The Internet doesn’t do anything

By now everyone has seen the data: Young voters (18-29) made up 12% of the electorate in this year’s midterm elections, the same as 2010, and the same as 2006. If that proportion had been closer to what it was in 2012 (19%), assuming patterns of support among young voters didn’t change, lots of Democratic politicians would still have jobs.

2006, 2010, 2014. A bit of Facebook, lots of Facebook and decent Twitter, ubiquitous Facebook and significant Twitter and a ton of other things. Social network sites and content sharing platforms dominate the media diets of young adults, and have been home in recent years to a variety of high-profile progressive awareness campaigns, such as Kony 2012 and #YesAllWomen. Numerous studies have extolled the virtues of social media for “contribut[ing] to new models of citizenship now emerging in younger generations” (see also Bennett, Wells, & Freelon, 2011; Gil de Zúñiga, Bachmann, Hsu, & Brundidge, 2013). Unfortunately, this research skirts around a lot of practical participatory outcomes, most notably voting.

What does this tell us? Well, among other things, it tells us the Internet doesn’t do things on its own. The cultural political movements that have been enabled by the connectiveness of online communities have been terrific in many ways — certainly where American attitudes stand today regarding gender equality has been affected positively by discussion primarily occurring online — but they have also been sometimes counter to the interests of the largely progressive young generation (e.g., Gamergate, the Tea Party). Regardless, the young citizens who support access to birth control mostly did not vote. The young citizens who support establishing a living wage mostly did not vote. Relaxation or elimination of marijuana prohibition. Militarization of police. Non-dischargeability of student loan debt. Voter ID laws that specifically target students for disenfranchisement. No presidential race on the ballot? Not interested.

This is an observation of a problem I see with the framework of our thinking about the Internet and political participation, and I don’t have an answer to it at this point. I think parts of the answer lie in at least two places. First, Facebook’s experiments in social pressure about voting (and numerous other studies) point to one avenue that can’t be overlooked: awareness that elections are actually taking place, established long enough ahead of time to get registered and integrate “voter” into one’s self-concept. Many places have been inundated with ads for the last few months, but that’s not true everywhere, and it is true that many of these potential voters see relatively few TV ads anyway. One important data point could be the amount of news coverage devoted to midterm elections compared with presidential ones, but again, that doesn’t implicate much of this demographic.

The second part of the process may be a fundamental revisiting of what voting is for. This is an area in which the American left has long lagged behind the right. The conservative movement has long understood that it is both a social movement and an electoral one, and that the Republican Party is its primary electoral tool. Progressive and social justice organizations, on the other hand, from traditionally held skeptical views toward both the Democratic Party and electoral politics in general. This attitude seems like it may be resilient among young non-voters (or at least their enablers in the press), who believe that their votes won’t change anything. This reflects an upside-down view of what voting it is for. It is not to make change; it is to consolidate change make socially. If you make change in society to support equality and freedom, and then fail to vote for it every other election, you’ve failed to make the change happen.

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