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Positive Influences of Social Media on Youth’s Political Activism

Info: 3258 words (13 pages) Essay
Published: 12th May 2021 in Media

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Studies have found that about half of the population of the United States uses social media. For example, 80% of people using social media are between the ages of 18-29 (Kruse, Norris & Flinchum, 2018) and 56% of the country’s population carries a smart-phone capable of taking videos (Bonilla & Rosa, 2015). This forms the question of what is the effect on social phenomena such as the public sphere and digital activism. "Habermas defines the public sphere as a place where 'private people come together as a public' for the purpose of using reason to further knowledge which, in turn, leads to political change" (Kruse, Norris & Flinchum, 2018, p. 62 & 63). Digital activism has given rise to social movements, and these social movements have highlighted the role that social media plays in acting as a facilitator. Social media has facilitated “individual political participation” but also "collective activism" (Velasquez & LaRose, 2015). Social media has become something that is referenced, directly or indirectly, on a daily basis. For example, either yourself, someone you know, or the government and mainstream media are speaking about social media. It has become nearly impossible to ignore how relevant social media has become.

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Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter connect people from all around the world to each other. You are able to reconnect with an old friend, a professor from college, or someone you have never even met.  Using social media has made it easier and more efficient to stay up to date with current events. Sites such as Facebook and Twitter have become a source where people get their news from. For example, instead of reading or watching the traditional morning news, young people can scroll through their Twitter news feed and be kept up to date with things happening all around the world Many times, the first place we hear about a shooting or an uprising is from social media, especially when the group being targeted is marginalized. Mainstream media either does not give enough airtime to cover these topics or people have captured the event and uploaded it, and it began "trending." For example, the uprisings in Egypt or the shooting of unarmed Black teenagers. Because of this, social media has become a way for ordinary citizens to hold their government accountable for their actions; this has led to a new type of citizen. Researchers call them the "networked young citizen." (Loaders, Vromen, and Xenos, 2014)

 In the last decade, social media has given rise to a new form of activism and a new type of space where, young people especially, have the ability and the freedom to express their political ideologies to hundreds of thousands of people in seconds. This is something that can be positive if exercised correctly, but it can also have negative effects if abused. Social media can be a place to exercise people's freedom of speech, but this is not without consequences. Employers and the government have begun to monitor potential employees on what kind of content they post, and sometimes if the person's opinion does not directly align with that of the employers, they may be blacklisted. The following paragraphs will argue that social media can be a modern-day public sphere, digital activism is not a replacement for regular activism, and it has created a space for the regular citizen to be involved in politics.

Social media is a free entity for the most part. If you have internet access, most likely, you also have access to a social media page. Having access to a social media site allows you to contribute information, which creates the potential and opportunity for good political discourse online (Kruse, Norris & Flinchum, 2018). Sites like Facebook and Twitter allow users to “post” their opinions and share pictures or news articles to their network of friends. Those who you allow to view your content are then able to “like”, “comment”, and/or “share” the post to their own network of friends.

Social media has given rise to a public sphere that we all take part in and share in public time. For something to be considered a public sphere using the Habermas definition, it must have an absence of institutional influence, unlimited access to information, and equal and protected participation. Those three aspects sound a lot like the Internet and social media as we know it. Facebook, for example, is the second most accessible site, it is free and allows people “to challenge discourses, share alternative perspectives and publish their own opinions” (Kruse, Norris & Flinchum, 2018, p. 63). Although, Habermas argues that a “true public sphere” is not possible anymore because of corporate interests within mass media. “Shirky (2008, 2011) argues that social media has revitalized the public sphere, noting that ‘the networked population is gaining greater access to information, more opportunities to engage in public speech, and an enhanced ability to undertake collective action” (Kruse, Norris & Flinchum, 2018, p. 64). 

 The research conducted by Kruse, Norris & Flinchum (2018) gathered how Millennials and Generation Xers felt about Facebook as a public sphere. The researchers conducted a semi-structured personal interview with each member. The initial focus of the interview was simply how participants felt about their privacy on social media, but politics was a reoccurring topic, so they had to amend their study (Kruse, Norris & Flinchum, 2018). The participants of the study identified a lack of respectful dialogue about politics. The participants made it clear that when things were meant to be a debate, discourse, they would quickly shift to an argument. “Participants identified three reasons for a lack of discourse and for avoiding political discussions online: (1) fear of online harassment and workplace surveillance; (2) a “hug box” mentality; and (3) the subjective meaning of the social media space (Kruse, Norris & Flinchum, 2018, p. 70).

