Amid the current trend of constrictive age labelling – ‘snowflakes’ and ‘OK, boomer’ to name a few – ‘digital natives’ is a more optimistic and malleable label. It defines the powerful pull Generation Z and beyond has to politically influence and organise. Social media was lauded as a revolutionary addition to democracy that would expand participation opportunities for citizens in the governance of their states. The impact of politicians online has been either negligible or, at worse, destructive. However, young people’s use of social media in the political realm has proven more effective. Many meaningful movements have burgeoned through young people’s shrewd use of social media over the recent past.
I will examine how many of this decade’s most important protest and political movements earned legitimacy through young people using their knowledge of online languages to create ‘collective identities’, a recognisable brand with which improves an organisers ability to build networks (Gerbaudo and Treré, 2015). In contrast to the precarious nature of the internet’s involvement in traditional democratic institutions, youth protest online has grown into a phenomenon that has earned the recognition of bodies like the UN. There has been some criticism of this form of protest such as the response to Occupy Wall Street in 2011 which, it is argued, failed due to its rapid formation and lack of focus (Malchick, 2019). However, I would argue that since then, Generation Z, the digital natives, have come of age and social media protest has become a cohesive and respected model of protest.
Traditional politics integration of social media
While this blog post will attempt to show that social media is not the engine that fuels the stereotype of apathetic teenagers, a new era of ‘fake news’ and alt-right trolling have sullied the democratic origins and future reputation of social media. It is widely accepted that social media is poisoning the democratic process as we know it (Deibert, 2019). If we put aside the well-known practice of censorship in authoritarian leaning-states such as China and Russia, a much scarier reality exists among the extreme branches of the right-wing in the USA, Brazil and across Europe (Beauchamp, 2019). The campaigns of Donald Trump in the US, Jair Balsonaro in Brazil, and the Leave side in the Brexit referendum all relied heavily on outside interest groups, right-wing blogs, news sites and loyal supporters to spread conspiracy theories and false claims about their opponents. Trump retweeting and praising falsehoods online is one thing but campaigns and political organisations melding their message to Facebook and Twitter standards is a worrying addition to global democracy (Stier, 2018). The rhetoric Trumpian leaders use stoops to the lowest, volatile side of social media. The social media pages of Irish political parties and traditionalists like Leo Varadkar stick to infrequent and heavily mediated content that leaves a vacuum for ambiguity. Nevertheless, a younger generation of lawmakers has proven they can engage, with some authority, voters with their message.
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is an example of a politician who appears to have conquered social media politics. The reason may be that she has maintained a positive and strong online presence. She has complete control. She has engaged thousands of young people because she undertook the responsibility of finding the right channels to make an impression with her audience. She documented her orientation as a freshman congresswoman, showing her followers what it is like behind the scenes in the Capitol. She explains policies with Instagram stories while sitting in her car before taking us with her into a rally on a particular issue. She responds to criticism on Twitter in a measured and professional manner, remaining completely transparent in everything she does. She mixes personal content with politics seamlessly, which is one of the reasons she has captivated the attention of people across the world (Gold, 2019). I know this because I am someone who has become sucked in by her infectious enthusiasm for the democratic process. Her platform excites me and I find myself looking for the equivalent in Irish political parties and politicians, even just a figure who educates and communicates as honestly as she does online.
Youth Protest online
Ocasio-Cortez is part of a small faction in a larger, increasingly professional, trend of young activists. And it is not Ocasio-Cortez’s fellow millennials who are leading the pack, but Generation Z. Generation Z has observed the mistakes millennials have made online, who wholeheartedly but impulsively embraced social media. We grew up with the internet, so we absorbed the pitfalls that are easy to fall into. Generation Z is less likely to ‘overshare’ online and we know what the effects of overuse are (O’Brien, 2018). This knowledge was evident in the March for Our Lives movement, formed by the surviving teenagers of the fatal shooting in their school in Douglas, Florida. There were several elements that contributed to their success; leaders such as Emma González and David Hogg established a recognisable presence on Twitter to convey their anger, demands and proposals for gun reform going forward. March for Our Lives was cemented into a hashtag and title that brought focus to their campaign. On the day of marches, protestors would deck their placards with recognisable ‘memes’ to communicate their message in a way that would increase the likelihood of these images being liked and shared online (Hattaway Communications, 2018). Greta Thunberg’s Friday’s For Future movement was inspired by the March for Our Lives teenagers (Watts, 2019). Their walkouts motivated her ‘School Strike for Climate’ which she documented on Twitter under the hashtag ‘#Fridays-For-Future’, a process which she repeated. Those who followed her lead documented it under this hashtag and set up local branches of protest under this name. As the numbers grew, Thunberg meticulously reshared images of strikes around the world every week to display visible momentum. Now, a Global Fridays For Future strike can have 4 million participants as it did this September.
