Show Me, Tell Me: Social Media and the Political Awareness of American Youth

Article excerpt

While presenting the commencement address at Oberlin College in June 1965, Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. explained that "Through our scientific and technological genius we've made of this world a neighborhood. And now through our moral and ethical commitment we must make of it a brotherhood. We must all learn to live together as brothers--or we will all perish together as fools. This is the great issue facing us today. No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone. We are tied together." Through his words, King accurately predicted (albeit unknowingly) what would become one of the greatest ails of the young generations of Americans to come: a lack of desire to understand basic civics despite having the technologies available to be more informed than any previous generation. Despite iPhones, the internet, 24 hour news cycles, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, scholars continually tell us that Americans are unfortunately becoming less informed and aware of the issues that affect them. If the trend is proven true and continues, our current generation of students risk becoming King's predicted fools.

The generation of Americans born between 1980 and today does not "bowl alone" as Robert Putnam would predict; instead, they virtually bowl on their Wii. They cannot identify five Supreme Court justices by picture, but they can easily tell you who Stephen Colbert, Stewie Griffin, and Eric Cartman are. If you ask them if they voted, many will believe you are referring to voting for their favorite American Idol superstar. They understand a sense of community and networks--at least if you are referring to Facebook or MySpace. They have grown up in the era where a Blackberry went from a business tool used mainly by Washington staffers to a key possession to any high school student. Gone are the days of trips to the library for academic research and letters delivered through the LJSPS. Arrived are days of YouTube videos being posted online before the event has even concluded and any piece of information required being available through a cell phone.

With the digital age continuing to develop and Millennial students becoming ever increasingly tethered to technology, scholars are taking a critical eye to questions that emerge from this reliance. For example, while Facebook may be a community, how does it compare to communities of old? Can technological communities compare in social value to face-to-face communities? Can we conclude that youth voters are actually more engaged in politics today than they were in 2004 simply because Barack Obama has seen an increase in turnout amongst the youngest voters in 2008 and 2012? Or is just affinity for Barack Obama? In 2004, would John Kerry have received the same percentage of the youth vote if he used YouTube and Facebook to reach this section of the electorate? Millennial students have grown up in an era different from previous generations. They are interconnected in a superficial manner (consider that a national satellite radio morning show once spent three days discussing whether you can truly consider someone a friend if you cannot remember what their voice sound likes because all you do is text message them). But more importantly, they are not gaining with regards to political knowledge, despite the increase in opportunity to connect.

In this paper, I examine whether modern technology has closed the gap in understanding American government between the current Millennial generation and its predecessors or actually introduced a wider chasm than previously witnesses in our nation's past. At the same time, I offer a discussion of the gap of understanding between ordinary Americans of different backgrounds. Through a series of surveys and focus groups conducted on two campuses, I examine the political knowledge of these students and how they perceive of the political world. I also assess their technological usage. Further, I discuss suggestions from Millennial students on how colleges, universities, and other interested parties can help MillenniaIs better connect with the political world. …