Saint Mary's alumna Anna Thielen completes research about political engagement in regards to Millennial and Generation Z adults, discovering the importance of social media.
By Anna Thielen
Saint Mary's College of California Alumna '19
A growing fundamental issue with social media is that its rise in popularity is resulting in unintended political consequences, particularly relating to its emerging role in political socialization.
Political socialization is the process by which people obtain information that shapes their political perspectives. It’s not a surprise that a survey completed by 577 randomly selected people across four generations show that the majority of Generation Z and Millennials prefer receiving news via social media in comparison to their older counterparts. Understanding political socialization is especially relevant in a democracy because a legitimate democracy relies on the transparency, abundant availability, and accuracy of information. While there is no right or wrong way to be politically socialized, political socialization in a democracy should work to engage the populous. And yet younger generations lack interest.
So what if politicians just did a better job at posting on social media?
When younger generations were asked if they felt more connected to politicians who used social media versus traditional news outlets, 34% of Generation Z and 22.29% of Millennials neither agreed nor disagreed. This strong preference towards being politically socialized on social media yet indifferent towards politicians using social media platforms, exposes a dichotomy. A popular platform that is overflowing with information and opinions threatens the democratic process.
This exposes a fundamental issue with social media as the rising, preferred method of socialization. Part of the issue is that social media is not designed for institutionalized political news, it is designed for personal accounts of political news. The sheer volume of exposure on social media buries political reporting in favor of alternative entertainment. Soundbites give the illusion of satisfaction and expertise without having to dig deeper, on top of formulaically filtered content.
The failings of social media to fill this socialization function is already telling. While 76.53% of Generation Z agree that politics impacts their daily life, a majority 46.47% report they do not know how to effectively engage with politics. Although it may seem that sharing politically related commentary on social media would be an easier way to engage, case study interviews report otherwise. The two most common concerns relating to political news on social media are that people are there to argue not discuss, and it is hard to tell what is real news and what is not. Both of these concerns were accompanied by feelings of isolation and cynicism. 49.3% of those surveyed from Generation Z distrust the government and 55.72% of Generation Z do not feel hopeful for the future of this country.
There must be responsibility from both the social media companies and from the people. We cannot expect social media companies to take full ethical charge of politically socializing the public by being a pro-democracy clearinghouse of quality information. They were never designed for that purpose and we cannot de-commoditize the industry. What we can ask of them is to be much more vigilant about filtering objectively false political content to increase public trust in political information, and ask that platforms encourage a culture of debate rather than hostility to re-engage people in political discussions. This does not mean micromanage every conversation, but encourage an alternative culture. Discourse and debate is healthy. Argumentative hostility is not.
As for the people, fight to stay engaged. While polls are showing low moral and wavering trust in the current political system, younger generations should seize the opportunity to begin constructing the kind of world in which they want to live. It is easy to turn a blind eye to what we view as a hopelessly toxic and divided condition, but we the people are all part of this country and engagement is paramount, especially when times get hard and it would be undeniably easier to bury our heads in the sand.
Anna Thielen graduated from Saint Mary’s College of California in 2019 with a degree in political science. As a political science major, the often cited lack of political participation among younger generations became a focal point as the 2020 presidential election drew closer. While the 2020 presidential election did see a major turn out of young voters, one instance cannot cloud significant patterns in political participation. This research is a product of independent curiosity and an avidity to increase political participation, knowledge, and interest among younger generations as the framework for how their political future is built around them.
This article was submitted to The Collegian by an alumna of Saint Mary’s College of California, and therefore, the content does not necessarily represent the views of the student staff of The Collegian nor the Saint Mary’s College of California community. To view our full legal statement regarding publications, please refer to the “About” page on this website.
Ryan Ford '23,