Born between 1997 and 2012, we represent change. Gen Z is more diverse than any other generation. We grew up with Silicon Valley and have never truly known a world without iPhones. Barack Obama was the first president we were aware of, and the 2016 presidential election was the first large election that we engaged with. And the 2020 primaries are when many of us will cast our first votes.
But politics is a different game for us than for our parents, or even Millennials, largely because of changes in the media landscape. For better or for worse, we are the generation of social media. I remember excitedly downloading Instagram for the first time in the fifth grade (@prplemonkey11), and I’ve been online ever since.
My generation is so connected that we veer into addiction. I like knowing what’s going on in my friends’ and family’s lives, whether they live here in the Bay, Pennsylvania or Shanghai. Social media is how I do it. In the same way, I want to know what’s in the news. The New York Times’ Morning Briefing is a godsend (you can get a free subscription as a Cal student!), but I get most of my news from Twitter.
When I made an account, one of my politically engaged friends, a jaded Twitter vet, suggested that I follow a plethora of political sources and figures. And boom, my timeline was a chaotic mix of breaking news updates, Spongebob memes and scarily polarized commentary from the left critiquing the right and vice versa. I was overwhelmed.
Politics are confusing. Our system is intricate at every level of government. We translate our core beliefs into our ballots, choosing who we want to represent us and what kind of change or consistency we want to see in our government. But it takes an immense amount of time and willingness to learn to even understand what offices you’re casting a vote for, let alone to follow every ballot measure to be truly informed.
It’s a lot, but social media can help Gen Z. Candidates for every office in the country are online. Some news outlets have Snapchat stories, and if you’re looking for discourse on literally any topic, political or otherwise, you can find it on Twitter. We can search for someone’s account, see the range of their beliefs, quickly fact check and decide how we feel or what we think about their ideas. We can spread the word about issues we’re passionate about, whether it’s gun control, climate change or anything in between.
In this way, our generation has mobilized. Our culture thrives on virality, and right now civic engagement is trending. 80% of Gen Zers say that they intend to vote this year. We’ve been socialized to vote, and hopefully, we turn out in force.
But the youth solely getting informed through social media can be a problem. Although virality is helpful in spreading news, in the race to get the most clicks, misinformation abounds. When scrolling online, it’s easy for our attention to be seized by a snazzy headline or a political quote taken out of context that weaves a polarizing narrative. After all, an Instagram caption or tweet is only so long — they cannot capture every side of every story.
Moreover, selecting which accounts to follow causes us to mainly view content we agree with. Platforms will also show us content that they think we’ll react well to, to keep us scrolling. And when we see something online that we disagree with, we react emotionally, in a way that pushes the left and right farther apart. We trap ourselves in online echo chambers.
Sometimes when I’m on Twitter, I wonder if I became used to the chaos or just desensitized. Our country appears to be more polarized than ever before. Because of party sorting, even the most conservative Democrat is more liberal than the most liberal Republican. Additionally, the number of moderates has expanded — they reject the black and white choices and rhetoric that the two-party system offers them. Many of these citizens may feel so alienated by mainstream politics that they do not even vote — 40% of the population did not vote in 2016.
But our generation can change this trend of unconscious bias. The impact that social media can have on politics is immense — the number of Bloomberg ads and the frequency that President Trump tweets are just a couple of indicators. How can we use its power for good?
We should take the opportunity that social media offers us to increase connectivity and the flow of information. Twitter is always going to be chaotic. But not taking the short, emotion-inducing blurbs we see online at face value is a skill we all must learn.
Kids, do your research. When you read something from your favorite, ideologically-aligned news source, check a site that walks a different political path and see if what it’s reporting lines up. Fact check the heck out of the things that politicians say — even the one that you’re supporting for president. If we put these habits in place now, we can create an online culture that’s against misinformation and for healthy political discourse. Don’t be swept along by virality or clickbait. Our democracy must do better.