For most of us, the internet drives our daily lives, and now, that includes our political participation. At any given time, we are a few clicks away from engaging with fellow constituents and legislatures.
The effects of social media on politics are vast and changing as platforms emerge, grow and adapt. Younger generations, such as Millenials and Generation Z, are more likely to be regular users with a higher literacy than older generations. Social media reinforces people’s interests through algorithms and introduces users to related content. Therefore, young people who express an interest in politics through their social media platforms are likely to see more political content in their feeds. Users who do not express a particular interest in politics, will likely not see this type of information. Nonetheless, young users who are politically engaged, rely on their use of social media as political participation.
Remhai Menelik created and runs the Instagram account PeaceInTigray. The 28-year-old started this account late last year at the start of the war between Ethiopia and Tigray. She saw this as an opportunity to make people aware of the humanitarian crisis in the region. Under each post, there are links to where the information comes from as a way to prevent the spread of misinformation and to give readers the chance to trace where the account’s information is sourced.
“I reached out to a cousin who lives in Ethiopia and he recommended that I start an Instagram,” said Menelik. “I have been using social media for a very long time so I know the nature of advocacy and discussing conflict online”.
The millennial has a personal incentive for starting the account. She is of Tigrayan descent, has spent a few years working there, and has a sister still living in the area. For her, it is paramount that people are made aware of what is happening to protect her family. This is where her social media use counts as her political participation.
Instead of writing to her representatives, Menelik decided to use the voice and popularity of social media to amplify her cause. Her posts are bound to gain traction with those already interested in the topic and spread as her stories and feed posts are shared. Users interacting with the content will inevitably be introduced to similar political posts. Reading and sharing a post online is a lot quicker than attending a rally or showing up to a politician’s office. For many young people, social media engagement takes the place of events that older generations consider to be their political participation.
Of course, this is not always the case. The Black Lives Matter movement had a heavy online presence that brought together millions of people across the nation in peaceful protests. In this case, social media engagement translated into traditional acts of political participation along with millions of more people reposting infographics for the cause. One study cites the role of social media as a source of real change for the movement.
As social media integrates its way into our lives, we find the new roles it plays. For young people, it doubles as political participation because of the way users can spread information. More traditional forms of political participation include voting, contacting public officials, and volunteering for a cause. Posting on social media can be seen as volunteering time because of the time it takes to create posts, in Menelik’s case. Contacting public officials can also be done through social media as many legislatures use the platforms to build and maintain a relationship with their constituency. Voting can not be simulated through online engagement but can be turned into a cause that may translate into real change like in the case of the Black Lives Matter movement. Understanding the role of social media in politics is integral in understanding the generational change in political participation.