Social media and youth civic engagement within democracy.

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“It is commonplace to refer to the crisis of youth disengagement from politics, but it is clear that in both the online environment in general and in the world of politics and public affairs on the Web in particular, the youth cohort is active and vibrant” (Xenos & Foot, 2008, p.54). In discussing research on online engagement, Rheingold (2008) suggest that some kinds of online interaction can lead to more explicitly political online engagement. He suggests two criteria for activities that are more likely to turn Internet use into political engagement: (1) whether the activity involves connection to others and (2) whether young people learnt to express themselves. He goes on to say that “voice, the unique style of personal expression that distinguishes one’s communications from those of others, can be called upon to help connect young people’s energetic involvement in identity-formulation with their potential engagement with society as citizens” (Rheingold, 2008, p.101).

We interviewed 2o year old Olivia A Fay; admin from the private Facebook group ‘Yonic Youth’. The group currently has just under 100 members, all well under 30.

What is Yonic Youth?

Yonic Youth is an online feminist collective facilitated through Facebook.

How and why was it created?

There are many feminist networks online but they come with a number of rules and regulations that can make them daunting and unapproachable. We, as a group of young and curious feminists, wanted a space where we could be a part of the dialogue, a place where a question never could be too stupid. It sprung out of a night of passionate discussions where it crystallised that we were all interested in knowing more and wanted to share everything we had already encountered therefore Yonic Youth was born.

How has social media facilitated the group’s existence and development?

Social media has been a great part of developing the network as well as developing our own understanding of the social justice issues were are discussing. Having a private group on Facebook has given us all a domain where we can share the articles, pictures or thoughts we have that are exciting or enraging. I believe that without Facebook we would’ve come to these conclusions at some point, after discussions ensued with friends and family, but our consistent interaction with social media means that it is harder to miss a beat.

What sort of civic topics are covered by members of Yonic Youth?

We focus on a range of issues from domestic violence, equal pay, rape, pro choice, to cultural appropriation, gay rights and Miley Cyrus using women of colour as props. We also discuss proper terminology when discussing these topics and steer each other away from being problematic when it comes to difficult topics to articulate. It’s also a safe and comfortable space to share personal experiences where you have felt marginalised or dismissed based on gender and sexuality. When Facebook can be such a hub for “subtle sexism” it is great to have a platform to remind yourself that your network around you are not ignorant and want to participate in the shift required to change the system.

Do you think something like Yonic Youth could exist without a social networking platform like Facebook?

There have been many collectives throughout the years that unite to create social change and although I know many members of Yonic Youth are participating in these collectives outside of social media, it does connect with our want for immediacy and maybe (perhaps only on my part) a lazy nature. I have grown very fond of Yonic Youth as a special place online and although I believe we would all still engage with the content we have grown so fond of sharing we wouldn’t have created the collective enthusiasm as quickly and strongly as we have in this case.

Does the online activity ever translate into physical meetings or action?

People are encouraged to post upcoming rallies, protests and petitions or suggest meetings that they are taking part in. Yonic Youth does not have routine meetings and I think for this collective that is a plus, you can be as involved or as uninvolved as you see fit and gives everyone a choice. Also the amount of times that a discussion has started with the sentence “Did you read that thing on Yonic Youth?” looks to me like we are doing something good.

 


 

“The engaged youth paradigm implicitly emphasizes generational changes in social identity that have resulted in the growing importance of peer networks and online communities” (Bennett, 2008, p.2). This opens the door to a new spectrum of civic actions in online arenas, such as Facebook groups. These online opportunities “empower young people by recognising personal expression and their capacity to project identities in collective spaces” (Bennett, 2008, p.3). Social networking platforms act as a platform for public or private discussion and a sharing of political content in an online civic community.

There have been many observations in the past that suggest that youths interests in politics is on the decline by simply looking at electoral/voting numbers. However recent research has proven that the youth are participating in civic affairs in different ways (Hargetti & Shaw 2013, p.117).

Survey research in ‘Digitally Savvy citizenship: The Role of Internet Skills and Engagement in a Young Adults’ (2013) has re-contextualised the decline and have found that new modes of engagement are on the rise that were simply overlooked in past research.

This study was undertaken just after the U.S 2008 presidential election and first year students at the University of Illinois Chicago were asked a series of questions on paper.

