Young Australians are more politically engaged than many older Australians and are just as likely to stand for public office, according to new research done for the Museum of Australian Democracy.
Researcher Max Halupka from the University of Canberra says the research showed Australia’s oldest and youngest citizens have engaged in the highest number of political activities, overturning the conventional view that those aged under 35 are the most apathetic.
“This idea that this new generation is disengaged is unfair,” Mr Halupka said.
“It is just engaging in new ways. It’s got a broader repertoire of engagement.”
It all depends on how political engagement is defined. If traditional actions like joining political parties or streets protests or writing a letter to a member of Parliament are the only criterion, then young people are more disengaged than ever.
But if online activities – such as joining advocacy groups, or engaging with campaigns or issues by sharing or commenting on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – are also measured, then youth political engagement soars.
“This is quite a hard pill for a lot of people to swallow – that so-called clicktivism and online engagements are legitimate forms of political participation,” Mr Halupka said.
“It is different to the more traditional, conventional ways of engagement we’ve seen with the baby boomers who are used to protest and social movements.
“But these new forms of clicktivism are legitimate. They help form political communities.
“During street protests in Turkey recently, those who engaged online were supporting those in the streets, helping to mobilise large numbers quickly.
“Those who couldn’t be there but were online were still contributing to the larger cause.”
Merits of online political engagement questioned
But there is a debate over whether social media activity is politically meaningful.
“My concern is that social media can just be an echo, and that people just continually become exposed to information that is really just reinforcing pre-existing opinions. I don’t see that as part of a healthy democracy,” said Aaron Martin, from Melbourne University.
“I do really worry about the lack of engagement in electoral politics, because I think non-government organisations and other public organisations do tremendous work, but they can never be a replacement for the aggregating mechanism that is electoral politics.
“So I’m very concerned about people not engaging in electoral politics because I think non-electoral politics, for all its virtues, is never going to be a replacement for electoral politics.”
But others are confident that online engagement could lead the way towards a more participatory democracy.
“I think that the role of government is changing and young people see government and their role in government as less influential,” said Eyal Halamish, from online organisation Our Say, which promotes greater interaction with political and corporate leadership.
“You need to be changing the way in which government interacts with young people so that it is as easy to get involved in some form of political decision making as it is to download a song off iTunes.”
Most young people now get their news from social media, according to research by Ariadne Vromen, from Sydney University.
She says the percentage of young people who actively post and comment about politics online is about 40 per cent. Others tend to like, favourite or retweet the material.
“It’s a symbolic expression of what they believe in through social media and really we need to see that is just the same as putting up a poster, wearing a badge, wearing a ribbon, putting a sticker on your car – these are all just extensions of those kinds of acts of political expression,” Ms Vromen said.
“I think seeing social media as just simply as an echo chamber is a really narrow view of understanding what social media is.
“Young people tend to see politics as all about conflict and disagreement and they don’t necessarily want to be replicating that conflict and disagreement in their own social networks.
“So what’s happening is a kind of a shift in the way politics is discussed.”
The Canberra University research will be unveiled later this year at the Museum of Australian Democracy as part of an exhibition examining how Australians feel about politics.