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Classroom Voices

How young people use social media to engage civically

November 5, 2020

Protesters gather to demonstrate the death of George Floyd on June 4, 2020, in New York.  On May 25, 2020, Floyd, a 46-year-old black man suspected of passing a counterfeit $20 bill, died in Minneapolis after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes. (Photo by ANGELA WEISS / AFP) (Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)

by Rainier Harris, high school senior, Queens, New York

While some young people might not be able to vote yet, they are leveraging social media to educate themselves and their peers on topics ranging from gun violence to racial justice to climate change. It isn’t unusual for young teens to have hundreds—even thousands—of followers. And most teens today are already heavily networked with their peers and community, allowing them to disseminate information quickly and easily. Teens have been using social media to circulate news posts, register to vote, share petitions, fundraise, donate, offer political commentary, document and share acts of injustice and mobilize their peers to take action.

Youth have carved out a digital space for themselves to freely engage in activism all summer. For instance, in June, K-pop fans co-opted the #WhiteLivesMatter on Twitter and Instagram to stand in solidarity with the racial equality protests persisting across the United States. Later that month, teens on TikTok and K-pop fans mobilized to inflate attendance expectations at President Trump’s Tulsa rally. “What seemed like a mere prank turned out to be a compelling protest,” Dr. Ashley Lee, postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University’s Digital Civil Society Lab, told me. As early as this spring, after the wave of Black Lives Matter protests began, many young activists began using platforms like Instagram to share safety tips about protesting and document instances of police brutality at the protest sites.

Pro-democracy demonstrators march holding their phones with flashlights on during a protest to mark the first anniversary of a mass rally against the now-withdrawn extradition bill, in Hong Kong, China June 9, 2020. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

“This generation has been very vocal,” said Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, executive director of the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE). “Because they have the tools to get their voices heard, they are out there, day in, day out, posting and sharing and demanding action.” 

Using Instagram carousel slides, activists have used posts to present clear, digestible tips on how to be a better ally to Black people, where to donate, what petitions to sign and how to confront police brutality.  Young people are using social media to make new avenues of activism. “Youth today are leveraging social media to move into adult-dominated political spheres,” Dr. Lee said. “Even if many of them cannot vote yet, youth have risen up to the occasion and have become leading voices.” 

For students like Alexandra Miller, a 20 year-old college junior based in Los Angeles, Instagram and Twitter are where she goes “to see first-hand experiences, personal videos and content, and resources.” She enjoys following accounts like @diversifyyournarrativelausd, a Twitter account that documents the work a coalition of students from her hometown school district is doing to include more diverse and anti-racist texts in the school district curriculum. But she says that “I never want to feel like following activists on Instagram is me doing the work, because it’s not. It’s the bare minimum.”

Swedish activist Greta Thunberg participates in a youth climate change protest in front of the United Nations Headquarters in Manhattan, New York City, New York, U.S., August 30, 2019. REUTERS/Jeenah Moon

This surge of youth-inspired activism is not new, experts say. Youth activism has a rich history including the organizing in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and in groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Little Rock Nine and more recently the Parkland teens and Greta Thunberg. While social media represents a shift in the medium through which youth do activism, the attitudes have remained constant through generations.

While young people’s activism on social media has offered progress in how we communicate ideologies and information, it also comes with risk. “This unprecedented visibility that youth activists are able to achieve using social media also exposes them to surveillance from the police and counterprotesters,” said Dr. Lee. Young people, generally, and girls, LGBTQ youth, and youth of color specifically, are especially at risk of receiving vitriol online comments, said Dr. Lee.

Young people’s social media footprint can also lead to political micro-targeting, exposure to propaganda and misinformation and make their data available to state actors via Facebook and other data mining and analytic companies, said Dr. Lee. 

Despite the dangers that social media pose, youth activists have no plan of logging off. “Youth are leveraging their social media expertise to mobilize their friends into conversation and action,” says Jessia Rosario, a student at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.”We are using it to recruit, educate and inspire one another to not wait for the right moment because the moment is now.

Rainier Harris is a senior in high school and a Queens native. His work has appeared in the New York TimesBusiness Insider, and Medium (Elemental, GEN), and his Twitter is @harris_rainier.

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