SOCIAL MEDIA HAS ARMED THE YOUNG
Student activism is so much more powerful with access to today’s digital media tools
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.