In 2012, Cathy J. Cohen of the University of Chicago, Joseph Kahne of Mills College, and their colleagues found that 41 percent of Americans between the ages of 15 and 25 had engaged in at least one act of “participatory politics,” such as forwarding a political video or starting an online group focused on an issue. The ones who engaged in these ways were also considerably more likely to vote.
People following politics and using social media, probably see plenty of online discussion of elections. The Pew Research Center recently found that 41 percent of adults (of all ages) who are “very interested” in politics saw mostly political content in their Twitter feeds in 2014.
But social media can also be apolitical. The Pew study found that more than a third of adult Twitter users who are uninterested in politics saw no political content at all on Twitter. If you rely on social media, it is possible to completely miss a political event as important as a national election.
This may be one reason why the rapid rise of social media has not boosted youth voter turnout. Based on the National Exit Polls’ demographic data (which are the best data we have at this point), CIRCLE calculates that about 21.5 percent of young adults voted in 2014. Since 1994, when comparable exit polls were first conducted, that proportion has never risen above 24 percent, nor fallen below 20 percent. This year’s turnout was almost precisely at the 20-year average.
This flat line is actually quite remarkable. The media have seen major change since 1994, moving from print newspapers and cable TV to Twitter and Buzzfeed. Meanwhile, young people’s demographics have shifted rapidly (40 percent of 18-29s are now people of color); and the political system, issues, and voting laws have all changed markedly. Yet turnout has hardly budged.
What remains constant is the basic class divide. Young people who are on track to economic success are much more likely to participate politically than those who are struggling. That was true for past generations, and it remains the case today. For instance, young adults who have attained a BA often vote at three times the rate of their contemporaries who have not completed high school.
Young people without college educations use social media, but Cohen, Kahne, and their colleagues found them largely missing from political circles. Although half of current college students used social media for an act of “participatory politics” in 2012, that was true of just 20 percent of high school dropouts.
It appears that social media do not dramatically improve youth voter turnout or help a great many disadvantaged young people engage in other forms of politics. But the new media do enable effective activism. Young people circulate commentary, music, images, and even jokes that change attitudes and ultimately laws.
For example, the DREAMers — mostly undocumented immigrants who have no right to vote in the United States and good reasons to fear “coming out” — have used social media tools to change the debate about immigration.
The rapid rise of gay marriage also seems hard to explain without the impact of participatory politics. And although the DREAMers and advocates of marriage equality are both generally seen as liberal, the same tools are also available to conservative youth.
But even if participatory politics is common, growing, and sometimes effective, some important questions remain open.
First, can the new media engage young people who start without an interest in politics, confidence, or skills? There is little sign that large numbers of formerly apolitical young people are being recruited into politics online, even if we define “politics” broadly to include consumer and cultural activism.
Second, we can point to impressive examples of videos, slogans, and images that “go viral” and make their creators famous and influential. But for every such case, there are many that go nowhere, being seen only by the maker and perhaps a few friends. What is the impact of being unsuccessful in a competitive online arena? Is repeated failure discouraging, especially when the rare successes are so widely trumpeted?
Third, the removal of “gatekeepers” (such as newspaper editors, TV anchors, and party elders) has made information freer. Anyone can create and share a video without permission. But the task of sorting reliable from blatantly false information has become harder. How will young people — and older people, too — learn to separate the wheat from the chaff?
Finally, can online social movements be sustained in the face of adversity? The ALS Challenge (in which people dump water on their heads to raise money for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), has raised $115 million. There have been 10 billion views of the Challenge videos. That was an impressive burst of activity that probably far exceeded the goals of the organizers. But the Challenge faces no organized opposition and need not continue to achieve its purposes.
In contrast, the Arab Spring, also powered by social media, faltered when it encountered disciplined resistance. The events of Ferguson, Mo. in the summer have prompted much online organizing (some from the right as well as the left), but that attention may also fade. To make a difference on a complex and contentious issue requires lasting effort. Whether the new participatory politics can sustain political engagement remains an open question.
Peter Levine is Associate Dean for Research and Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs at Tufts University
This post is part of the Scholars Strategy Network series on civic engagement between elections.