“A teenager working on her anger management problem. Currently chilling and watching a good old fashioned movie with a friend,” reads the Twitter bio of 17-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg. Those are not her words, rather, she’s quoting a tweet from President Trump directed at her. Thunberg is another example of a Gen Z media star who harnesses the power of social media and youth to promote a cause across the world. The sharing of information across social media sites is changing the way younger people gain information and interact with political and social issues.
Recent polls clearly show that Gen Z primarily consumes news information from social media platforms, especially Instagram. A national survey found 59% of teens listed social media as their top news source, with TV, friends, online news, and parents, and other sources lagging behind . Additionally, 65% of respondents check their instagram daily and many cited Instagram as their way of finding political news. Instagram and other sites like Twitter and Facebook are full of news pages, campaign and politician pages, and political meme pages which may be popular among the younger generation, while social media allows politicians to have direct access to youth unlike politicians before. Additionally, the algorithms used by Facebook and Twitter often expose users to content they didn’t necessarily follow by choice.
Thunberg is one of several young social media activists helping to bring issues like climate change and gun control to the forefront. She currently has 9.6 million followers on Instagram, but her influence is not limited to just the internet. In September 2019, she inspired and helped lead the Global Climate Strike, a worldwide, coordinated strike that students used to walk out of class protesting government and business inaction on climate change . While the exact turnout was difficult to calculate, there were 2,500 events scheduled in over 163 countries . A similar walk-out occurred in response to the Parkland school shooting, and this effort was headed by two other teen activists, Emma Gonzalez (163 thousand instagram followers) and David Hogg (110 thousand followers).
Sites like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook provide direct ways for teens to be connected to politics in new ways. People can “follow” politicians of their choice, exposing themselves to content from the campaign trail, promotional videos or ads, etc. This gives politicians an opportunity to connect with the younger voting bloc. A recent Elizabeth Warren video encouraged people to “dump the guy that ghosted [them]” . This type of message is clearly directed to a younger audience that’s familiar with terms like “ghosting.” Celebrities with large followings sometimes post political content or make endorsements, and those statements can make a difference to voters who may not have solidified political beliefs themselves.
Social media usage has proved to boost awareness of social causes and political issues that wasn’t as prevalent with traditional media sources. However, there are downsides to this increased access to information, including the prevalence of scams and misinformation. For example, during the massive Amazon Rainforest fires, notable celebrities such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Jaden Smith, Madonna, Novak Djokovic, etc., posted photos of the devastation to their millions of followers. The problem? Many of the pictures were from prior years, dating back to 2013 and 1989 . Furthermore, scammers used Instagram pictures to promote fake charities and non-profit organizations that claimed to donate money towards the firefighting effort. The tendency for people, both young and old, to fall for misinformation on social media is a weakness that U.S. adversaries use to launch massive misinformation campaigns, like Russia did during the 2016 presidential election. Unless people change the way they analyze information online, this problem could get worse.
Another side effect of political involvement on social media may be increased partisanship. Since users select which profiles to follow, they may only choose to consume content that confirms their prior beliefs and shelters them from opposing ideas. Algorithms will suggest content similar to what one already follows, loudening the partisan echo chamber one may create for themselves, leading to further polarization in the near future .
As the 2020 Presidential elections nears, political analysts are predicting how this new generation will influence the vote. Younger voters historically have low voter turnout, but recent social media campaigns pushed by organizations, celebrities, and regular citizens alike have made a push to get younger people to the polls. Only time will tell if the next generation mobilizes from their phones to the voting booths, potentially changing the face of our government.
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