Participatory Politics: New Media and Youth Political Action

Over the past few blog posts, I have been sharing updates on some of the work being done by my Civic Paths research group at USC — first, the special issue of Transformative Works and Cultures on fan activism, and second, Arely Zimmerman’s white paper exploring the ways undocumented youth and their supporters mobilized through and around new media in support of the DREAM act. But, as I have noted, this work fits within a larger initiative launched by the MacArthur Foundation — a research hub on Youth and Participatory Politics, headed by Political Science Professor Joe Kahne from Mills College, and involving a multidisciplinary mix of researchers who are combining a range of different approaches, both qualitative and quantitative, to better understand how young people are using new media as a resource for political participation.

A few weeks ago, Kahn and another Political Scientist, University of Chicago’s Cathy Cohen, released an important report representing the first phases of this research — Participatory Politics: New Media and Youth Political Action. Here’s a rich and provocative interview with its primary authors, thanks to MacArthur’s Digital Media and Learning team.

The white paper does two things which are really important for people seeking to better understand the interplay of new media and citizen participation — first, it offers a new conceptual framing for thinking about what our research network is calling “participatory politics” and second, it shares the findings of the team’s first large scale survey which seeks to capture the current state of youth, new media, and civic participation, recorded just after the Midterm Elections and prior to the current presidential campaign season.

Here’s a key passage of the report which seeks to explain our core concept and what we think it will add to the existing understandings of the political lives of American youth:

The Youth and Participatory Politics study defines participatory politics as interactive, peer-based acts through which individuals and groups seek to exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern. Importantly, these acts are not guided by deference to elites or formal institutions. Examples of participatory political acts include starting a new political group online, writing and disseminating a blog post about a political issue, forwarding a funny political video to one’s social network, or participating in a poetry slam.

Participatory political acts can:

␣ reach large audiences and mobilize net- works, often online, on behalf of a cause;

␣ help shape agendas through dialogue with, and provide feedback to, political leaders (on- and offline); and

␣ enable participants to exert greater agency through the circulation or forwarding of political information (e.g., links) as well as through the production of original content, such as a blog or letter to the editor.

Four factors make participatory politics especially important to those thinking about the future of American politics.

1. Participatory politics allow individuals to operate with greater independence in the political realm, circumventing traditional gatekeepers of information and influence, such as newspaper editors, political parties, and interest groups.

2. Participatory politics often facilitate a renegotiation of political power and control with the traditional political entities that are now searching for ways to engage participants. Witness how newspapers and cable television stations now try to facilitate a controlled engagement with their audience through the use of social media.

3. Participatory politics as practiced online provide for greater creativity and voice, as participants produce original content using video, images, and text.

4. Participatory politics afford individuals the capability to reach a sizable audience and mobilize others through their social networks in an easy and inexpensive

manner.

This definition emerges from three years of intense discussions amongst the participating researchers, as well as consultations with leading scholars and activists, all of whom are thinking deeply about media change and its political consequences. It think it is safe to say that this reconceptualization would not have emerged anywhere except in the radically multidisciplinary space which Kahne and the MacArthur Foundation have helped to establish. We bring ideas from our own disciplines into conversation with those from profoundly different frames of reference, and in the process, we have begun to map a space which is inadequately covered by any given field.

In the case of media and cultural studies, the report comes as we are seeing sharper distinctions being drawn between different forms of cultural and political participation, where-as on the Political Science side, it emerges from ongoing discussions about the shifting nature of politics as a human activity, especially the shift of focus towards nongovernmental forms of political action.

The report shifts the focus from “Twitter Revolutions,” which place the emphasis on new forms of networked technologies, and onto specific sets of political and cultural practices, which deploy those tools in relation to older media technologies, to help redefine the dynamics of political debate and mobilization.

A second key point to make has to do with the relationship between participatory politics and more established and institutionalized forms of politics, a question to which Kahne and Cohen addressed in the interview that accompanies the report’s release:

Participatory politics can allow for greater creativity and voice, but voice may not necessarily lead to influence. What sort of shift must occur in order for these practices to become influential?

Kahne: We have thought about this a lot, and it’s something we as a field need to learn more about. There is no doubt that practices that amplify the voice of young people are a significant thing, especially given the marginal status that so many young people have in relation to mainstream institutions. Those institutions are places where young people generally don’t have significant voice. Participatory politics can give them that voice. At the same time, it’s key to realize that if youth are circulating ideas among their networks without understanding how to move from voice to influence, they may well not achieve the goals they value. In our work with youth organizations, digital platforms, and youth themselves, we have to find ways to help youth connect to institutions act strategically to have influence and to put pressure on the places – whether corporate or governmental – to prompt the change youth want to see occur.

