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How the next generation is reshaping political discourse

The rise of social media and being always online is changing the nature of civic engagement.

June 30, 2021
Allie Sullberg

Last summer, my friend Jessica Rosberger texted me with an idea. “I think I may have something,” she began. We were about to graduate from high school and had spent the last three months of senior year taking classes at home because of the covid-19 pandemic, and lately we’d been following the news of racial justice protests around the US in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.   

An hour and a half later, we published Jessica’s idea as an online petition. In it, we argued that former attorney general William Barr, who graduated from our high school and was given the Distinguished Alumni Award in 2011, had violated the school’s core values with his involvement in the violent removal of protesters from Lafayette Square in Washington, DC, on June 1, 2020. We hoped our petition would encourage the school’s alumni council to rethink Barr’s award.

Jessica and I coordinated over Google Docs, talked with reporters and alumni over Zoom, and shared the petition on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. By July, it had more than 8,700 signatures, was cited in an op-ed in the Washington Post, and propelled us to a virtual meeting with the alumni council.

It was my first taste of the power of using the internet and social media as political tools. Unfortunately, it’s a feeling that’s still too rare, even for my generation—young citizens’ opinions are rarely consulted in social or political matters, even though digital platforms have provided us with a voice and a way of expressing it earlier in life (an estimated 81% of teenagers 13 to 17 are now active on at least one social media site). That may stem from a feeling that our voices don’t matter because we cannot vote until we turn 18. But most of us will be able to by the next presidential election in 2024, if not sooner.

Digital platforms have the potential to redefine civic engagement and allow the opinions of both young and old people to play a deeper role in policymaking. As my generation speaks out online, the lawmakers who are shaping our future will need to figure out how best to listen to those of us who will live in it. Otherwise, young people’s enthusiasm for politics could dry up. At a time when our trust in government is nearing historic lows, the future of political participation is at stake.

Digital democracy

The idea that some combination of technology and a new generation is redefining politics is not new—the same thing happened with the radio, and later with television. But social media, in particular, has brought unique changes. That means my generation has a special role to play in figuring out how these platforms get used.  

The ways young people use such tools are already changing the look of political campaigns and grassroots organizing. Many nonprofits and other groups are now recruiting more and more young people to play larger roles within their organizations. 

The key to making sure young people stay engaged is including them in more political conversations, says Beth Simone Noveck, director of New York University’s Governance Lab and New Jersey’s first chief innovation officer. Noveck leads a project called CrowdLaw, which studies ways lawmakers can use technology to incorporate the opinions of citizens, especially young ones, into the legislative process. She also heads a GovLab program called ReinventED, which centers on using technology to engage students, educators, and caregivers, especially from marginalized communities, in efforts to solve education issues.

Exercises completed by ReinventED show that students’ priorities even in the midst of a pandemic lean toward solving real-world problems and improving nontraditional academic subjects. Policymakers, on the other hand, are more concerned with public health and school reopening plans.

At a time when our trust in government is nearing historic lows, the future of political participation is at stake.

“The people who are most expert in education—mainly students and teachers, and to a lesser extent the parents of those students—are rarely, if ever, consulted in how we design our schools,” Noveck says. “My hope is that by using tools like this, by laying bare what people really care about, that can help to change the direction of what we’re focusing on.” 

Digital platforms, however, may be a double-edged sword. Participating in online movements may not translate into offline engagement—some experts warn it could have the opposite effect. “On social media, you can get a burst of interest, sometimes a burst of activity, because it’s so easy to feel like you’ve participated just by clicking a link or retweeting something or using a hashtag,” says Nicholas Carr, a sociology professor at Williams College. “What’s unclear is whether social media will help or hurt the ability of activists to sustain interests in a long-term campaign of change.”

Instead, the result may be “slacktivism,” a term coined during the rise of the internet for the practice of publicly supporting a cause in ways that take little effort, often to make yourself look good. “That can diminish or even demean the seriousness of political discourse in a way that can kind of hinder our ability to solve big problems,” says Carr.

People who engage in this performative activism are still spreading political messages, though, says William Golub, a junior at Stanford University who volunteered with the texting team on Joe Biden’s presidential campaign last year. “I think that there certainly are people who will just post about something on social media and that’s the end of the chain, but lots of those people are people who wouldn’t have done anything at all,” he says. 

Staying engaged

After we met with the alumni council last July, months passed, and Jessica and I hadn’t received any updates on Barr’s award. Frustrated, we published an open letter to the council on Medium in early September. The council responded two days later with a public update stating that it would share its decision once its written report was complete.

My voice is just as important as the voices of people much older, and technology can help make it heard. But people must be willing to listen.

“Ultimately,” read the report released two months later, “we would not recommend revoking the Award bestowed on then-former Attorney General Barr in 2011.” (Barr held the post from 1991 to 1993, and again in 2019–2020.) The council said this decision was based on community feedback, the “complex” process of revocation and precedent, and the lack of “undisputed information available” regarding Barr’s involvement at Lafayette Square. 

It was devastating. I felt as though the council, whose youngest member graduated from high school in 2002, had dismissed our efforts.

And yet, I can see now that our work wasn’t in vain. Our school’s student-run newspaper published an in-depth analysis of the report, admonishing the council for its decision. Jessica and I received emails from our former teachers, who said our petition had sparked classroom discussions about topics ranging from Barr’s actions to political engagement more broadly. And the council contacted Jessica and me directly, thanking us “for taking an active role in alumni affairs and for your early dedication, as alumnae, to the legacy of the school.”

Even though the final decision was not what I had hoped for, the experience taught me that my voice is just as important as the voices of people much older, and that technology can help make it heard. But people must be willing to listen.

Kiara Royer is a sophomore at Williams College majoring in history and political science.

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