
With information being so easy to access and share, the question must be asked: are young people- the primary users of social media and the internet- more inclined to participate in politics because of how easily they can learn about it? Common sense would dictate that it is; if individuals are able to consume information and political knowledge in a matter of minutes, there’s less reason than ever that they should refuse to participate in our country’s politics. Little excuse remains in terms of “ignorance” on the part of the young electorate if you can access your politician’s policies and history with a few clicks. Not only that, but young people can interact with views opposing their own and have the ability to compare and contrast their previously held beliefs with their peers. On paper, it seems both knowledge and power are handed to young people on a silver plate…but some ideas on paper don’t leave the page.
A large problem with young voters, one that has existed for a long time now, is something called “political disaffection”. An article in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication by Masahiro Yamamoto and Matthew J Kushin (More Harm Than Good? Online Media use and political Disaffection Among College Students in the 2008 Election) defines political disaffection as “negative dispositions towards politics.” The article continues describe that cynicism, apathy, and skepticism all contribute towards the disaffection of young voters towards politics. Cynicism is represented by young citizens’ mistrust in the political system, apathy by the view of politics as “irrelevant” towards them, and skepticism by the multiple ways they can deep-dive into numerous different facets of a topic or current issue and learn more information about it than ever. Is there a string that connects all these unfortunate truths? You guessed it- social media and the internet.
Constantly stories and leaks of political corruption and cantankerous politicians flood our virtual airways on an almost daily basis, providing constant example that our political system is flawed and its flaws are only exacerbated by its frequency of failing. This is sure to breed cynicism in the minds of the developing youth, is it not? Cynicism itself leads to apathy; if our political system is corrupt and screwed up, what is the meager participation of a single young voter going to do to fix that? Finally, the mistrust of the political establishment is bound to create skepticism. A healthy skepticism is desirable for any voter but a deep-seated mistrust of the powers that be is arguably not. It’s not a stretch to think that a political system is more inclined to have a more accepting electorate than one that regards it with an air of suspicion and disbelief at every turn, especially when all of your actions can be subjected to being picked apart to the most minute of details.
This has all been framed within a lens of the internet being a harmful force towards the young populous’ desire to participate in politics. While it’s true many of us young people can feel disenfranchised by a system that we believe not to care about us, some of us find ourselves to be more inclined to participate in politics due to the massive amount of knowledge and information at our disposal. Researcher at the Appalachian State University Department of Communication Hongwei Yang conducted a study following the 2012 presidential election to see social media’s psychological and behavioral effects of young voters’ political participation. In his article, Social Media Use and Online Political Participation Among College Students During the US Election 2012, a total of 4,556 US college students were surveyed following the presidential election. The survey found that things like Facebook group participation, “political self-efficacy”, and “online social capital” were all positive predictors of political participation. They found that the “general” use of Facebook and Twitter had a positive effect on student political participation, however “extensive” use of these social media platforms had a negative effect. This could be a further indicator of social media’s ability to breed political disaffection, but the point is the general usage of these platforms encouraged more students to be politically active. Circling back to the JCMC article, it’s even described that political disaffection can create a unique outcome wherein a voter becomes more motivated to become involved, and of course this is due to information they’ve consumed via the internet.
So, what exactly is the answer to the internet’s effect on youth political participation? Like most things it can be boiled down to being predicated on a case-by-case basis- every young person behaves differently, after all. What nobody can disagree with is that young people are more versed than ever, and can store, process and even manipulate the vast swaths of information given to them through digital tubes. With this ability they can either be motivated to make their own impacts on the political landscape, or they can develop a negative disposition and mistrust towards it. History and progress moves at the speed of light in the 21st century, and the growing knowledge of the youth is something that is bound to create an even more unpredictable environment heeded by each of their uniquely-structured ideologies.