Cohen: Participatory politics is never meant to displace a focus on institutional politics. We might think of it as a supplemental domain where young people can take part in a dialogue about the issues that matter, think about strategies of mobilization, and do some of that mobilizing collectively online. That said, we have to always recognize that there is important power that exists largely offline. The Occupy movement is a classic example of both participatory politics and offline institutional politics coming together to not only amplify voice but also provide influence and power — even temporarily — for a group of primarily young people around class and equality issues.

This new framework for thinking about “Participatory Politics” helps us to make sense of some of the significant findings of the national survey. I can hit on only a few key insights here (read the report for more):

Large proportions of young people across racial and ethnic groups have access to the Internet and use online social media regularly to stay connected to their family and friends and pursue interests and hobbies.

Contrary to the traditional notion of a technological digital divide, the YPP study finds young people across racial and ethnic groups are connected online. Overwhelmingly, white (96 percent), black (94 percent), Latino (96 percent) and Asian-American (98 percent) youth report having access to a computer that connects to the Internet. A majority or near majority of white (51 percent), black (57 percent), Latino (49 percent), and Asian American (52 percent) youth report sending messages, sharing status updates and links, or chatting online daily.

Youth are very involved in friendship-driven and interest-driven activities online.

78 percent send messages, share status updates, or chat online on a weekly basis.

58 percent share links or forward information through social networks at least once a week….

I was delighted to see this last question, dealing with the practices around what I call Spreadable Media, included in the survey, since events like Kony 2012 have established that acts of circulation can be an important part of how young people are participating in political debates.

Over-all, 64 percent engage in at least one interest-driven activity in a given week, and 32 percent engage in three or more interest driven activities a week.

Participatory Politics are an important dimension of politics.

41 percent of young people have engaged in at least one act of participatory politics, while 44 percent participate in other acts of politics.

Specifically, 43 percent of white, 41 percent of black, 38 percent of Latino and 36 percent of Asian-American youth participated in at least one act of participatory politics during the prior 12 months.

Participatory politics are an addition to an individual’s engagement rather than an alternative to other political activities:

Youth who engaged in at least one act of participatory politics were almost twice as likely

to report voting in 2010 as those who did not.

A large proportion–37 percent of all young people–engages in both participatory

and institutional politics.

Among young people who engage in participatory policies, 90 percent of them either vote or engage in institutional politics.

Participatory politics are equitably distributed across different racial and ethnic groups:

The difference in voting in 2008 between the group with the highest rate of turnout according to the U.S. Census Bureau–black youth (52%)– and the group with the lowest rate of turnout– Latino youth (27%)–is 25 percentage points.

These findings challenge many key stereotypes which shape dominant discourses around youth, new media, and political participation, suggesting that:

  • participatory politics and culture are not simply activities involving white suburban middle class youth but they are widespread across all ethnic groups, and indeed, the group most likely to engage with the broadest range of such practices are African-Americans
  • new media politics does not come at the expense of more traditional forms of political participation but rather is more likely to amplify patterns of voter-participation
  • participatory culture and politics seems to be an important equalizer of opportunities for engagement in the political process.

One other conclusion seems important for readers who are invested in media literacy: According to the survey, 84 percent of youth indicate that, given their reliance on online sources for news and information, “would benefit from learning more about how to tell if news and information you find online is trustworthy.” So, contrary to the stereotype that young people are indifferent to the credibility of the information they access online, many of them are seeking support from adult educators to help them acquire skills at more meaningfully parsing what should be trusted.

Educators and policy makers alike will benefit from looking more deeply at the rich data and insights found in this report. I am sure to be drawing more on this report through upcoming blog posts around these topics.

For those who want to learn more about the report, I’ve embedded here the video of a recent chat session featuring Kahne, Cohen, and others, talking about the report with Howard Rheingold through the MacArthur Foundation’s Connected Learning Seminar series.

Joe Kahne is the John and Martha Davidson Professor of Education at Mills College. His research focuses on ways school practices and new media influence youth civic and political development.

Cathy Cohen is the David and Mary Winton Green Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. She is the founder of the Black Youth Project and author of The Boundaries of Blackness and Democracy Remixed. Her research focuses on political engagement by marginal communities.