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The rise of young voters started online

Young voters made up one of the largest voting demographics in 2020, thanks in large part to social media.

Nov 18, 2020, 3:14 pm*

IRL

 

Cecilia Lenzen

Since its inception in 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement has shed unprecedented light on the plight of Black Americans and police brutality in this country using the power of the internet and virality. 

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This summer, the movement has exploded with more momentum than ever through viral Twitter videos, TikToks, Instagram graphics, online fundraising, and mutual aid organizing. As with most things online, the posts dissipate into old news. However, the stakes of this movement are too high for the message to fade into irrelevance. A few months have passed, but it’s clear the internet has changed for good.  

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In 2016, Corrina Sullivan wasn’t eligible to vote. Only 16 years old, Sullivan was part of a large demographic of “almost eligible” young individuals who had to stand by and watch as older generations cast their ballots to decide the next president of the U.S.

This year, though, young voters made up one of the largest voting demographics, according to the Pew Research Center. About 24 million members of Generation Z were eligible to vote in the 2020 presidential election, accounting for about 10% of the entire eligible voting population. Gen Z includes people born after 1996. 

Young people are notorious for showing up to vote less than older generations, but this year saw a large increase in Gen Z voters who used social media to politically inform and energize themselves and their peers, said Amanda Jordan, communication lecturer and social media specialist at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Between 52 and 55% of eligible voters ages 18 to 29 voted in the 2020 presidential election, up from 42 to 44% in 2016, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

Sullivan, the student government chief of staff at the University of Texas at Arlington, said she uses social media within student government to educate the student population. For instance, she created a “Make a Voting Plan” on Instagram. 

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Social media can be an effective tool for political activism depending on how it’s used, Jordan said. If you use it to incite arguments between political parties, it’ll be “effective” but not accomplish much. However, using social media to encourage civic engagement makes a real dent.

“You’re going to capture everyone with that type of activism,” Jordan said. 

Gen Zers are known to be active on the internet and social media, so it makes sense that they get their information there, said Charlie Bonner, MOVE Texas communication director. “This generation, we live online,” he said. 

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But amid the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, the way young people use social media shifted, he said. Platforms like Instagram used to be full of primarily food pics and FOMO, but now it’s really a space where people learn about activism, white supremacy, and voting. With so much organizing and activism having to go online as a result of the pandemic, young people had to adapt quickly. 

As this happens, Gen Z will continue to lead this wave of digital activism, Bonner said. It’s essential that young people were equipped with the information to know how and why to vote and who to vote for. The best way to do that is peer-to-peer, Bonner said.

Jonathan Demarest, a member of College Democrats and the Progressive Student Union at the University of Texas at Arlington, said although neither of his student organizations requires him to post political content on his social media accounts, he enjoys doing it for personal gratification.

He’s found Twitter to be the most politically active social media platform, although Instagram has its own benefits, he said. On Twitter, he’s able to interact with a larger audience of users, while on Instagram, only friends, family, and other followers engage with his stories or posts. 

“It’s way easier to make a Twitter post than it is to make an Instagram post, especially since Instagram is more of a photo-based medium,” he said. “It’s easier to get engagement on a platform that only allows you to use so many characters, like Twitter.” 

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Although his own posts gain more traction on Twitter, he enjoys consuming political content on Instagram, particularly informational slides. 

With his college organizations, the goal wasn’t necessarily to sway individuals’ opinions or political affiliations but to ensure young people were registered to vote. 

The hard part right now is that facts don’t always seem like facts, Jordan said. Since social media tailors advertisements and promotes content on users’ feeds based on their individual interests, it’s easy for users to fall into an echo chamber of their own beliefs, she said. 

Demarest said it’s hard to intake a diversity of opinions and perspectives without a conscious effort. To counter this, he follows a wide variety of political outlets and news organizations ranging from extreme right to far left, and from Fox News to CNN. 

The way this information is received may depend on an individual’s political affiliations, Demarest said. Her 2016 election research showed that people who are far-right conservative were far more likely to be duped by or share misinformation, for example. The same was true of people leaning far-left—but to a lesser degree. 

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This is unfortunate because you never want voters to head to the polls misinformed, Demarest said. The harsh truth of social media, though, is that if you want to sell a lie about a political candidate, you can. “Package it up really nicely, make it look convincing, and put it on social,” she said. “It’ll go far. People are going to believe it.”

It’s unlikely that people who are already set in their political party will be swayed to change, but those who are still deciding might be swayed, she said. “You’ll be more likely to get people to take action than to change a behavior,” Demarest said. 

This is why the core message of “vote” worked so well among Gen Z and this it's MOVE Texas' primary goal. Bonner said it’s all about building political power among young people. 

Texas is one of the youngest and most culturally diverse states in the country, but its electorate doesn’t necessarily reflect that, Bonner said. So young people need to show up with their friends and neighbors to vote. The electorate needs to reflect the people who live in Texas, he said, so that people who champion Gen Z values will be elected. 

Although many speculated that Texas could have shifted blue if enough people voted, this did not happen despite bringing the highest voter turnout since 1992. At least 66% of the 17 million registered voters in Texas cast ballots in the general election. 

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MOVE strives to help Gen Z make those connections and realize their power while making informed decisions. To do this, the organization uses mainly Instagram. 

By artistically presenting voting statistics in slide shows and holding Instagram Live events to answer questions, the organization has seen largely increased engagement with young audiences. 

Now that the presidential race has been called, young voters must wait until Dec. 14 for a final outcome. Electors will meet in their respective states and formally cast their votes for president and vice president.

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*First Published: Nov 18, 2020, 2:44 pm