Globally, young people have redefined civil engagement to be much more inclusive of digitally mediated forms of interaction. Though social media poses risks and challenges, it can also be a powerful tool for youth activism. We have seen during the pandemic how young people are finding innovative means to connect, learn, and educate others about the issues that matter to them. Social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok are providing safer spaces for young people to associate and engage with like-minded peers and promote online public engagement such as the Sunrise Movement (1) and the Black Lives Matter movement (2). Hashtags, mentions, and direct messages make it easy for young people and organizations to work collaboratively to bring meaningful change.
Social Media is a powerful tool to trigger Civic engagement
Young people are engaging in dialogue about local and global issues on social media such as climate change, migration and healthcare. Nowadays it is very easy for young people to educate themselves and others about issues that are significant to them through online and intensifies voices that might otherwise go unheard. Issues of corruption and injustices are also raised through social media and also raise public awareness at a record-breaking pace, and form partners to fight for change.
Young people feel safe to connect online with those who are like them or are facing similar challenges. It is very easy for people who feel isolated or marginalized due to their identity or any other challenges to find resources, information, and people they can relate to, creating networks and cohesion that can grow into political action. Emma and Floli use fun dance videos on TikTok, to educate about feminist issues, racism, and equal rights for all (3).
Does Digital Civic Engagement bring change at ground?
This is a fundamental question about digital civic engagement, how does it translate into real life? Awareness raising and education through digital means does not necessarily effect change without in-person action. It’s always said about the online civil engagement that it is expediting “armchair activism” for supporting a political or social cause exclusively through social media or online petitions, without putting much effort. Digital civil engagement makes it easy for people to believe they are actively supporting a cause, without actually creating meaningful change. Social media can also be used to disseminate misinformation. It’s kind of a double edged sword which has the power to spark positive change but can also be used to spread misinformation.
However, we are seeing more and more young people translate online awareness raising to in-person activism. A young activist named Lih from Nepal used social media to call out youth for in-person peaceful protests against the Nepalese government’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. The impact of these social media campaigns was so strong that thousands of youth came to the streets of Nepal’s main cities, putting pressure on the Nepalese government to enforce free COVID-related medical care and distribute accurate PCR tests. This is a powerful example of social media affecting social change and proves that online engagement is a vibrant tool for activism today.
Though, it is important to talk about the other edge of social media that can be used to spread misinformation/ disinformation and its impact on children/youth. Misinformation is false or misleading information that is unwittingly shared, while disinformation is deliberately created and distributed with an intent to deceive or harm. Together they range from satire and parody, to dangerous conspiracy theories. Here are a few things you need to know about how they affect children.
Misinformation and disinformation (mis/disinformation) online is a pressing public issue: Online spread of mis/disinformation affects everyone online and offline. Mis/disinformation is very much a part of children and young people’s lives as they are active digital users. Mis/disinformation on social media spreads farther, faster, and deeper than truthful information. Hot-button and divisive issues, such as immigration, gender politics and equality, and vaccination are common subjects.
There can be real-world consequences of mis/disinformation: Mis/disinformation has been used to incite violence and crime targeted at ethnic minorities like mob lynching, communal violence which has resulted in deaths and displacement of children, led to lower child COVID vaccination rates, undermined trust in journalism and science, and drowned out marginalized voices.
While mis/disinformation is often spread by people, algorithms are a key part of the mis/disinformation flow: Algorithms drive personalized news feeds and curate search results, content, and friend recommendations by tracking user behaviour. Algorithms sometimes promote misleading, sensationalist and conspiratorial content over factual information and can be key vectors in amplifying the spread of mis/disinformation.
Children are vulnerable to the risks of mis/disinformation: Because of their evolving capacities, children cannot always distinguish between reliable and unreliable information. As a result, not only can they be harmed by mis/disinformation, but may also spread it among their peers. Even very young children or those without access to social media networks may be exposed to mis/disinformation through their interactions with peers, parents, caregivers and educators.
There are few things through which we can empower children to counter mis/disinfirmation and its flow: Children can challenge and debunk mis/disinformation by participating and contributing in online fact-checking and myth-busting initiatives, such as against COVID misinformation in Nepal. UNICEF Montenegro’s Let’s Choose What We Watch Programme and Breakthrough India has organised a series of awareness sessions and create videos on ‘How Society is Getting Affected by the Emerging Trend of Fake News and mis/disinformation about the COVID pandemic and vaccination. We need more such programs for young people so that they get opportunities to practice and enhance their media literacy and journalism skills to identify mis/disinformation and fake news and to improve the quality of reporting on child rights issues.
Education: Equipping children with the critical reading and thinking skills can help them determine the veracity of information. Considering how mis/disinformation moves easily between online and offline contexts, it is important to develop critical thinking skills amongst children even in non-digital contexts.
Collective action is required to protect children: Policymakers, civil society organizations, technology companies, and caregivers including parents and educators must work together to protect children from the harms of mis/disinformation. Efforts to slow the spread of mis/disinformation are not coordinated, and there is little reliable data on the scale of the problem.
Policymakers should devise child rights-based regulations around mis/disinformation: UNICEF recommends that policymakers devise regulation to protect children from harmful mis/disinformation, while enabling children to safely access diverse content. Regulation should focus on requiring procedures for classifying content and ensuring transparency and accountability. Finding the balance between rights-based online protection and freedom of expression is a very significant policy challenge.
Technology companies can help combat mis/disinformation: Technology companies are key actors in combating mis/disinformation. UNICEF recommends that they actually implement their self-declared policies and invest more in human and technical approaches. Technology companies should be transparent about mis/disinformation on their platforms and how they are combating it, and prioritize meaningful connections and plurality of ideas for children in the designs of digital systems.
Civil society should provide policy guidance on mis/disinformation: Civil society, including academia and international organizations, should conduct research on the impact of mis/disinformation on children and the efficacy of counter-measures, so that their findings can inform advocacy and policy responses.
Streamline the power of online communities: Young people from diverse communities are connecting through social media like never before. Community organizations need to be supported in training and resources so that they can build an online base and presence and empower them to engage with diverse audiences in advocacy.
Ensure safety and mental wellbeing: Social media is an open platform and a safe haven for those who want to connect anonymously without fear of judgement and want to explore the world in their own way. This same anonymity can place young people at risk of digital and in-person exploitation and also be targets of misinformation that can negatively impact young people’s mental well-being. Organisations need to be supported in developing their own online safeguarding and digital security practices as well as offer resources.
Decode online dialog into meaningful impact: Awareness about the risks and consequences of “armchair activism” can mobilize young people to real action, especially with opportunities for shared learning and skill building about social media engagement, policy change, and peaceful action.