Generation X and Millennials also expressed their fear of surveillance by potential employers. These two groups engage in voluntary self-censorship. One of the participants noted that a friend whom they engaged in respectful discourse in person could not hold the same respect when disagreeing on opinions online.  One of the participants spoke about his “distrust of the corporate ownership of social media sites”. Participants also mentioned they intentionally created a ‘hug box’ for themselves.  A hug box is a safe space of people with likeminded opinions. Participants noted only friended those who share their same ideas and unfriend those who do not. (Kruse, Norris & Flinchum, 2018, p. 72-74).

Digital activism has made becoming involved in politics more appealing to those who are not activists and that do not keep up with every single thing that occurs in the news. People can be intimidated by being involved in politics, and this new form of activism is like can be described as "dipping their toe" into the world of politics. Social Media sites have become essential in digital activism. Hashtags such as #Ferguson, #BlackLivesMatter, #jan25, #FreeAlaa have all gained international attention as well as brought international outrage to issues that mainstream media skips over or only presents one view. “The increased use and availability of these racialized populations with new tools for documenting incidents of state-sanctioned violence and contesting media representations of racialized bodies and marginalized communities” (Bonilla & Rosa, 2015, p. 5).

  Young people have grown tired of the way politics were handled in the past as well as the way that mainstream media had reported on government. The youth typically has no control over what is shown on mainstream news channels. As a result, the youth has found a new way to voice their opinions and engage in politics. Instead of solely relying on voting, joining political campaigns or revering their politicians, the young voters have begun participating and organizing rallies, protests, and starting social movements. This kind of political involvement can be credited to the role played by the internet and social media which can be called “networked individualism” (Loader, Vromen & Xenos, 2014). Loader, Vromen & Xenos (2014) call the group of people being influenced by platforms like Facebook and Twitter in the realm of politics and civic engagement as the "networked young citizen." (You mentioned this already) Previous generations have set the norm to be that the active and dutiful citizens should vote at all the elections and respectfully engage in political groups and show support, but their voices should not be heard. Young activists are throwing that dynamic away and making sure their voices are heard. (Loader, Vromen & Xenos, 2014)

  Facebook has proven itself as a useful platform for planning and organizing protests. For example, when the Egyptian Uprisings occurred, Facebook was used for movement recruitment, organizing, and preparing the protestors. When they launched each protest, they all began making the same demands and chanting the same slogan. This gave the impression of a national event, and it increased the symbolic impact. This was possible because the core activists were releasing the information on Social Media for thousands of people to see. All of these people did not need to come together or hold a meeting in order to coordinate the protests. The coordination was done through Facebook groups and putting the information out on walls (Clarke and Koçak, 2018).

In the Summer of 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed young African American, was shot and killed by a white police officer. This was not long after the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012. Public outrage was high, especially since George Zimmerman, the shooter in the Trayvon Martin case, was recently acquitted. Someone had uploaded a photo of Michael Brown with his arms up, surrendering to the officer, seconds before he was shot and killed. This picture went viral, and videos of police brutality were being "documented in detail across social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Vine" (Bonilla & Rosa, 2015, p. 4).

 Twitter had proven useful in live updating and starting conversations. After the killing of Michael Brown in 2014, “Twitter became a platform for providing emergent information about the killing of Michael Brown and for commenting on the treatment of the officer and who shot him” (Bonilla & Rosa, 2015, p. 6). The hashtagging (#) symbol functions in a way similar to library call numbers but for tweets. When people were tweeting about the shooting of Michael Brown, they used the #Ferguson, by the end of the month, #Ferguson had appeared more than 8 million times on Twitter (Bonilla & Rosa, 2015). The more people who tweet using the same hashtag, the greater the chances are of it becoming a "trending" topic, and it will appear on most peoples' timelines.

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The authors of the article “Launching Revolution: Social Media and the Egyptian Uprising’s First Movers” center their arguments over the question, “What role does the Internet, and specifically social media, play in dynamic of mobilization?” (Clarke and Koçak, 2018, p. 1) In recent years, “Facebook Revolutions” and “Twitter Revolutions” have shown to be a new method of mobilization and activism. The authors are presenting an argument that shows how concretely the two social media platforms contributed to the January 25th, 2011 Egyptian Uprising in Tahrir Square. They argue that Facebook and Twitter had a meaningful contribution to the success of the protest because it increased the number of people involved, it facilitated simultaneous protests all over the Egyptian nation and not just in one spot at one time. The protest appeared to be relatively leaderless, so that increased the authenticity of the protest and made it more appealing for the “fence-sitters.”

The authors present data from how the protest was organized and accounts from when the protest was happening. The “first movers” created a Facebook group called “We Are All Khaled Said” after the death of Khaled Said by police violence. This group quickly became one of the most followed groups in Egypt. (Clarke and Koçak, 2018) By the end of 2010, the page had hundreds of thousands of followers. Facebook became a form of protestor recruitment. The page grew too big, so the core group created a second page with more loyal followers, and they had developed a relationship with and trusted. This was key to organizing the January 25th protests. (Clarke and Koçak, 2018). When they launched the protests, the core members were in charge of releasing information on Facebook groups. Then they were responsible for launching these protests in the agreed-upon locations. After the protests commenced, Twitter became essential to keeping protestors in the loop. Some people were live streaming, and others were retweeting and tweeting, where police presence was the strongest. This was also where everyone decided to join together and protest at Tahir Square. (Clarke and Koçak, 2018)

 Social media sparks social movements and activism because it reminds people that they are not alone. It can be observed that people tend not to act unless they are sure there will not be singled out, and there is enough popular support behind the movement. Social media has become a place where collective activism is taking place, and it seems that online activism can lead to offline activism. Hashtag activism can oftentimes become rallies and protests done in person.

Velasquez and LaRose (2015) observed, using the social cognitive theory, that there is a relationship between social media and the youth's political activism. Social movements like #Ferguson and The Arab Spring Uprisings have "highlighted the role that social media may play as a facilitator not only of individual political participation but also of collective activism" (Velasquez and LaRose, 2015, p. 900). They also note that it seems that American youths preferred form of participating in politics is through the use of social media. The researchers explain that the concept of political efficacy has been used to explain political behaviors. "Internal political efficacy was defined as individual’s belief that their individual political actions can have an impact and affect a political process…external political efficacy, defined as individuals’ perceived responsiveness of public officials and government institutions to demands of citizens” (Velasquez and LaRose, 2015, p. 900).

 A person's willingness to be an activist is heavily dependent on their self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is defined as "belief in one's capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments" (Velasquez and LaRose, 2015, p. 901). One could argue that the "first movers" in Egypt had a high level of self-efficacy. “Collective efficacy refers to a group’s shared belief in its capabilities in order to produce a desired goal (Velasquez and LaRose, 2015, p. 903).   One could argue that the "fence-sitters" joined in on the protesting in Egypt because they felt high collective efficacy. The fence-sitters did not have strong self-efficacy individually, but once they came together as a group, their confidence was boosted to where they joined in on the protest. The "fence-sitters" waited until a "revolutionary threshold" (Clarke & Koçak 2018) was crossed before the went out into the streets and demanded a change.

Research done by Velasquez and LaRose (2015) showed that a positive relationship was found between participation in group online activism and perceptions of online group efficacy. However, the strength of the relationship wavered depending on how much independent work the tasks required. If the individual felt like others were depending on them, and they depended on them, their confidence was boosted, and the relationship was stronger.

Social media hands over much of the power to the user. Yes, social media has corporate motives and gives you the option to put yourself in a "hug box," but it also gives you control over what you post. Just because you have the ability to say whatever you want does not give you the right to be nasty and rude to those with opposing views. If social media users learned how to respectfully engage with one another and be as respectful to the other person as you would if you saw them face to face, platforms like Facebook, would be a great version of the public sphere. It is also clear that digital activism should never replace traditional activism. However, platforms like Facebook and Twitter can enhance and facilitate protests and rallies. “.. the uprisings did not happen because of social media. Instead, the platform provided opportunities for organization and protest that traditional methods couldn’t” (Shearlaw, 2016).

 Social media, if used correctly, has had great positive effects on the modern political atmosphere. It has created a space where people of all different places can come together and rally, it has become a platform to bring attention to marginalized places and communities, and it has created a new type of young citizen. Just as the world is evolving and becoming more modern, so will politics. Instead of being hesitant and put off by differing opinions, citizens should embrace the vast opinions they have the ability to see and hear. The public should attempt to become more comfortable with political discourse, since that is what makes us a democracy in the first place.

References

  • Brian D. Loader, Ariadne Vromen & Michael A. Xenos (2014) The networked young citizen: social media, political participation, and civic engagement, Information, Communication & Society, 17:2, 143-150, DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2013.871571
  • BONILLA, Y. and ROSA, J. (2015), #Ferguson: Digital protest, hashtag ethnography, and the racial politics of social media in the United States. American Ethnologist, 42: 4-17. DOI:10.1111/amet.12112
  • Clarke, Killian, and Korhan Kocak. Forthcoming. “Launching Revolution: Social Media and the Egyptian Uprising's First Movers." British Journal of Political Science.
  • Lisa M. Kruse, Dawn R. Norris & Jonathan R. Flinchum (2018) Social Media as a Public Sphere? Politics on Social Media, The Sociological Quarterly, 59:1, 62-84, DOI: 10.1080/00380253.2017.1383143
  • Shearlaw, M. (2016, January 25th). Egypt five years on: was it ever a 'social media revolution'? Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/25/egypt-5-years-on-was-it-ever-a-social-media-revolution.
  • Velasquez, A., & LaRose, R. (2015). Youth collective activism through social media: The role of collective efficacy. New Media & Society, 17(6), 899–918. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444813518391

 

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