Young people and politics: we’re far from apathetic

Too apathetic, too ignorant and too self-absorbed: that sums up my generation when it comes to political engagement, right?

After all, voter turnout among the 18-24 year-olds has been below 50% since 1992: 39% in 2001, 37% in 2005, with a slight rise to 44% in 2010, compared with 76% turnout for the over-65s.

I’ve been guilty myself of feeling that I belong to an apolitical generation that seems more interested in selfies than self-improvement. Sometimes I still feel that. But as we found out at Tuesday’s “Technology and Democracy” talk, part of BBC’S Democracy Day, there’s a whole lot of credit which isn’t duly given to the younger generations when it comes to political engagement – and we’ve got tech to thank for sending the definition of “engagement” way beyond just turning up at the ballot box.

For a big mistake, surely, is in thinking that social media narcissism and an interest in political affairs are mutually exclusive. There may be some kind of analogue snobbery going on here, but one of the brilliant things about the internet is that it gives everybody a voice – and this was one of the main points which came across in the debate. Anyone with an internet connection has the capacity to share their views and engage in conversation. As panellist Arvind Gupta, social media head of India’s Bharatiya Party, put it: “Technology is a great leveller.”

For young people are engaging, and the potential for engagement is greater than ever before. Being raised on a diet of clickbait Facebook posts and a never-ending torrent of 140-character outrage means that my generation has been absorbing the political leanings of others for years, and we’re not afraid to verbalise our own.

The #CameronMustGo hashtag, for example, amassed over 1.1 million mentions in just 30 days and trended on Twitter for longer than two weeks. And whether we’re sharing that mash-up of David Cameron’s conference speech, tweeting about the violence in Palestine or signing a petition demanding that female genital mutilation be discussed in schools, we’ve got an opinion. That’s political engagement right there.

Similarly, it would be silly to suggest that if someone Instagrams a photo showing their support for the Green Party, their support is rendered invalid IRL – and this was something addressed by Emma Mulqueeny, founder of Rewired State, at the debate.

“The worry for me isn’t the divide between the digitally-native and the digital-deniers,” she said. “What’s more concerning is the perceived divide between the internet and the real world – people need to wake up and realise that stealing on the internet is the same as stealing in real life; cyber-bullying is the same as real-life bullying. The real world is online, and people need to accept that.”

Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Swedish Pirate Party, also spoke at the debate. He agrees that arguing a particular point of view has never been more effective – or more possible.

“People discussing current events are absolutely politically engaged. The notion that the only ‘valid’ way to influence society is the formal vote on election day is as much bollocks as it gets, frankly,” he told me afterwards.

“The net generation communicates better, faster, and on a larger scale than any generation before it. And doing so has a much, much wider impact than voting in secret and silence – even if that’s important too.”

Rick stressed the importance of listening to young people, for in the end, they hold the keys to the future.

“I would tell people to take the concerns and experiences of the younger generation seriously – in particular, observing that when the politicians consider the habits of the entire net generation a problem, it may rather be the politicians who are the problem.

However, I am very concerned that the older generations aren’t even bothering with understanding the immense erosion they are causing to civil liberties, and that they’re largely still regarding the Internet as some sort of luxury toy that industries can take away from children when they’ve been naughty.

To quote from the SOPA debate in the US – ‘It’s no longer okay to not understand how the Internet works’.”

Ultimately, the argument that the only way to be heard is to vote in elections simply doesn’t hold any water. There are any number of ways to participate in a democracy, and the internet’s making it a whole lot easier. Just look at the free education demo back in November, which saw the biggest mobilisation of students – largely through Facebook – since 2010.

So while putting a cross in a box may produce the most tangible, measurable results, our voting system is far from perfect and disillusioned young people are taking to other mediums to voice their dissatisfaction. Campaigns like No More Page 3 show that we can challenge huge corporations with online petitions and social media awareness without having to consult anyone in power – and eventually, we’ll win.

The internet isn’t going anywhere, and that means we’re not, either. So let’s cut the “apathy generation” some slack, please.

Sadie Hale