Blog | September 11, 2017

The Changing Face of Millennial Engagement in Politics

BY HALEY SILVERSTEIN

Millennials around the world are utilizing social media and technology as a medium for political engagement instead of entering formal politics. We voice our opinions in Facebook statuses, post photos of ourselves at rallies to Instagram, call out leaders on Twitter, and watch protests unravel and reconstruct societies before our very eyes on Youtube. Social media has become a forum for political discourse, a means for political engagement. Technology has transformed the way millennials participate in politics and furthermore, it has changed the way we shape policy.

According to findings from CIRCLE, only half the number of eligible millennial voters (18-29) in the United States voted in the 2016 election. However, this is not signaled that millennials are politically inactive. Instead we are choosing to participate in a different way and in our own way. In the same report, “about 58% of millennials chose community involvement as a method to make major positive changes in our society, rather than political involvement at the local, state, and federal level (32% chose this option).”

In her study for the Brookings Institute, Sara Yerkes talks about millennial engagement in Tunisia. “While one would have expected young revolutionaries, among others, to flood the political space following the uprising, Tunisia has actually witnessed a steady decline in formal political participation by youth since 2011. That is, Tunisian youth are politically engaged, yet they are increasingly eschewing formal politics (voting, joining political parties, and running for office) in favor of informal politics (starting or joining a civil society organization, protesting, or signing a petition).”

Only 13% of millennials the United States have ever seriously considered running for office, despite the surging numbers of digital political engagement. As of 2016, only five members of Congress are millennials. If Congress were proportionate to generational divide, there would be a total of 97 members.

This avoidance of formal politics in both Tunisia and the United States may be attributed to social media. Some researchers see the use of social networking sites as a form of participation and engagement in and of itself. If this is the case, how will millennials continue to change policy if they are not in the vital decision- making positions to do so? As a consequence, there is a gap between those governing us and what we believe.

However, technology has the ability to close this gap. In Tunisia, and more broadly throughout the Arab Spring of 2011, technology, and more specifically Facebook, proved to be a powerful tool in grassroots organizing and created powerful networks of activists. We saw images of young people mobilizing in the city centers, smartphones in hand, protesting authoritarian regimes in Egypt and Tunisia. Although the success of the revolution can be debated, there is no doubt that technology and youth activism were able to successfully bring awareness to the cause.

Yet, there is still a widespread sense of disillusionment, certainly in Tunisia but in the United States as well. If millennials are feeling that political change is too far out of reach, its not. Technology makes us ever more connected, informed, and able. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter give us a seat at the table. When every policy advisor, political pundit, even the President himself is on Twitter, the platform gives us a direct line — typed from our fingers to their ears. Technology has found a way to open the floor to people who may not have been able to voice their opinion before. For anyone who felt disillusioned with his or her government, technology and social media is a tangible way to have his or her voice heard. For youth, social media can act as a megaphone or a rallying cry; it can bring needed attention to injustices or mobilize a movement for change.

We’re using social media and technology to build political communities, and are using it as a means for organizing and proposing policies. Furthermore, technology is shaping politics and policy beyond social media. There are apps that let users swipe left or right, agree or disagree, through given policy proposals until they match with a candidate that best suits their policy preferences. In Iran, where popular social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are banned, these apps allow users to circumvent censorship and get an accurate read on candidates without the propaganda of traditional media outlets.

This app helps constituents fine-tune their policy preferences. Millennials can use the technology as tool of empowerment, to help constituents better understand their options, and in turn make better policy choices that reflect their needs. And if millennials themselves aren’t going to participate in formal politics, they can use the tools readily available to them to elect leaders who will best represent them. 

This article is the Second Place winner of the EWI Nextgen Essay Contest 2017. Haley Silverstein received a B.A. in Political Science from Binghamton University where her studies focused on international affairs and conflict resolution. Haley currently works with technology start-ups in New York City.

The views expressed in this post reflect those of the author and not that of the EastWest Institute.