As this decade comes to a close, campaigns like these are fighting for acceptance in a society where everything is politicised (Burkeman, 2019). Neo-fascists and far-right activists are well able to organise and insert themselves into the conversation but their extremist and truth-bending tendencies make forming a collective identity online more difficult than Generation Z’s single voice approach, which signals legitimacy.
Gerbaudo and Trére’s (2015) article looks at the concept of ‘collective identity’ showing how protest has challenged the individualisation of social media. ‘A sense of belonging’ and solidarity is essential for a protest group, as is the ability to broaden your network. The world is currently saturated with different causes fighting for their voice to be heard but social media has established a visual tradition and a language of protest that has contributed to Generation Z’s success. Protest symbols that synopsise the movement are used in individual profile avatars to assert allegiance to the cause (Gerbaudo and Trére, 2015). A single Hashtag organises the content into one place. Memes, which have become the language of young people, are strategically used for awareness as they are amusing, direct and a tool that is easily spread across platforms. Social media is not just the “organisational backbone of contemporary social movements”, they are “multifaceted ecologies where a new expressive and humorous ‘communicative resistance grammar’ emerges” (Gerbaudo and Trére, 2015, p.6).
#YoSoy132 was a campaign started by students in Mexico who opposed that country’s corrupt democracy. It caught on all over the country and significantly weakened the governing party. #AnaTaban is a quieter but steady opposition campaign fuelled by young people online in South Sudan who object to the violence and oppression scourging their nation (Frankie, 2018). More recently, the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have not been characterised by specific leadership but by a social media presence. A departure from the Umbrella protests of 2014, 2019 sees protestors using platforms to share live news feeds, videos of police violence and to promote demonstrations in a way that emphasises anonymity to avoid imprisonment (Shao, 2019). The identities of these groups would not exist without young people creating them on social media.
Discussion and Conclusion
Social media protest is not without its faults and its critics. People look to slow-growing movements like American civil rights, whose hard-won victories counted towards their success, and compare this with the rapid fall of some of this decade’s protests (Malchik, 2019). 2011’s Occupy Wall Street has fallen out of public consciousness. Take Back the City in Dublin last year has been forgotten and homelessness is still a chronic problem in Ireland. Massive movements like the Women’s March and Black Lives Matter still have not led to substantial legislative action. I agree that many of these protests have been “caffeinated through social media” burning “brightly only to fade, making space for whatever comes next” (Younge, 2019) but I remain hopeful for my generation’s skill set in this area. The sheer number of issues being debated currently has contributed to the polarisation of the world, but young people have shown they are not interested in partisan entrenchment. Climate activists have been relentless in their promotion of policy change online, and this is slowly seeping into institutional politics. March for Our Lives may not have earned dramatic gun control legislation after the momentum they built last year but they are now considered one of the main gun control activist groups. Generation Z have proven, with the help of sophisticated social media marketing, that they are a legitimate group that have to be consulted in the democratic process.
Young People protest is not new. Social media protest has been around since the early noughties. Young people and social media have been disregarded as frivolous and attention-seeking gaffs, but it is our ‘digital wisdom’ (Benini, 2018) that has created the most professional resistance and advocacy groups this decade has seen. We are the optimistic few with the will to conquer the digital future.
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- Stier, S. et al. (2018) Election Campaigning on Social Media: Politicians, Audiences, and the Mediation of Political Communication on Facebook and Twitter. Political Communication, 35(1), pp.50–74.
- Watts, J. (2019). Greta Thunberg, schoolgirl climate change warrior: ‘Some people can let things go. I can’t’. The Guardian. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/11/greta-thunberg-schoolgirl-climate-change-warrior-some-people-can-let-things-go-i-cant [Accessed 26 Nov. 2019].
- Younge, G. (2019). I predict a riot. The Guardian Weekend, November 23. pp.16-19.
Anna Daly is currently an undergraduate student on the Bachelor of Sciences (Applied Social Sciences) Degree Programme at the National University of Ireland Galway