Awakening Civic Potential in the Digital Revolution
by UCLA IDEA
Week of July 2-6, 2012
This week, as we celebrate the fourth of July, a research report from Mills College and the University of Chicago is asking educators to take a new look at their role in teaching students how to practice independent thought and action for a politically-thriving democracy. In Participatory Politics : New Media and Youth Political Action, the authors mount data suggesting that many youth in the United States are using technology to participate in civic affairs. Participation—acting, doing, and engaging in social and political life—is not just the result of a free society; it is the ongoing cause and revitalization of it.
The Declaration of Independence in 1776, and the armed conflict that followed were outcomes of the participatory politics and democratic sentiments that Americans had long practiced in towns and villages. They lacked political independence, but that did not thwart the colonists’ civic participation that was both independent and collective.
In the decade preceding the Declaration, a broad cross-section of American colonists forged a new political identity through their everyday discourse and often-but-not-always symbolic resistance to powers that did not represent their interests. For example, laborers, farmers, artisans and business owners took public oaths before their neighbors rejecting the “baubles of Britain.” Women wove homespun cloth, city dwellers collected rags that could be used to manufacture “patriotic paper,” and thirsty colonists concocted new herbal drinks to replace British-bought tea. In a society where the average age was 16, young people often were at the center of these activities. Students in New England colleges proudly wore home-spun suits to their graduation ceremonies. This so-called nonconsumption movement promoted political will and social cohesiveness that went beyond actual commercial harm to British manufacturers.
In Participatory Politics, researchers report on a national survey of 3,000 young people, ages 15-25, on how they use the Internet and social media, and whether this digital engagement relates to politics. Among the many findings, we summarize five important ones here that match up with schools’ long tradition of preparing youth for active, participatory, engagement with civic life:
- Young people ages 15-25 use the internet a great deal—often to support information flow within interest groups with friends and families;
- The use of social media generally is related to political uses of the internet that promote useful citizenship skills (mobilizing online networks to reach large audiences; circulating ideas by forwarding material and producing material online; dialoguing with public officials.)
- Participatory forms of engagement via social media are also related to traditional forms of political participation such as voting.
- Social media can help mitigate inequalities in civic participation. Youth across racial, ethnic and geographic groups use the Internet and online social media to share political information and encourage political action.
- Young people realize that not everything they read on the internet is accurate. Overwhelmingly they want help to know how to assess the quality of political information they access.
Social media combined with more general use of the Internet bear some relationship to schools’ established (but possibly declining) citizenship-building activities such as student government, community service, journalism, and public forums like the model United Nations.
To date, schools are only slowly catching on to the new media and its value to social and political learning—perhaps that’s due to a combination of unfamiliarity and fear. After all, as the report’s co-author, Joseph Kahne said, these new forms of participation are “interactive, peer based, and do not defer to elites or formal institutions" (San Jose Mercury News , Huffington Post ). Indeed, schools may be as likely to prohibit using social media on their campuses as they are to teach about it. Kahne points out, "While we can probably assume that youth will learn to use their cell phones without formal instruction, they may well benefit from supports and programs in both school and out-of-school settings that strengthen their ability and desire to produce media that is informed, persuasive, and distributed effectively" (Futurity ).
The digital revolution has arrived. The question is not if young people will be connected, but whether they will do so with critical insight and public purpose. Or, as the authors of the report ask, “Are we prepared to provide the resources, supports and media literacy training necessary for youth of color to transfer their digital social capital into influence in the political realm?'" (Futurity )