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Usable Knowledge

What Counts as Civic Participation?

Technology is changing the way young people understand their impact and engage with the world
dice with social media icons on them

With just a Twitter handle and a smart phone, a teenager’s denouncement of offshore drilling or support of transgender rights can instantly provoke thousands people across the world.

That interaction was inconceivable less than a generation ago.

Visiting Professor Helen Haste is fascinated by this concept. Her interest in civic engagement has led her to explore how new media — the internet, smart phones, and social media — are transforming the way young people participate in civic activities. Usable Knowledge asked Haste to talk about shifting connections between digital media, citizenship, and civic education. Watch an excerpted clip of our interview, and read the entire interview below.

Why the connection between new media and civics?

I think new media are very interesting because it’s a field that challenges a lot of assumptions that we’ve made in the past, particularly with regard to education, it challenges how we think about citizenship, it challenges even how we think about democracy. It challenges a lot of issues around what we assume is global education.

If we’re going to redefine civics to include a much wider range of participation than we previously did and look at what kids really are doing when they’re engaging in civic activity, absolutely central to that is the fact that they’ve got access to new media.

The main thing is that civic participation is much more than voting. It always has been, but we haven’t noticed. Now we’re noticing it, and it has enormous implications for how we categorize whether or not young people are involved in civic participation, and particularly it has implications for how we educate people to be effective participants in the civic domain.

How has new media changed the way people communicate, particularly about civic matters?

What new media has done is to completely break down the problems of distance, and the problems of having to be face-to-face with people, or even to know people face-to-face. It's also enabled us to communicate much more extensively with people whom we want to influence or whom we want to bring into civic action. It's speeded up hugely the time it takes to organize anything. And it's quite dramatically altered the agency people feel about being able to impact and influence and have their voice heard.

How does this change the way young people can be civic participants and feel civically engaged?

New media have given incredibly important assistance to the opportunity for young people to feel that their voices are being heard because they are clearly reaching an audience beyond just their friends. They may have an illusion as to exactly how powerful their voices are and how effective they are. However, they do at least have very genuinely a sense they are being heard by somebody. There is an audience out there, and they know that.

And that wasn’t there before. There were very few opportunities for young people to feel their voices heard outside the immediate group. Perhaps the only way was taking part in a large demonstration that got press coverage, but now basically every kid, and I say kid here, can have the same sense of impact on the outside world that their parents would have had if they wrote a letter to the newspaper 30 years ago. So social media giving everyone power to communicate instantly to large numbers of people is a vital development.

Another thing is that a lot of discussion goes on amongst young people using social media. Now this discussion may have taken place before, face-to-face with no record of it, but now it’s there on some kind of record. It’s in social media. So the discussions between teenagers that may have taken place privately are now taking place more publicly. And because in a sense they are being recorded, they can get picked up later on.

And of course in practical terms, a young person really can initiate a demonstration of 10,000 people within less than 24 hours. That’s an amazing power. And if your tweet is picked up, it can actually be incredibly viral, incredibly significant. Most are not of course. But if it is, it could hit the spot, which could be President Obama’s Twitter account.

Do you have any advice on how civics education can incorporate new media?

I think that we need to build into our civic education ways to use the media effectively so that people do feel they are using it in ways that can achieve their goals, as well as recognizing the limitations of it. Of course there’s a dark side. The dark side is access to extremely unpleasant, very dubious material on the internet. We need to protect young people, but we also need to teach them how to distinguish obnoxious material in the civic domain from material we think would be a legitimate basis of discourse. It’s these skills we have to teach kids.

Do you think social media provides equal opportunities for civic empowerment for all youth?

I think generally speaking, social media empowers everybody. Therefore, people who were disempowered before are empowered by virtue of the technology. The question is, is there more or less access for different groups? The digital gap is narrowing rapidly. I think it’s hardly there in this country any longer. Once people have the tool, they can use it. It’s like motor cars. Initially motor cars were rich boys’ toys, and therefore people didn’t think of driving anywhere. Within 10 years, after Henry Ford, vast swathes of people had access to motorized transport. Travel became a completely different concept, and distance a completely different concept, and now of course for a long time, everybody has had cars. Once something stops being a luxury good, the implications of access, and what is done with that access, changes.


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