Virtual Participation: Social Media & the Youth Vote

Haley Gosselin

As of late, it seems like social media has become a platform for political discussion.  Due to the presidential race, every time I open Facebook or Twitter I am bombarded with political material in the forms of statuses, tweets, videos, and memes.  Everybody seems to have something to say about the presidential race and impending election, whether I want to hear it or not.  

The overwhelming amount of support on my news feeds goes to Bernie Sanders (Feel the Bern!). Everywhere I look, college-age people are praising Sander’s policies, especially those of free education and lowered interest rates for current student loans. Considering the astounding amount of support for Sanders on social media, it is surprising that Hillary still took the win in the Massachusetts primary.  In fact, Sanders is the most mentioned candidate on Reddit.com, and the night before Super Tuesday he went so far as to thank his Reddit followers and ask for more support.  He obviously knows how popular he is on social media–but is it helping his odds as much as he hopes?  Given his loss in Mass, it would seem that social media attention simply isn’t enough to provide victories in the polls.  The people on these sites and apps may be bringing him attention online, but are they logging off long enough to get up and vote?

There will always be jokes and jabs during election times, of course, but there appears to be a large number of people who simply aren’t taking the presidential election seriously.  When it comes to political sharing on social media, there seem to be two types of people: those who share their personal views in their own words and those who share an overload of memes and funny pictures that give skewed information or poke fun at the candidates.  I would like to think that the people who “care” enough to write long paragraphs on Facebook about which candidates are the best/worst fit care enough to go out and vote, but is that the case?  Or are they simply trying to sound knowledgeable and/or gain attention and “likes”?

To answer these questions I have interviewed some Facebook users—some who like to engage in political debate and share their views with the social media world and some who do not.  I asked 24-year-old Ericka Mancini of Worcester, MA why she thinks Clinton took the win in Massachusetts after all of the support for Sanders from millennials on social media:

“They probably just didn’t vote.  It’s one thing to show support online but most of the younger generation just doesn’t get out to vote.”  When I asked her why she thinks that is she said, “They are just lazy.”  

Howard Knipe, Jr., 29, of Worcester, MA noted that it is “simply easier to sit at home or on your phone somewhere and post a thought [than to] actually go out and do something.”  

Interesting.  Are we millennials simply too lazy to go out and vote?  Are we spoiled? Do we expect everything to be taken care of for us—even voting?  I hope that isn’t the case.  

I approached 22-year-old Kachaundra Stevens of Oakham, MA not knowing she had recently graduated from Worcester State with a degree in political science.  I noticed she had been sharing a lot of informational videos supporting Bernie Sanders on Facebook, and I wanted to know if she had actually voted in the Mass primary.  She told me she did in fact vote because she was “really concerned about the world [her] kids and the kids of our generation are going to have to grow up in.”  

When I asked her why she thinks that Hillary won the MA primary despite the overwhelming amount of support for Sanders on social media she said, “I think that most people don’t actually know anything about the candidates except what they see online. So they share what they see and agree with [it] but when they go to vote they vote for who they are more familiar with. I think family influences voting patterns too. If you grow up in a conservative house, you’re more likely to have the same political views, same with liberals. But 100 percent of the reason why Clinton won Mass over Bernie is because not enough people our age actually went out to vote. They definitely don’t realize the impact they have because they figure their one vote won’t matter, but if you account for all of the people who think that way, it’s the number of votes Bernie needed to win.”  Wow. I have a sneaking suspicion she may be right.

I also reached out to Bill Holmberg, 66, of Warren, MA.  Bill, the former owner of Flapjack Willie’s, was happy to answer my questions.

“What do I think people gain by discussing politics on social media? What does anyone gain by using FB? Camaraderie? Bitchable space? Desperation borne out of having no other platform? What we used to hash-out in coffee shops, we spill now in shorthand with equanimity and anonymity. If I want to be respected for my intellect, all I need to do is choose which replies to read. Some really want to support a person or cause because they truly believe in that. I think the ones who don’t follow up with a vote are those Neanderthals of negativity.”  

It was refreshing to hear a perspective from someone of a different generation than myself.  Bill uses Facebook but he can remember a time when it didn’t exist.  When asked about why he thought Hillary won Mass, his answer was straightforward:  “Easy one. Bill Clinton visited the polling places during the election with the mayor of Boston. That was covered on network news. Bill with his electric smile, his shock of well coiffured hair, his animal magnetism, his visual inseparability from Hillary (except during sex).”

I knew that Bill Clinton had been in Massachusetts, and even Worcester, on Super Tuesday, yet I didn’t make that connection. Talk about a “duh” moment.  Maybe it isn’t as black and white as that—yet it is surely a fact that cannot be ignored.

Perhaps one reason that many young adults are talking about politics online but not voting is that they have never been exposed to politics anywhere else.

Kachaundra said, “We grow up studying the past and most kids don’t care about what happened 60 years ago. Politics are evolutionary and schools don’t teach kids about politics today, they teach about those of generations ago. So when it comes to voting, most people have no idea how to vote let alone who to vote for. Ask any person our age in our state who our state senators and reps are and you’ll see how little they know.”

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