SO­CIAL ME­DIA HAS ARMED THE YOUNG

Stu­dent ac­tivism is so much more pow­er­ful with ac­cess to to­day’s dig­i­tal me­dia tools

The Australian - - COMMENTARY - John Simp­son, an ad­viser on gov­er­nance and com­mu­ni­ca­tion, is a mem­ber of Monash Uni­ver­sity coun­cil. JOHN SIMP­SON

In the mar­ket­place of ideas and ad­vo­cacy, young peo­ple are win­ning hands down. Older peo­ple, wed­ded to con­ven­tional com­mu­ni­ca­tions, can’t frame and dis­trib­ute their mes­sage as ef­fec­tively.

A com­bi­na­tion of new tech­nolo­gies, 24/7 news cy­cles, fre­netic use of so­cial me­dia plat­forms and bound­less ide­al­ism and en­ergy of those born from 2000 on­wards has cre­ated a world that is be­wil­der­ing, per­haps im­pen­e­tra­ble, even in­tim­i­dat­ing to those 50 and older.

In the wake of the Fe­bru­ary mas­sacre at Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High School in Park­land, Florida, it is young Amer­i­cans who have car­ried the gun con­trol mes­sage across their na­tion. In fact, so suc­cess­ful have these teenagers been in prose­cut­ing their mes­sage de­mand­ing gun con­trol, that young peo­ple across the world have joined in.

The seed of the Never Again move­ment was tak­ing shape 24 hours af­ter the shoot­ing. While tens of mil­lions mourned the dead and prayed for the wounded, oth­ers mounted a cam­paign that would shake the halls of power. Some of the sur­vivors of the mas­sacre be­came na­tional fig­ures within weeks, tak­ing their mes­sage to so­cial me­dia, YouTube, tele­vi­sion and town hall meet­ings to en­sure their mes­sage was am­pli­fied as far and loudly as pos­si­ble.

They are thrust­ing into the pub­lic con­scious­ness in ways that are pen­e­trat­ing even the thick­est con­gres­sional walls, and they are do­ing so ef­fec­tively and con­fi­dently — learn­ing and adapt­ing as they go. These peo­ple, on the cusp of vot­ing age, mean busi­ness.

On the re­ceiv­ing end of their high-oc­tane, in­tense cam­paign have been mostly older peo­ple, fre­quently men, caught flat­footed and largely bereft of a credible re­sponse.

Five mem­bers of Never Again were on the cover of last month’s

Time mag­a­zine and the group has been cred­ited by The

Wash­ing­ton Post as achiev­ing a “stun­ning vic­tory” against the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion in the Florida leg­is­la­ture when both houses voted for var­i­ous gun con­trol mea­sures. A key achieve­ment was an in­crease in the age to buy a gun from 18 to 21.

For the cam­paign­ers, small wins mat­ter. Wins val­i­date their ef­forts in the cam­paign, they give cred­i­bil­ity to their front­line spokes­peo­ple and they pro­vide im­pe­tus to take the next steps — to keep go­ing.

In Aus­tralia, in a dra­mat­i­cally less sig­nif­i­cant event, we have re­cently seen stu­dents at Mel­bourne’s Trin­ity Gram­mar School mount a high-pro­file protest against school au­thor­i­ties over the sack­ing of a pop­u­lar long­stand­ing teacher Ro­han Brown, who started back at the school yes­ter­day.

The stu­dents didn’t seek per­mis­sion to protest, they didn’t ask their par­ents if it was OK, they just protested and, in so do­ing, were joined by many of their par­ents and for­mer stu­dents of the school. A third of the school coun­cil mem­bers quit in the after­math and the QC charged with re­view­ing what hap­pened at Trin­ity this week is­sued a scathing as­sess­ment of the con­duct of the coun­cil.

With­out ar­gu­ing the mer­its of their ac­tions, Trin­ity stu­dents have shown their prin­ci­pal and re­main­ing coun­cil mem­bers that they, the stu­dents, should not be taken for granted. In­jus­tice, real or per­ceived, will be re­sponded to, of­ten in dra­matic and un­fore­seen ways. The con­duct of the stu­dents has not been on trial in this case; it is the con­duct of the gov­ern­ing coun­cil that has been cor­rectly un­der the spot­light and found want­ing.

Stu­dent ac­tivism is hardly new. Young peo­ple have ini­ti­ated and sus­tained protests the world over for much of the 20th cen­tury. Stu­dents were cen­tral to the civil rights move­ment in the US in the 1960s, just as they were in the anti-apartheid move­ment in South Africa from the 70s. In June 1989, sev­eral weeks of stu­dent-led pro-democ­racy demon­stra­tions in Bei­jing ended only when Chi­nese troops be­gan fir­ing on crowds of pro­test­ers in Tianan­men Square, killing an un­known num­ber of them.

What is dif­fer­ent to­day? Young peo­ple know how to com­mu­ni­cate and have a much greater com­mand over key dig­i­tal plat­forms than those older than them. In ad­di­tion to the im­mense power of so­cial me­dia, young peo­ple have greater stay­ing power than their elders. They have de­ter­mi­na­tion, even a ruth­less zeal, to suc­ceed and to bring about so­cial change where they feel this is war­ranted. They will use what­ever levers are at their dis­posal to achieve their ob­jec­tives — and this in­cludes a quite re­mark­able com­mand of lan­guage.

My sense to­day is that young peo­ple are of­ten as­ton­ish­ingly ar­tic­u­late. They know pre­cisely how im­por­tant a fa­cil­ity with pub­lic speak­ing is in the bat­tle of ideas and in in­flu­enc­ing oth­ers to a point of view. They know also that the abil­ity to rep­re­sent one­self with con­fi­dence and with con­vic­tion is a key de­ter­mi­nant of so much that fol­lows their years of for­mal learn­ing. In other words, many young peo­ple are prov­ing for­mi­da­ble on their own ini­tia­tive or linked with oth­ers equally com­mit­ted and pas­sion­ate on what­ever their cause may be.

If it’s pas­sion and in­spi­ra­tion you are af­ter, head to a school, col­lege or uni­ver­sity and lis­ten to the stu­dents grap­ple with the world as they be­lieve it ought be, not as it is.

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