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October 2, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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The Revolution Will Be Live

Salient feature writer Selina Powell investigates the low youth voter turnout in New Zealand and the potential of social media as a tool for political engagement.

In the 1950S and 1960s as television entered homes across the globe, large groups of citizens had a feeling that change was in the air. And it wasn’t just because they would be able to swoon over their favourite movie stars or view the Queen’s Christmas speech while sipping a cup of tea in their own living room. There was the idea that this new form of technology would imbue social movements with a momentum never seen before; it would inform the ignorant, highlight the oppressed and include the excluded.

Over a half a century later, the degree of political change instigated by the humble television is arguable. Will your knowledge of the political process or awareness of the repressed really be enhanced by watching your favourite Master Chef episode?

As Kate Stone, an Assistant Lecturer at Victoria University notes, “when TV first came about there was a lot of hype about it creating a democratic revolution because everyone would be able to come so informed with this ready access to information. But yet we’ve decided to fill our televisions up with reality TV shows—you’re not learning skills to participate in democracy through those shows by and large.”

Recently commentators have contended that various forms of social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, provide the ultimate method for encouraging the masses to become involved in politics. Whereas previously when a major political event happened, people would pay close attention to the event to relay this information to their neighbours and friends, now people reach into their pocket for a recording device.

Rather than talking about the day’s events at the dining room table, events and viewpoints can quickly be conveyed to thousands of people across the globe. Twitter and Facebook can be used to form social movements which span cultural, religious, ethnic and national boundaries. We’ve all seen the protest scenes where hundreds of people hold their cell phones aloft, attempting to get a better picture of history unfolding. It seems only a matter of time before a communications company launches a pitch to exchange the Statue of Liberty’s torch for a smartphone.

A key aspect of the emergence of social networking sites is how it is affecting the way the political identity of young people develops. Internationally youth participation in the voting process is low when compared to other age groups. Currently over one in four young New Zealanders between the ages of 18 and 24 are not enrolled to vote.
Whereas previously supporting a particular party was important for developing a sense of political identity, now people can pick and choose which particular issues to align themselves with online. As Stone puts it, “you can affiliate with a cause just by clicking a button on Facebook.”

So is social media the key to youth political engagement? As with television, the answer lies in how this new technology is used in practice, rather than its theoretical merits. The Electoral Commission has taken on board new forms of technology to encourage youth voter turnout. It is now possible to enrol to vote online, through Facebook or request an enrolment form by text.

Politicians have also sought the youth vote by establishing a presence on Twitter and Facebook which are seen as key political spaces for young people. Stone believes that the effectiveness of this online campaigning is dependent on whether politicians seek to do more than just impart a message on potential voters.
“In terms of politicians and Parliament engaging I think it comes down a lot to how they choose to use their technologies—do they use it just as another means of advertising, so it’s essentially just a digital leaflet or are they using it to engage with constituencies which they otherwise would not engage with.”

Facebook and Twitter are not necessary an ideal venue for democratic discussion. Stone notes that despite Facebook’s ability to break down geographic boundaries, often particular causes and discussion will only engage a certain segment of the population.

“You don’t necessarily get a debate; you get a conversation between likeminded people.”

The Importance of Education

It appears that the revolution will not be catapulted on high speed broadband from Twitter and Facebook accounts. But Stone suggests that a democratic overhaul of sorts could be created by educating young people about the democratic process and why it is important.

A qualitative survey of young people commissioned by the Electoral Commission in 2007 examined why young people were reluctant to vote. Reasons included distrust of politicians, a lack of knowledge about the process, an unwillingness to participate in a process which was perceived to have no direct benefit and refusing to vote on principle. Those in the last category preferred to be politically active through protest, volunteering and petitioning.

Stone believes that civics education would help to engage young people in the political system, teaching them about the practical side of democratic participation as well as why this participation is important.

While many people criticise aspects of civics education which are currently in the curriculum—such as the Treaty of Waitangi—Stone contends that learning about the government does not have to be boring or repetitive. The key point is how the curriculum is presented to school students.

“I mean, I think there’s no end of interesting things you can learn about the Treaty of Waitangi but if you’re learning every year that it was signed on 6 February 1840 then, yeah, that is going to be boring.”

As well as the ‘facts’ of the political system, young people would be taught key skills that will enable them to participate fully in their society. This would include the ability to analyse and critique information which would help young people to understand how to choose the party or candidate that suits their value system best. Democratic engagement can be difficult without such skills because of the sheer quantity of information out there and the amount of jargon which is present in it.

Analytical and critical ability are generally only honed at a tertiary level but Stone believes there is potential for this type of education to begin earlier.
“You shouldn’t have to have a tertiary education to be able to understand and hold your government to account.”

While many may question whether five- to 18-year-olds are capable of understanding government processes, Stone believes that civic education could be effective if it engaged with people using concepts they already know and applying them to a different context.
“Obviously you’re not going to talk about the complexities of different forms of representation with five-year-olds but you can talk about ideas of fairness and ideas of having a say.”
Teaching young people the skills of engaging with government as well as the basic processes of selecting preferred candidates and parties has the potential to overcome a significant barrier that currently prevents effective participation for many young people. That hurdle is based in difficulties of communication, with government only taking on board the concerns of young people who can express their problems in a particular way.

For Stone it appears that issues affecting young people are being “lost in translation”. To participate fully, young people need to “understand the issues raised in the media about Parliament and translate this into their own language and then also translate their problems into the language which is understood by Parliament or the media.”

You might question the effectiveness of attempting to increase democratic engagement by solely focussing on young people within the education system—and neglecting those who are no longer at school. This is why Stone thinks that it is important to begin civics education early, when children are more likely to be in school. She also believes that it is important for members of the community to pass on knowledge and to keep the younger generation in mind when making political decisions.

Some civics education initiatives have already been established in New Zealand. The Electoral Commission began the Kids Voting scheme in 2007 which provides year nine students in secondary schools across New Zealand with the opportunity to cast a ‘vote’ in the general and local elections. In the 2008 general election, 13,079 children voted through the scheme.

Children chose from the same selection of candidates as the adult population although the final results differed with Greens and the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis party receiving 11 per cent of the vote. The highest minor party vote went to the Bill and Ben Party, who polled at 12 per cent.

The importance of the Kids Voting initiative is not in the end voting tally, but in the skills and knowledge that children gain through the process. The reported benefits of the study include an increased knowledge of Parliament, a decreased perception of the voting process as complex and a rise in the number of participants who intend to vote when they turn 18.

Ultimately it is not new technology which will provide heightened levels of democratic engagement or encourage previously unheard voices to participate in the political process. The revolution will not be an application on your iPhone or a controversial Facebook redesign. It is the people behind the technology who can make the difference. While providing the next generation with the skills and knowledge to influence government might not result in the ideal democratic society, it seems like a pretty good place to start.

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