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9th February 2017

How social media is sculpting politics

The combination of constant encounter with (often shallow) political views on social media platforms and recurring political shocks is shaping the politics of the younger generation

As of late, a very definitive trend has arisen in politics. Whilst slightly older generations have swung to the right of the political spectrum, the generation of teens and young adults heavily influenced by social media seem to have adopted a left wing agenda. In the Brexit vote, 75 per cent of people between the ages 18 and 24 voted to remain within the European Union, whereas 61 per cent of those older than 65 voted to leave.

Furthermore, it is estimated that voter turnout amongst 18-24 year olds was a mere 36 per cent compared to the 83 per cent of over 65s that voted. Though this trend is not an entirely new phenomena, one explanation of this might be that this newest generation of young voters are inexplicably lazy; they have an unrelenting common goal to be apathetic towards everything and everyone. However, whilst social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook have populised the nonchalant attitude that all is futile, they have also charged young people to care far more about what’s going on in the world and to react to it accordingly with their own opinion.

Social media now has gifted everyone a voice and a soapbox on which to present their opinions to fellow beings. This has led to an extremely rapid dispersion of ideas — whether they are dangerous, stupid, or brilliant. Suddenly, in every moment, we are presented with something entirely new and exciting. This group of young people is presented with politics, opinions, and bias every day.

This effect is the ‘super-spreading’ principle, a term originally coined for diseases which spread extremely quickly, but also applicable applied to social dynamics. The people with many followers and multiple connections beyond the averages of their peers are ‘super-spreaders’. When these people share ideas, their influence is spread very quickly, especially when super-spreaders interact with others like them.

This effect may be said to be responsible for the recent popularisation of memes. The combination of super-spreaders and memes as a profound impact on youth culture. And, since memes are often politically charged, they are part of the rush of insight and opinion that this generation faces day-to-day through social media. However, there is a somewhat darker side to such memes. A very basic understanding of politics is required to enjoy them, therefore making Wikipedia and the like the primary pool of political research for the younger generation.

Though this is a somewhat banal form of political participation, it has an impact on the the thinking of young people, pushing them to think more about politics, whether they like it or not. With the strong platform of social media outlets, this increased political awareness has led to more general engagement with the issues of the day, as the rising in number of petitions shows. One particularly contemporary petition stands above the rest: the petition to prevent Donald Trump from making a state visit in the UK has over 1.8 million signatures. Since 100,000 is the usual amount of signatures required for the Petitions Committee to debate their subjects, the petition’s ridiculous amount of signatures perfectly  demonstrates the super spreading effect of social media.

However, the current wave of political engagement also has roots in the wider political climate. 2016 was a year of momentous events. Outrage and joy were simultaneously voiced through social media. A tsunami dragged everything in its path with it: those who were once apathetic to politics found themselves swamped by a bombardment of tweets and statuses. The sheer volume of such a social media outpouring was too much to ignore, and hence brought the once-apathetic to express their opinions.

The shock of politics in 2016 has successfully borne new interest and engagement in young people. The problem, however, is that this engagement remains, for the most part, in the glowing corners of social media. Tweets and statuses do not actually count towards polls. If they did, I’m sure the outcome of 2016 would have been entirely different. No Brexit, most certainly no Trump in office. Instead, we might have found Harambe being sworn into office.

What the future holds for political engagement is unclear. The technologies available to us make it easier than ever to spread ideas. Amongst many of their challenges, young people must work against the propaganda of the many racist and offensive groups that exist, whilst not impinging on others when they themselves share their views. One thing is certain in this uncertain world: the future is the clay in our hands!

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