Most young people today have faced criticism from the older generations regarding their use of the internet, criticism that commonly follows two steps:
1. “You’re constantly online.”
2. “Because of this, you’re ignorant to the world.”
While the fact that Gen Z spends a lot of time online is not necessarily untrue, I do find it generally baseless to argue that this makes them an uninformed, apolitical generation. On the contrary, by utilizing the opportunities the internet provides for fast and compact information-sharing, social media platforms provide a novel medium political education, discourse and action – and effectively politicize Generation Z.
Social media helps Gen Z gain political consciousness through offering historical and political education that’s compact and accessible. The history taught in traditional educational settings often reflects on the values of where it’s being taught and favors the voices of those that were dominant forces in their respective times. In turn, stories of communities that were oppressed throughout history continue to be overlooked. Moreover, adequate and comprehensive education is obviously not accessible to everyone, especially higher education.
Social media does an impressive job of turning this on its head. Twitter threads comprising a few consecutive tweets and 60 second long TikTok videos do a surprisingly good job of explaining historical events, political theory and current developments. These are often created by and for regular social media users with language that is easy for the general public to understand, often touch upon topics not seen in history books or mainstream media, and are concise. Consequently, the newest generation gets to be educated in their own time and without having to splurge hundreds on books to decipher specialized language. It is true that information learned this way cannot be as extensive and detailed but it can be an extremely helpful starting point. Besides, the fact that it breaks down elitist boundaries of who gets to learn about politics is monumental.
Ultimately, it is these real-life experiences that Gen Z gets to observe on social media that motivates them to take political stances.
In addition to accessibly teaching theory, social media platforms also offer political education that’s grounded in practice. Almost anyone can go on Twitter and share their experiences of being harmed by (or benefitting from!) political systems in place, policies, politicians etc. Antidemocratic incidents and stories of inequality that could normally be incredibly hard to go public with can be reported on Twitter and reach millions in a matter of hours. Ultimately, it is these real-life experiences that Gen Z gets to observe on social media that motivates them to take political stances. Nowadays, contrary to what older generations might have believed, reading pages of theory is not the only road to identifying with political ideologies. For example, seeing the experiences of people who were systematically harmed by capitalism during the pandemic is another way to turn younger generations towards embracing alternative ideologies like socialism; the redistribution of wealth, progressive taxation and welfare.
With education straying away from conventional means, the conversation around politics also changes shape with social media. As communication becomes more and more constant, politics seems to always find its way into whatever conversations are had on social media, even pop culture and politics have become extremely intertwined. Gen Z welcomes popular memes and trends in their political conversations, and even has some that are specifically concerned with politics. A popular slogan on Twitter – “eat the rich” (which is originally attributed to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but has gained traction online in recent years as a resistance slogan to income inequality) is brought up quite often by anti-capitalist social media users in debates, as well as in reaction to tone-deaf posts by upper-class celebrity figures. It may not be “Das Kapital,” but it does good work to sum up the general feelings towards the systems in place and call out those who unjustly benefit from them. The interwovenness of real, personal lives and politics potentially shows that (unlike what the older generations may believe) Gen Z actually acknowledges and embraces the fact that virtually everything is political.
The politicization of Gen Z on social media is not limited to learning and discourse, it also bleeds into political action. Especially in the past few years, social media has been used as a medium for political assembly, activism and campaigning. Besides using the platform to raise awareness on a myriad of political wrongdoing around the world, Gen Z also pushes for legislation, collects signatures for various petitions for political and societal change, raises donations for political causes, organizes protests, campaigns for voter turnout for elections and more. A recent example is when social media users, when campaigning for the Black Lives Matter movement, showed a lot of pushback for celebrities and brands who only seemed to partake in activism when it was as easy as simply posting on Instagram. “Open your purse” became another popular slogan that called for the wealthy to donate to causes instead of supporting them performatively. We can’t say for sure if this is what caused it, but in the end, lots of brands and influencers did start to post proof of their donations to anti-racism causes as well as sharing the donation platforms; illustrating the power simple social media activism holds.
Changed For Good
It’s worth noting that these changes are not exclusive to Gen Z. In fact, millennials get the credit for using the internet as a measure for political change and enduring the criticism for far longer. They are also still a major force in most of the movements mentioned here. But, as new generations keep rolling in, dependency on the internet and its effects increase. In any case, it would be foolish to deny that social media has transformed the way we interact with politics forever and the younger generations are living proof of that. We might not have lived through world wars like our grandparents, but social media gives us an undeniable advantage over them when it comes to looking at the world, and if we utilize it for good, we might make a change for good.