Social media: creating the new wave of activists?

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Written by Emily Ingram

For me, being 18 years old in 2015 Britain can be completely terrifying. Surrounded by a multitude of politicians screaming different messages from all corners of the media, as well as the constant bombardment of politically motivated news scare-stories, it becomes increasingly difficult not to pick a side or revert to extremes. But now more than ever, with the next election looming and the rising popularity of shamelessly offensive UKIP, it is immensely imperative that the youth of Britain educate themselves on the events that surround them each and every day. Now, I’m no expert on politics. But as a hot-blooded Sociology student with a big mouth and a fair knowledge of current events, it’s only natural that I’d like to shove a few of my fresh-faced political observations into the spotlight every now and then.

It’s fair to say that there’s two primary institutions moulding the thoughts and opinions of today’s youth: one being the family, and the other, a gleaming digital world of social media websites and blogging platforms. More often than not, it’s easy to identify those who have grown up under the influence of fiercely opinionated parental care- speaking as the daughter of a passionate, left-wing Joe Strummer devotee, it’s clear to see where my liberal loyalties (and anarchic music taste) stem from.

However, where this is true of many young voters, it isn’t always necessarily the case. Every day I see teenagers from ex-mining villages, their parents’ generation torn apart by Thatcher’s Government, left unsure of who to blame for the current state of poverty and unemployment sweeping across Britain. It is for people such as these that social media performs a distinct purpose. The immense popularity of websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr with those aged 16 to 21 creates a turbulent combination of confused ignorance, perceptive observations and furious political debates online, making them the ideal platform for young adults to form their own political identity.

Naturally, this new method of self-education has mixed results. Take the topic of modern feminism, for example; during research for a recent documentary project, I found that many active social media users had the power to evoke a significant amount of social change, through online campaigns and petitions such as last year’s triumphant Anti Dapper-Laughs campaign. Twitter and Tumblr in particular provide, in many cases, a safe haven for feminists to promote ideas about equality. But as is the case with any social activism, online or otherwise, there is always a distinct sense of opposition. This retaliation ranges from petty, laughable hashtags such as ‘#feministsareugly’ to vicious threats of rape and murder, such as those aimed at active feminist Caroline Criado-Perez during the course of her ‘Women on Banknotes’ campaign.

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Violent backlash such as this often causes many to ignore the positive influence of online activism. But does the fierce division of opinion that is so often present on these platforms mean that social media is ineffectual when it comes to educating our generation in serious matters? Arguably not: the evidence for its efficacious nature can be found, unsurprisingly, in the sheer volume of inspirational young voters eager to participate in last year’s Scottish Referendum debate. Open discussion and ability to share content across the news feeds of the masses- things offered only by online platforms like twitter- meant that during the run up to the vote, young people were educating themselves and finally felt as if they were making a real difference to the world around them.

Although it may seem to be the source of plenty of negative backlash, backwards thinking and utter ignorance, the ability to communicate with one another through social media is a crucial tool for our generation. With it, each and every young voice is, at last, permitted to be heard and recognised, rather than simply cast aside and shunned by those who consider young people to be ‘unimportant’ and ‘naive’.


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