Civic Engagement in a Digital Age

Posted by Daniel Braunfeld on April 22, 2015

My children will come of age in an era of easy digital access, of school districts across the country exploring one-to-one computing, and their hometown deciding that students have the right to bring personal cell phones and electronics into schools. So, like many other parents of digital natives, I wonder how they will harness and utilize the power of this global access. How will they navigate the myriad of behaviors, distractions, and opportunities that the digital landscape provides? How will they define their digital Universe of Obligation and, as digital natives, will they be digital bystanders or digital upstanders?

Thankfully, there are researchers like Henry Jenkins of the Youth Participatory Politics Research Network (YPP) who are exploring the many ways today’s youth use the internet to engage in “Participatory Communities” – choosing to participate to make their communities better.


Henry Jenkins has had a relationship with Facing History and Ourselves since his own child was a student in a Facing History class. His research and conversations with Facing History leadership have shaped his thoughts about the relationship between technology, learning, and civic engagement. Facing History, since its inception, has cared deeply about civic engagement, with a key aspect of its work devoted to "choosing to participate." Now, we must wrestle with how our notion of "choosing to participate" changes in a globally connected world. For me, though, it comes back personally to my own children.

"Participatory Communities" are defined by the YPP as a digital space that is easily accessible to users, actively encourages the sharing of ideas and personal perspectives, and creates a community where everyone’s voice is honored. Unlike the more hierarchical nature of the traditional political sphere, digital participatory communities empower youth to use the tools at their disposal to make their voices heard.

Active and ethical online engagement is not the commonly heard narrative about today’s youth. Charges of slacktivism (“click here and change the world”), falling voting rates, and social media fads dominate our news feeds. But that isn’t the full story. The chart below, summarizing aspects of Jenkins’ research, shows that over 60% of people active on Twitter also choose to participate in more traditional forms of political engagement (voting, civic participation, etc).

Tweeters Vote “Participatory Politics” refers to online engagement with political issues. “Institutional politics” refers to more traditional engagement such as voting.


What are the traits that young people need to transition between digital and traditional political engagement?

Henry Jenkins and the YPP Network are studying both the dispositions and skills that enable young people to become civically engaged online, and also the successes and failures of digital activism campaigns. At the Symposium for Los Angeles Facing History and Ourselves Partnership Schools earlier this year, Jenkins shared some of those stories:

  • Kony 2012 remains a significant example in the recent history of digital campaigns. That year, hundreds of thousands of young people watched and shared Invisible Children’s video, highlighting the crimes and abuses of warlord Joseph Kony. The video became the most viral video in history and raised millions of dollars within two days. And yet, Invisible Children recently announced it was closing down almost all of its work due to lack of funding and Joseph Kony is still at large. While the Kony 2012 campaign succeeded in raising awareness, it didn’t provide its audience with a path forward. Social campaigns sometimes stop at inspiring outrage or support for a cause. Not all digital campaigns provide their members with tangible next steps, ways to continue their work and opportunities to make voices heard. That can be one lesson for those seeking to leverage digital engagement into political action.
  • One organization that has built a presence among young digital activists, providing followers with opportunities to both raise awareness and take action, is The Harry Potter Alliance. This non-profit, based on the characters and themes of the Harry Potter series, uses the world of fantasy and the real world of fandom to address social concerns. Most recently, the Alliance launched a successful campaign, called “Not in Harry’s Name” to persuade the Warner Brothers company to use Fair Trade chocolate in Harry Potter related products. The hybrid digital and live organization has chapters throughout the country and tackles a variety of social justice issues.
  • Of course, there are important stories of warning from the easy accessibility of the internet. Shortly after the horrific Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, rampant racism emerged on Reddit, as [false] accusations of the perpetrator fell along biased and racist stereotypes. One victim of the false accusations and digital witch-hunt ultimately took his own life.

The internet and social media, like every form of technology that came before it, is neither a force for good nor for evil. Its utility is determined by the choices its users make. Jenkins’ presentation reminded me of Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken. When young people enter the digital landscape, with opportunities before them to participate for good or for destruction, how do they make their choices? What dispositions do today’s youth need to use digital tools for positive change? To make their voices heard?

Jenkins’ optimism about the ever increasing presence of digital, participatory communities was contagious and inspiring. Facing History teachers can now utilize both traditional and digital campaigns as they engage their students in a Choosing to Participate unit, helping students to use their voices and participate in their local, and digital, communities. And, as a parent, I cannot wait for my kids to get involved.

Topics: Choosing to Participate, Social and Emotional Learning, Upstander, Using Technology

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