Editorial Credit: Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

The politicians of America use social media poorly and as a platform for argument and embarrassing themselves and their country. There has to be a better way for them to connect with the youth.

The politicians of America use social media poorly and as a platform for argument and embarrassing themselves and their country. There has to be a better way for them to connect with the youth.

A key issue for politics, and for politicians and their campaigns, is how to use social media and new technologies to connect with the public, especially the young.  At a time when we can use a dizzying array of social media tools and platforms, not only to learn about the world but to interact with it, on a daily, if not hourly basis, the need to harness these tools to enhance political discourse and foster engagement with government is expanding as rapidly as the technology.  As technology builds links across society, its use in politics should enhance civic engagement.

In this regard, many of America’s politicians are failing. The percentage of Americans aged 18-24 years who vote in presidential elections has been steadily falling since 1972, to a low of 38% in the 2012 election.  This has happened even with the rise of social media in the past decade and President Obama’s novel use of it in his two campaigns.  This begs the question: why are politicians, in general, and presidential candidates, in particular, failing to connect with young adults and how can new approaches through social media help?

Failed Attempts of Hillary Clinton to Connect With the Youth 

In my view, many politicians’ efforts often backfire.  Take a random example:  in August 2015, Hillary Clinton tweeted, “How do student loans make you feel? Tell us in three emojis or less”.  

First, anybody who has gone to college can formulate thoughts without emojis.

Second, whether someone has or has not attended college, thoughtful responses may take more than 140 characters to describe both feelings, much fewer problems, and, more importantly, to outline solutions. These are real problems that require discussion.

Third, as most high school English students know, since one is counting emojis specifically, it should be, “tell us in three emojis or fewer.”

Donald Trump’s use of social media is equally alienating

Similarly, Donald Trump’s often angry, aggressive, and meandering tweets, where he often seeks to bait and demonize certain groups, can be equally alienating.  In both cases, the current presidential candidates too often patronize younger citizens with social media rather than inform, inspire, or engage them.

Beyond the potentially embarrassing attempts to use social media to appear current or “hip,” these efforts have other deleterious effects.  The use of emojis, new dance moves, and divisive tweets detract from the seriousness and professional attitude of the campaign.  More importantly, too often these ham-fisted, childish antics make America’s young adults feel that their opinions don’t matter – since the candidates often come across as foolish or pandering rather than an intelligent, thoughtful adults who are attempting to communicate challenging ideas or real solutions for tough problems.  

Finally, in a perverse twist, by trying to use the lowest common denominators in social media terms, our current presidential candidates may perpetuate the misperception that Generation Z and millennials are actively disengaged and are so concentrated on selfies and games and emojis that do not want to engage in the politics and governing.  

Clinton and Trump should listen to us 

I do not know about you, but I want to understand the problems we face; I want to help create meaningful and lasting solutions that address income and social inequality, climate change, infrastructure collapse, enhance educational opportunity for all, and reduce armed conflict.  In fact, I think Ms. Clinton and Mr. Trump should speak to us rather than our parents and grandparents since the solutions required will take decades, if not generations.

I am not naïve enough to think that the Pandora’s box of social media, once opened, can – or should – have everything put back in.  What I suggest is that Instagram and Twitter be used sparingly, more to identify issues, warn of upcoming events, or present calls to larger social media or technological platforms that will encourage our politicians to present meaningful and thought-provoking solutions to the difficult problems that face us.

We need informed, professional, and enlightened discourse.  Civil discourse is essential to representative democracy – and it requires time to think, time to reason, and time to listen before one can participate actively in civic life (this cannot be achieved in 140 characters or fewer).  This, I believe, is what my generation needs in a leader.

Thomas Weil was a Yale Young Global Scholar in 2016.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *