Friday, August 29, 2014

Young people in Australia are highly engaged in politics - but engagement has moved online. Have governments?

A few years ago I heard it said by political advisors that one hand-written letter to a Minister counts for more than 100 emails on the same topic.

The perception was that if someone sat down and wrote their thoughts in long-hand it showed more interest and commitment than if they typed and posted them online in a blog, social network or website.

I believe this has changed slightly, with emails now accorded almost equal status with postal mail (largely by treating them in the same manner as postal mail, which isn't always appropriate).

However the value placed on blog posts or social media commentary by both politicians and departments still remains far lower than the value that individuals using these channels place on their communication via these channels.

This discrepancy becomes particularly concerning when looking at the level of political activity amongst younger and older people in Australia.

Based on the 'traditional' forms of political engagement - joining political parties, participating in street protests, writing letters and otherwise using physical means to communicate political views - young people are generally considered unengaged, even disconnected, from politics.

This appeared to be supported by a recent study by the University of Canberra commissioned by the Museum of Australian Democracy. (reported on by the ABC and Hijacked)

This study found that, based on these traditional forms of engagement, young people were far less engaged than older people. In fact people aged under 35 were only about half as engaged as those over 70 years old, and were the least engaged of any age group.

Source: ABC Lateline

However, the study went much further, looking at modern forms of political engagement - blogging, tweeting, memes, apps and other digital techniques - as well.

When combining traditional and modern forms of engagement the situation was very, very different.

Suddenly young people were just as engaged as the oldest Australians and more engaged than many of the age groups inbetween.

On this basis, including both marching in the streets and creating online petitions, young people are quite engaged in politics in Australia, with a large amount of their engagement occurring online rather than offline.

This can be hard for older Australians to grasp - they often don't understand the internet as younger people do, having been brought up on newspapers, radio and television.

Not coincidentally, a disproportionate number of our politicians, top bureaucrats, corporate leadership and leading journalists fall into these older groups - therefore they are often not equipped to even see, let alone understand, the ways in which younger people are engaging politically.

This divide isn't necessarily a problem, but it could become one. When insisting that young people follow the same political approaches as their elders, older people are devaluing newer forms of political expression and underestimating its reach and force.

Where politicians, departmental Secretaries and CEOs gauge the public's mood by signals such as how many people show up to protest, they may overlook the new signals, when hundreds of thousands, or millions, of people organise and protest online, until it is too late for them to change course.

There have already been examples of how politicians, media and CEOs have misread the public mood as they still rely on traditional, rather than modern political signals.

Until our 'elders' begin to recognise that times have changed and continue to change, they will continue to be blindsided as innovation continues in political protests.

For example, there was the creation of the Stop Tony Meow plug-in for Chrome, which replaces images of Tony Abbott in the web browser with pictures of kittens. The plug-in has been downloaded over 11,000 times and attracted significant media coverage as an anti-Coalition political statement.

There's also been the recent Dolebludger app available for Android mobile devices, which allows someone to send job application emails in a matter of seconds to 40 Coalition MPs, meeting the proposed monthly job application requirement. This was designed specifically as a political protest against a policy seen by the creator (and many public commentators) as absurd.

On top of this we have the endless string of memes created using free online tools which take photos of politicians and adds text to make a political point. These are then shared widely on Twitter, Facebook, blogs and other platforms.

And, more disturbingly, we've recently seen hackers take down a stock exchange and call on the nation's president to take action on a given matter under threat of having confidential financial data released publicly. Where did this last form of political protest occur? In Syria - a country not known as a bastion of democracy.

Similarly striking into illegal behaviour, we've recently seen the use of a phony bomb threat tweet to disrupt the flight of a Sony Executive as part of a protest against Sony's corporate behaviour.

Online political expression is evolving quickly, with new approaches emerging frequently and proliferating widely, if they work, or dying away when they don't.

The old view that people would get out on the street and protest if they were really unhappy is no longer supported by the evidence - and the notion that online activism is simply 'slacktivism' and doesn't represent significant numbers or strong views is equally no longer supportable.

Governments - both politically and administratively - need to build their understanding of modern approaches to political engagement and learn how to use and defuse them (as appropriate) to serve their own ends.

Otherwise there are real and growing risks that a government or public agency will be severely damaged or brought down through online political avenues - channels that they weren't effectively monitoring, didn't hold in high regard and catastrophically undervalued.

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