Photo by Josh Lopez

A Modern Struggle

by Katie McBeth

Originally published at www.voicesofyouth.org.

By using an example from the United States, political grassroots movements from around the world can learn to harness the potential of the younger generation through one of their favorite mediums: the internet. Social Media is a strong tool that can be used to not only spread information, but motivate hard-to-reach demographics to participate in democratic elections. Millennials are a tough target to motivate, but are estimated to be the largest voting group in America by 2020. How can small grassroots movements harness their potential? One American delegate has figured it out, but can more leaders catch on to the trend?

The Background

Countercultural movements have most likely existed since the dawn of governmental entities. When looking at campaigns that have occurred in just the past 150 years, there are some noticeable common practices. Social justice parties were mostly confined to large cities. Information about the movements were spread through word of mouth and what little access to public broadcasting was available. Small grassroots parties often couldn’t reach farther than city limits, leaving large chunks of the population in the dark on very important issues. They didn’t know about the nuances of the crusades and why it should matter to them. Even after TV came about, the spreading of information was censored and limited to what was deemed important. Struggles, hardships, and prejudice were invisible to the general public.

College students are notorious for being in the center of the fray for social change. Whenever a movement gained momentum, swathes of young activists would flock to large cities for protests; such as the counterculture protests of Chicago in 1968. Young people have always seemed to be closely tied in with social justice and civil rights movements, yet they are a group that is commonly discredited by preceding generations.

The Turning Point

A new age of information in the form of the World Wide Web made it’s way to the public in 1991. Another 8 years and social media sites were created to allow people to share their stories. Now, after only 25 years, more than 3.17 billion people (44% of the estimated world’s population) have access to the internet across the globe. In America alone, almost 65% of the population use social media sites.

This large-scale sharing of information has brought us to a new age of revolution. Atrocities that occur halfway around the world are harder for the media to ignore, and easier for curious parties to discover. A contributing author to the Huffington Post, Billy Shore, said: “Social media can’t ensure social justice. But it can affect the invisibility that is the first barrier to achieving it.”

The turning point for social media activism happened during the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movements of 2011. Social media was at the beginning of its boom, and “it was the content of social media that drew the attention of many in the mainstream media.” Using sites like Facebook or Twitter to organize collectives beyond large cities set the precedent for grassroots movements in the future. With the addition of hashtags(#) and online groups to gather related stories about particular events, social media outreach is now the modus operandi of most movements.

Now, individuals no longer have to rely on the six o’clock news to bring them the latest stories from around the world. Information can spread almost instantaneously, as was the case in 2014 with #BringBackOurGirls. The hashtag was created to bring awareness to the atrocious acts of Boko Haram and their attack on a school in Nigeria where over 250 schoolgirls were kidnapped. Within hours of the first hashtag by the Nigerian Federal Minister of Education, Ibrahim Abdullahi, thousands of people had spread the news. Less than 2 weeks later and federal governments could no longer ignore the call to action from their constituents. The impact of the movement is still being felt today, two years after it transpired.

The Current Day

An important aspect to keep in mind when looking at social media is who is using it? Almost every demographic imaginable has access to social media outlets, but the one group that consistently and habitually takes part is the millennials.

Millennials, also known as Generation Y, are the group born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. In the United States they are considered the largest voting block, making up 40% of eligible voters by 2020. They are also the generation that is the least likely to vote, and many have wondered why they seem so disconnected from politics. One study found that millennials — though not active voters — are still active in protests and boycotts and might even be more active in voting as they grow older (a trend that was noticed among past generations in the same study).

Why are millennials so disenchanted by their current political system? Money seems to be a big factor, since most millennials in America are now burdened with thousands of dollars in college debt and a poor job market to boot. Yet their involvement in protests shows that there is political interest, even if that interest is more of an anti-establishment angle. The group is breaking other stereotypes as well, showing that regular users of social media are more empathetic to different lifestyles not their own. This explains why social justice movements have been on the rise, and why US Presidential candidates like Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders — candidates that regularly engage with them and appeal to civil rights organizations — are winning the votes of politically active millennials.

To make an impactful movement, these politicians are turning to best business practices for marketing to millennials. They have hired the best people (including actual millennials) to market their leader and engage with their audience in the most direct method possible. For Bernie Sanders, that meant creating a network of volunteers to create Facebook groups (about 3,500 popped up in July of 2015 alone), create Youtube videos that spoke on issues millennials are passionate about, and organize speeches across the country.

When discussing the “Bernie Brand” one political writer, Nigel Hollis, wrote: “As seen in marketing, brands that people find are different in a meaningful way are the ones that attract more followers on social media.” In fact, the “Bernie Brand” is working so well that more millennials are voting for Bernie Sanders than have ever voted in the American Primaries before 2016. Some of the success can be credited to Sander’s key messages — anti-Wall Street, free public college education, anti-lobbyists — while other credit is due to his unique and ‘hard-to-find-in-politics’ characteristics; mainly his integrity and authenticity. What started as a grassroots campaign through Facebook groups and Youtube videos, has become a serious contender for the next President of the United States.

Considering Bernie Sanders started out as one of the biggest underdogs in American politics, his current success in gaining the millennial vote shows just how important social media is in politics. It can be used to organize groups, connect like-minded individuals, and spread awareness about serious issues affecting people across the globe. Politicians and leaders from around the world could use the power of outreaching to millennials through social media. Even American political pundits agree: Bernie has set the precedent for all future elections. The younger generation’s vote cannot be ignored, must be tapped into, and is exceedingly powerful for political change.

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