Their analysis has found that participation in online communities is at an all time high,
some features of online communities are that they enable like minded peers to engage and comment on specific issues in a public space. Hargetti & Shaw suggest “the erosion of electoral and civic associations does not herald the decline and fall of democracy, but rather suggests a transmutation into a new, perhaps more digitally mediated form” (2013, p.130).

The studies findings indicated a higher level of community engagement in public activity overall. Those more likely to participate in civic affairs online were:

  • Men were more likely that woman to join in on civic affairs online
  • Youths who came from educated families were more likely to be civically engage
  • Skilled Internet users/ those who spent more time online are more likely to participate in higher levels of discussion and participation online.

When trying to reason with the survey findings researchers believed that women didn’t feel that they had enough political knowledge to participate online, however women were more likely to have voted in the election over men.

Children who come from an educated family are more likely to be exposed to civic engagement through their parents. These youths have a higher exposure to community events and affairs.

Skilled Internet users who engage politically online are more likely to push further than just online engagement and continue to show greater participation levels outside of just online activity (Hargetti & Shaw 2013, pp.125-130).

This study also found that social networking sites allow a greater degree of participation for youths that go far beyond electoral politics. Youths have the chance to get involved with volunteer work, inviting others to join in on protests, creating events, donating and contacting political officials eg: Twitter.
Their findings conclude that there is support for an indirect relationship that links online political information practices through civic engagement. This then can result in engagement in other forms of democracy (Hargetti & Shaw 2013, p.130).

In a second study found in ‘Social media as a catalyst for online deliberation? Exploring the affordances of Facebook and YouTube for political expression’ (Halpern & Gibbs 2013), specific social media accounts managed by The Whitehouse are analysed along with users comments and likes. The tone of comments are another important factor that researchers looked into as they found differing sites encouraged different levels of engagement and politeness.

Prior to this study, researchers had found a positive link to the size of the SNS (social networking sites) in relation to the civic discussion matter. This is because as the social sphere grows the probability of interaction with new sources of information enlarges. (Halpern & Gibbs 2013). So as people comment and share information, numerous other people can see this activity on their newsfeed. This in turn encourages other users to engage in activity especially if they see that their peers are engaging.

There has also been research that indicates as sites grow participants are more likely to cross paths with a user who has an opposing view. This only expands the types of conversations users have online (Halpern & Gibbs 2013). Similarly users are also more likely to come across like minded peers, resulting in further discussion and a higher level of engagement that encourages them to pursue participation in the offline world.

When comparing Facebook to YouTube research has taken into consideration the respective functions of both sites:

Facebook:

  • When comments are posted users are notified > this allows for higher levels and cohesive participation and discussions
  • Comments can be liked
  • Content/photos can be shared
  • Users/figures can be followed

YouTube:

  • Users can download and upload video related content
  • Users can comment
  • Users can like and unlike videos
  • Users can subscribe to content

In the studies conclusion Halpern & Gibbs acknowledge that YouTubes anonymity plays is a big factor in the research results. Because YouTube accounts are more anonymous than Facebook the tone of peoples comments were less polite. “Anonymous participants may also develop a strong ingroup identity, causing them to stereotype and dismiss opinions of out group members” (Halpern & Gibbs 2013, p.1160). Furthermore the anonymity of YouTube was likely to cause users to disregard their peers value as an individual, leading to lower tolerance.

In relation to Facebook users are more likely to be influence by the factor to which one user is familiar with other participants. (Halpern & Gibbs 2013, p.1161)The conclusion discusses that the types of conversation had on Facebook will flow and be more efficient due to the notifications function; This encourages users to respond and continue conversation flow.

Halpern & Shaw also draw on the personal nature of Facebook and when contacts see their friends engage in discussion they in turn will be encouraged to and as a result it will be more civil and politically orientated (2013, p.1166). In terms of sensitive issues being discussed online by youths individuals were more inclined to provide research to their peers. This shows that users are strongly invested in these issues and went to lengths to justify their ideas and opinions.

The findings to this research acknowledge that although SNS may not provide a forum for intensive political debate, it does provide a space for youths to discuss and share information which encourages political participation (Halpern & Gibbs 2013). Halpern & Gibbs further discuss that their findings “expose the positive role that social networks and greater access to personal information can play in fuelling deliberation and modelling symmetrical participation” (2013 p.1167).