The new participatory media – social media – change the very profile of the individual who becomes less individual and more collective. This new method could expand our freedom.
Who are the young? What do they do online? Do they actually read far less? But is it also true that thanks to social media they engage in very serious political conversations? Are they no longer interested in paper news, don’t read books and are constantly lost in their smartphones? and if they are constantly using their smartphones, how can they be politically engaged?
If a person interested in politics opens their Facebook page, the algorithm that runs the social network will tend to show a person the shared content they are interested in. Conversations on government and foreign policy. A video of a youngster making a long speech at a public meeting and “rubbishing a minister” (this is the type of language which newspapers and social network interactions usually use for this type of content), the story of a young girl who is a registered party member and has invented a hashtag on Twitter. It’s a conversation bubble that provides us with hardly any information.
So we could try to expand our research beyond our own close circle. For example, on Facebook one can find groups of young people who are taking part in this or that conversation. Let’s take a look at Italy, empirically. The page of the Young Democrats has 15,000 likes. On May 31 it announced, with a Facebook post, the birth of the “Student Spring” association. In the post it says that the association’s goals are based on the shared need not to allow various local efforts to remain isolated, and instead to “put them in touch and rediscover that national collective which student participation in the Young Democrats requires”.
The Five Star Movement has its own “youth” page on Facebook: few seem to use it, but that’s not the point, because one of Italy’s current government forces took its cue from the web. It’s official Facebook page has over 1.5 million likes.
The MIUR Facebook post that announced the conference entitled “The Young, politics and institutions in the thinking of #AldoMoro” (You heard me!) has 60 reactions, 9 shares and 5 comments.
Are these sufficient elements? Can we infer anything from these kinds of numbers to suggest that youth participation is on the increase? All one has to do is identify conversations on “serious” issues and measure the quantitative metrics (such as, for example, the number of tweets on a particular issue)?
The answer to these questions is: unfortunately not. What one needs are tangible indicators, data, numbers and analyses that are devoid of bias. Partly because, elsewhere, this supposed participation is not reported at all.
As far back as 2009, Mark Fischer in his Capitalism Realism: Is There No Alternative? writes: “By contrast with their forebears in the 1960s and 1970s, British students today appear to be politically disengaged. […]But this, I want to argue, is a matter not of apathy, nor of cynicism, but of reflexive impotence. They know things are bad, but more than that, they know they can’t do anything about it. But that ‘knowledge’, that reflexivity, is not a passive observation of an already existing state of affairs. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy”.
The Brexit referendum only happened seven years later, as we know. And we also know that the young (in many cases believed to be the ones who truly lost out of the consultation), simply didn’t show up: at least 2/3 of the young with voting rights did not vote in the referendum.
However, these figures don’t seem to make sense seeing as there’s been talk of a youthquake – to the extent that the Oxford dictionary chose it as the word of the year for 2017. In 2016 the word of the year was post-truth, after the elections in the United Kingdom and the resurgence of Corbyn’s Labour Party. But it would be best to speak of “young adults” rather than youth: the figures have in fact shown, regardless of narratives, hopes and words of the year chosen more or less arbitrarily, that the vote in the 25-45 age range has increased, not that of the under 25s. After all, even the Podemos movement in Spain was somehow “betrayed” because a majority of potential voters between the ages of 18 and 40 didn’t turn out to the polls.
Professor Dario Tuorto is the author of The Fleeting Moment. Youth and voting in Italy, between continuity and change, as well as being Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Science of the University of Bologna. To measure youth voting participation, he used the figure that would seem to be somehow “old”: the vote itself.
The reasons? First, youth vote participation is rarely analysed, for the very reason that one prefers to concentrate on forms of participation beyond institutional boundaries.
Second: particularly when the election carries weight (as is the case with the renewal of parliament or the election of the president of the Republic), the vote is still considered to be the agreed method of consultation in Western democracies. And although the individual vote has little chance of being decisive, in most countries voter turnout still represents a majority of those entitled.
Third: participation in the vote is still the indicator that is easiest to monitor and also the most reliable.
