This guest post comes from Cliff Manning who is Children and Young People Digital Engagement Manager for the Children’s Commissioner for England. You can read the original and other pieces by him on his Medium blog.
The US presidential election is being hijacked by weaponized WikiLeaks!
The Turkish ruler rallied supporters in the middle of coup via FaceTime!
ALS may (or may not) have been cured by YouTube videos!
The spread of Ebola was limited by WhatsApp!
Facebook algorithms can influence the news!
Cyborg-pigeons are being used to campaign on air pollution!
These (rather simplified) headlines illustrate how politics and activism are very much enmeshed within digital networks already. And yet, despite the unprecedented speed and scale that digital technology can bring, the underlying models of political engagement remain quite traditional in most cases. However, the new digital tools are enabling today’s youth to dig deeper and build new structures that may change the foundations they have inherited. Digital activism in the future could be focused less on adapting to new platforms and more about re-imagining our concept of citizenship itself.
Low barrier to entry or shallow water?
There is a long history of new technologies being hacked and re-purposed for political activism — from the talking statues and broadsides of the 16 and 17th centuries to the WATS phone networks of the US civil rights and the use of twitter to connect activists in the Arab spring, indignados and #blacklivesmatter movements.
Digital can lower the personal cost of activism and therefore raise the scale of participation. However translation to binary clicks can also hollow out understanding, radically polarise debate and create a false sense of action.
In a low attention, infinite scrolling culture the need for instant gratification and personal validation does not sit easily with the incremental, diplomatic and collective action required to bring about sustained change.
Digital activism moves at the speed of a tweet whereas most of the time offline change takes a very long time. In the gap people have scrolled on with their lives.
Occasionally the reverse is true. Consider the EU referendum. Whilst there was a long slow swell of online activity, offline actions overturned 40 years’ of policy in one night. However, most young people didn’t actually turn up to vote.
Translating simple online interaction to actual democratic participation is difficult but possible — although we may need to imagine a different form of democracy along the way.
The web and social media enables young people to be active participants in creating and sharing content as well as connecting and motivating others.
Whilst young people may have a some agency through these platforms, the time spent in peer-to-peer interaction is ultimately at the service of global mega-businesses — creating pots of data in exchange for adverts or stickers and persuading friends to do likewise.
However, growing numbers of young people are also using those same tools and methods to make and distribute political material, organise action and create whole new forms of governance.
Youth led organisations like the Harry Potter Alliance show how the creative passion of fantasy fans can be mobilized into real world action. Artists likeKate Tempest, Akala and Suli Breaks – who move seamlessly across art forms and platforms — are connecting with huge audiences of young people and creating an alternative media network in the process. And initiatives likeVlogstar Challenge are nurturing a new generation of socially conscious YouTube stars. Tools like U-Report are giving young people a collective voice through the social channels that they already use like Facebook messenger. In other sectors, teenagers who want better protection of their data and fairer returns for artists are building their own social network The Hive.
As digital access increases and a new generation of activists build new tools the way we interact with government could allow the traditional model of parliamentary representative democracy to be augmented or transformed completely. Voting via smartphone could make real direct democracy feasible. Emergent block chain technology could even do away with the state as a mediator completely — in theory.
Clearly there are many risks and challenges with all of this. Access is key — not just to the hardware and bandwidth but also to people and tribes with different views and experiences— social media platforms are increasingly self-contained and self-referential– creating echo-chambers that are tightly defined by our own cliques and corporations keen to re-enforce our world view and their place in it.
As we move into virtual and augmented realities we need to be mindful of who is creating these new realities — what and who these creators choose to leave out could define children’s understanding of the world more than we have ever seen before. Most young people currently don’t know the difference between adverts and search results so why should they differentiate between a corporate virtual reality and civic physical reality?
Without practical understanding, children are at the mercy of the digital manufacturers rather than having the means of production in their own hands. The potential for young people’s digital activism should not be limited by any existing platform. It should be unleashed through inclusive creativity and literacy.
The Children’s Commissioner for England has the statutory role to ensure that all children — particularly the most vulnerable — can share their views and have their opinions taken seriously by policy makers — in accordance with the United Nation Convention on the Rights of The Child.
Rather than simply surveying and representing young people’s views Children’s Commissioner aims to empower them directly through a new young campaigners programme. The programme will help young people to research and identify changes they feel are needed, imagine new solutions, connect with an alliance of supporters and take real, sustained action. Mastering digital tools and understanding digital strategies will be a key part of this process. Digital literacy will be combined with a civic literacy. Being aware of their rights and knowing how to access the existing levers for change will be equally important elements for the young people taking part.
For children born today there is no aspect of their lives that will not be impacted by digital technology. It is therefore essential that they know their rights and have the best digital literacy skills and creative opportunities possible — so that the next generations don’t just continue as safe consumers on corporate platforms but that they thrive as active — and activist — citizens.