How are we to understand the generation that has grown up with the Internet? Have digital media made its members engaged citizens, conducting politics online instead of through traditional channels? Or has the revolutionary upheaval in the media environment created a generation of political dropouts?

Opinions differ on the impact of new media on political engagement, and answers are hard to quantify. But it is well established that electoral participation has been declining in the past 20 years or so, as has the degree of political party membership and other indicators of conventional political involvement. Of even greater concern, the retreat has been accompanied by a measurable decline in political knowledge and attentiveness.

I examined this relationship more than a decade ago in developing the concept of civic literacy — the capacity of our societies for informed political participation. In the decade since publication of my book Civic Literacy: How Informed Citizens Make Democracy Work, the widespread use of social media has added a further dimension to the issue, making analysis even more difficult to quantify. Although we have data on the level of voter turnout and can tabulate membership in voluntary organizations or count clicks, we have yet to find a satisfying way to measure the level of political engagement through social media.

The Internet would appear to make it easy for anyone with an interest and modest search skills to inform themselves at low cost. But the Internet’s algorithm-driven culture makes it equally easy to avoid political information altogether, or to limit information to subjects we already care about and opinions that we already hold. Google and other search engines construct their algorithms to push findings that conform to our previously indicated interests.

Advocates for the Internet note that — used properly to serve political curiosity — the Web extends the variety of, and ease of access to, political content. Furthermore, the Web’s social networks have the potential to mobilize vastly larger numbers of people behind political causes.

But social media’s potential to organize and inspire has worrisome implications, as well. The consequences of such mobilization can be destructive rather than constructive. The lesson from the recent events in Quebec, which mobilized many thousands of young people against a university tuition hike, suggested an incompatibility between social media politics and representative democracy as we have known it. This is an important challenge to those who argue that online activism is replacing traditional politics.

With representative politics, mobilization is linear. It is based on the premise that achieving one’s objectives will at one point be resolved through an election in which one or more parties commit themselves on the relevant issue. Social and political change thus results from those political parties and doing well enough to win power in an election. It entails winning over public opinion, a process that takes time and usually requires compromises in which other groups’ objectives are also taken into account.

Social media mobilization has a different logic. It filters out information that does not conform to our existing interests and positions, the opposite of the need to engage with and win over a portion of those who disagree with us. The Quebec student strike is an example of this leverage of the minority. Rather than seeking to win over public opinion and being prepared for compromise, the students used social media to escalate school closings and disruptions of normal life in Montreal. The election of the PQ minority government that rescinded the tuition hike was not a case of public opinion having come around: 60 percent of votes went to parties opposing the hike. For the student militants, the message is this: social change is achieved when you force governments to give in to the power of the streets.

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The destruction of property that accompanied these social media-driven protests is an expression of the implicit rejection of the linearity of representative democracy. In acute situations, such as the fiscal crisis in Greece or the protests against tuition fee increases in Quebec, a motivated minority, well aware of representative democracy’s vulnerability to disruption, can use social media to rapidly mobilize large numbers around particular public policy objectives. The logic, I fear, does not lead to greater democracy; rather the contrary.

So how, then, do we use the powerful tools of the Internet to improve democracy rather than challenge it? In Civic Literacy, I showed how the Scandinavian countries in particular managed to attain high levels of informed political participation through effective policies in areas such as adult education, support for public television and radio, newspaper subsidies, and publications and services directed at adults with marginal reading skills. In this exponentially faster media age, we are gaining further insights into the kind of interventions with young people that could be effective in stemming the decline in political participation. Data from Denmark show that young participation. Reducing the voting age to 16, as has been done in Austria, boosts turnout.

But by themselves, these measures can only slow, not reverse the generational decline in political participation. Norwegian evidence suggests that those teens who accompany their parents to the ballot box are no more likely to develop a greater interest in politics than if they had not been allowed to vote. Nor have technological developments, such as e-voting, had more than a marginal effect on engagement levels.

Broader evidence suggests there are very few people who do not vote but engage in other forms of participation or activism: political dropouts are simply off the political map. A recent survey of young people carried out for Elections Canada is revealing. They were asked three political knowledge questions and also whether they had voted. Those who pay attention, and thus acquire political knowledge, participate; those who pay no attention are unlikely to do so.

In my recent book, The Internet Generation: Engaged Citizens or Political Dropouts, I argue we must look for ways to use Internet-based communication in well-targeted high school civic education programs. We are starting to get cross-national evidence of how civic education works best in an appropriate institutional framework consisting, in particular, of proportional voting systems and fixed election dates, as well as voting at 16. I have yet to see convincing evidence to support claims that the street, mobilizing through social media, constitutes a classroom in democracy. We should be wary of those who promise a new world of online political engagement. If we hope to bring the Internet generation into effective participation in representative democracy, we will need to know more of what works best in the way of providing civic education, targeted at those who are coming of political age and must carry the fate of democracy.

Photo: Shutterstock by sondem

Henry Milner
Henry Milner is research fellow at the Chair in Electoral Studies, Université de Montréal. In 2004-05 he held the Chair in Canadian Studies at the Sorbonne and in 2005-06 was Canada-US Fulbright Chair at SUNY (Plattsburgh). He has been a visiting professor or researcher at universities in Finland, Australia, New Zealand and Sweden. Milner is co-publisher of Inroads. He has just published his autobiography, Participant/Observer. 

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