“Of course one could monitor other phenomena, such as street demonstrations, or membership of informal or institutional groups”, Tuorto explains, “but when scenarios change it’s hard to make sense of the results: these measurements are not constant over time. The problem is also trying to assess the political influence of these different contexts. There’s no doubt that other spaces have been created, compared to the past, that provide collective representation on specific issues. The fact is that many very happily engage in this kind of collective activity yet don’t question why they don’t bother to vote. Nor do they think of translating this action into traditional and political activism. This clearly reduces margin for change. Traditional participation has dropped and is now exclusively in the hands of highly politicised groups, mainly in cities and university campuses, but on the whole the numbers haven’t changed. Perhaps participation has increased in a more generic sense, on single issues and campaigns. The issue of immigration and social work for example have garnered support, but they’re still fringe issues. The vast spectrum of cultural, environmental and sports activities and associations is certainly strong in numbers but difficult to classify: and many instances of participation don’t even show up on the radar”.
The fact is that being young has a series of implications that go beyond every attempt to pigeon hole them. Sociologist Jorge Benedicto’s claims that among other things, youth is an unstable phase with a peripheral positioning in social networks. Interest in politics naturally increases with age and the transition to adulthood and social integration, as it is during this transition that the decisions made during one’s institutional phase start to have perceivable effects on our interests.
Yet there are online conversation spaces, spaces where it seems politics is discussed more than usual.
One should probably move away from a concept of commitment and participation to a concept we must borrow from web marketing such as engagement and involvement. The real problem with this shift of focus is that engagement is hard to measure in quantitative AND qualitative terms. Moreover, this shift leads to major problems in terms of definitions.
What do we really mean by engagement? And what effects can it claim to have on the institutional component of politics? A focus group held by MDPI in Portugal and the United Kingdom attempted to somehow conceptualise the political engagement of the young, without noting any particular difference between the two countries. But it wasn’t easy, because the opinions of the participants were very diverse even in what they meant by this form of participation. For example: can sharing photos on social networks that support a specific cause be deemed political engagement? For some it is, for others however, their peers who engage in this kind of behaviour are simply stepping in line and don’t necessarily understand the significance of these actions. For some a simple share on Facebook is a show of political activism. For others it’s just emulation.
Emulation which could even translate as disengagement.
So how can we find our bearings, if we can’t even agree on a definition?
Tuorto once again comes to our aid: “One should certainly pay attention to this phenomenon but there are more important aspects. The young have little contact with the world of parties and are not interested in that world can find their own spaces on Internet: they are the ones who benefit from participation in the web. Which raises even more questions because it increases inequality: those with more means can participate better. It’s a tool but it shouldn’t be emphasized”.
That’s the point then. That perhaps we should concern ourselves so much about the young but more about the marginalised:
“What is increasing pretty much everywhere, as it turns out, is the lack of participation shown by marginalised groups, and they’re not necessarily young. These are people who for a variety of reasons lose contact with politics: people with low educational qualifications and out of work who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. At a time when solidarity is on the wane, they are the ones to suffer the most. The young are only one aspect of this phenomenon”.
Then again: “Entry into the political arena risks being monopolized by the market. This is because the tools used are not rational or knowledge based, they are more about emotions and sentimental”.
And in this area the web is king, in terms of speed and quantity, owing to the ease with which political messages can be disseminated on it and political responsibility included.
“After all, a culture of participation” – we are told by Wu Ming on Giap – “is not synonymous with ‘web 2.0’ nor with “interactive products”. ‘Web 2.0’ is a business model, “interactivity” is a dimension that is pre-ordained and pre-incorporated by the industry in its products, while participation is supposed to be a grass-roots movement. Jenkins says (and the definition seems very poignant): “The culture of participation is the history of the battles fought on the various media platforms”.
Another reason to doubt those who believe that the participatory aspects can easily take place on those same platforms which Morozov has smartly criticized by debunking the illusion behind “technological solutionism”.
And so, perhaps, we’re asking the wrong questions. Benedicto also adds “Instead of discussing whether today’s youth is disconnected, sceptical or, on the contrary, can claim to be an alternative, we should start to consider the fact that quite possibly most young people are all three at the same time”. And start to worry about providing the young with the kind of tools they need to find their feet in a world to which the web, whatever it’s pros and cons, adds another level of complexity.
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