A GROUP OF ABOUT 100 high school students gather together in a room on an early December evening, discussing their feelings about the Jamar Clark controversy and the protests it spawned.
This gathering was possible, in part, because of a few taps on a smartphone by Amir Sharif.
Many of the students knew about the get-together because they saw a message on social media that described what, where and when the event was. Sharif, 17, a junior at Minneapolis Southwest High School, was among those who notified students.
He is an example of a group of young activists who use social media to organize events and share ideas and opinions with their followers.
“Social media is a great outlet for activism because it’s easy to connect with people, get information and spread ideas,” Sharif said. “Plus, coming across news is much faster than waiting for the news by word of mouth.”
According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2013, 81 percent of teens between ages 12-17 used social media. As of 2015, 92 percent of teens went online daily, and 24 percent reported going online “almost constantly.”
“Social media is where young people live these days, and they understand the tools very well and are very comfortable using them,” said Wendy Wyatt, associate vice provost for undergraduate studies at the University of St. Thomas and a former professor of communication ethics.
Social media can have a reputation as a forum of vanity and self-indulgence, such as crude jokes made for a laugh or an Instagram picture posted solely for the purpose of seeing how many likes it can get.
But some students are using social media to promote activism and civic engagement.
“Social media is a fun way to connect with friends and share funny content, but if you follow the right people it can be a great place to learn about civics and what’s happening in the world around you,” Sharif said.
BEING ACTIVE ON SOCIAL MEDIA
There are multiple ways a person can use social media to be civically involved, including sharing their thoughts, following current events, talking with others, making calls to action and organizing.
“I mainly use social media as an outlet for all of my ideas and thoughts on current events and social issues,” Sharif said, “but the couple of times I’ve used it for organizing a meeting or an event, it worked well.”
It matters what social media site you use, as well as who you follow. For example, Sharif mainly uses Twitter and Tumblr because “they have more relevant content on those sites, more users who are involved in civics and the civil problems in America,” he said. He follows other young activists such as DeRay McKesson and Mica Grimm, as well as Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, he said.
“… Their accounts always keep you updated and informed on what’s happening around the world and they always have vital info and share their opinions with limited bias,” he said.
The concept of activism on social media has its pros and cons, according to Wyatt. She stresses that while social media works for organizing events and sharing ideas, in-person communication is still important.
“Talking with people face-to-face about issues should be most prominent,” Wyatt said. “While there are things that are concerning about social media, there are a lot of promising things, too.”
One of the concerns in engaging civically on social media is the presence of Internet trolls, or people who post comments to upset others or disrupt the discussion. This problem could be magnified in conflicts over ideals, which sometimes can become emotional.
Artika Tyner, a professor of Leadership, Policy and Administration at the University of St. Thomas and the university’s interim diversity and inclusion officer, advises high schoolers to not engage with trolls.
“Unless it’s educational, something you can learn from, don’t respond,” Tyner said.
Another issue that could arise when untrained adolescents have a forum to speak out are ethical and legal problems, such as defamation. Tyner said civically active students on social media need to be taught critical and analytical thinking skills, understanding and breaking down the issues so they can formulate their own stances — as opposed to jumping to an uneducated opinion. This could help to avoid defamation, as well as hurt feelings, on social media, she said.
“Ethical dilemmas could become an issue, but it doesn’t override the power of education,” she said.
Wyatt said all people need more media literacy training, “beginning with the young.” Media literacy refers to the process of accessing, analyzing, evaluating and creating media, and understanding the messages we receive from the many forms of media in culture, according to the Media Literacy Project.
“Everyone has responsibilities when anyone can speak out on social media,” Wyatt said. “We need to be better at making sense of the information given to us, diversifying and giving feedback.”
LOOKING TOWARD THE FUTURE
Sharif, Wyatt and Tyner see promise for social media’s role in the future of civic engagement. They see the popularity of social media encouraging students to become active in their communities and more aware in the future, they said.
“It engages students early so they can stay engaged as citizens as time moves on,” Wyatt said.
“It can be a precursor for your role as a citizen,” Tyner said.
Sharif also feels he can use social media to help educate his less civically inclined peers.
“Social media gives me a great platform to spread my thoughts and ideas to my peers, and I feel like without it, it would be hard for me to stay up-to-date on issues,” he said. “I can inform my peers, but only if they’re willing to be open-minded and unbiased.
“I myself have a lot to learn on being an activist, but I’m confident in what I know and hope it’s enough to spread the knowledge.”