Youth in America spend more time using social media sites than any other form of media. Whether through tablets, smartphones or computers, my generation is certainly wired and ready to engage. What else can we do as we wait for that lolcats page to load except “like,” share, and “reteweet”? Well to start, we can build the political power and strength of our generation, one network at a time.
This was the discussion surrounding South by Southwest’s (SXSW) kickoff Interactive panel “Socializing the Presidency” last Sunday, March 11th. PBS brought together several leaders in the digital and youth spaces, including Rock the Vote’s President Heather Smith, PBS NewsHour moderator Christina Bellantoni, radio host and political commentator Mary Katharine Ham, Founding Executive Director of Voto Latino Maria Teresa Kumar, and Craigslist Founder Craig Newmark. And despite the early morning start on a Sunday (not to mention the annoyance of Daylight Saving Time) and pouring rain, the panel’s room was packed. To Smith, the large audience and their thoughtful questions suggest that “there is a lot of great faith in social media innovators changing the presidential election.”
Discussion on the panel ranged from candidates’ authentically interacting with others through social media, to “fact checking” the news through the digital gauntlet, to brand building, to how features on Facebook and Twitter can be used effectively to organize, and how grassroots initiatives may rely more on peer-to-peer networks in the future. Each panelist brought a dynamic perspective. Newmark noted, as a self-described nerd, less so political commentator, that he knows technological trends can accelerate and protect movements and that the concept of viral social media can only expand the effectiveness of grassroots activism. Ham said that, in her experience as a commentator, she has seen how authentic engagement and storytelling through social media has provided candidates a communications platform that significantly contributes to election wins.
The panelists also talked about solutions for voter discouragement, namely in states that have recently adopted restrictive voter ID laws. Kumar is aware that Latino voters are especially at risk of disenfranchisement because of these laws. Smith points out that there are several barriers to voter participation that can be cured through social media. First, social media can help promote awareness about the voting process. “People don’t automatically know to fill out a form and send it in 28 days before an election,” Smith said, adding that educating and promoting through social media is a “huge service” for voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts.
Obtaining the correct voter ID causes the inconvenience of extra steps in the voting process. However, digital tools can help combat this: “We have to use our power of communication and peer-to-peer networks to let people know about the barriers before they show up to the polls unprepared,” Smith said. Lastly, she believes that online conversations and demonstrations can remind voters that their voice has influence. Citing overwhelmingly effective reactions to the Stop Online Piracy Act and Komen’s decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood, Smith sees the digital world as a platform for democracy and individual collection. “There is this one belief permeating youth culture that politics in D.C. is dysfunctional, that the influence of big money corrupts the political process and trumps the power of voters. But we know that the only way to fight against these things, which will only grow, is to increase participation. If we have fuller participation, we would outweigh the influence of power and money. Social media helps get that message out and demonstrates people getting together for collective action.”
New technologies are providing exciting opportunities to communicate and act. For example, Smith sported Rock the Vote’s new “Scan to Vote” t-shirt at the panel. The tee allows a registrant to scan the shirt’s QR-code with his or her smartphone, bringing them to a mobile page with voter information videos, social media pages, and Rock the Vote’s online voter registration tool. Through scanning a code or simply “following” a Twitter handle, social media participation defines the youth movement. Smith says “this young generation is one out of four voters in the electorate and growing. Like it or not, they will define the culture in our country and with luck, they will shape the future of our democracy. Through social media we are encouraging them from simply being consumers of media, to being creators of our democracy.”