Leveraging Digital Media for Social Change: Social Media Activity, Political Engagement and the Social Networks of Marginalized Youth

Amana Kaskazi

Contact: ank71@rutgers.edu

While few studies examine the online political practices or attitudes of young people with marginalized identities, youth are often the most engaged with online political media. They are at the forefront of integrating media in youth-led grassroots movements across the country. This mixed method study about marginalized teenagers and adults examines how social ties and digital media affordances influence navigating social change and political engagement in the digital age. By utilizing ethnographic observations in a New York City community along with a survey and in-depth interviews, I investigate the everyday, societally triggered and network actions on African American, Hispanic and Asian American teenagers (14-17). Participants shared concerns about context collapse, permanence and persistence when sharing political information online. Many avoided posting, sharing and liking political content on social media as a result, expressing extensive awareness of harassment or fear of being judged for political beliefs and attitudes when they express such sentiments publicly through social media. During societally triggered events, such as the #MarchForOurLives and #BlackLivesMatter movement, however, participants were more willing to strategically share information and engage in communication publicly. Under event-triggered conditions, participants were more likely to share political information online as well as see civic activities of others. More public communication in social media then spurred offline engagement in the movement as well. Engaging during societally triggered events revealed a convergence between publicly observed social networks and those social support and friendship networks that exist apart from political activism. The events amplified by viral hashtags became a catalyst for marginalized youth to be less concerned about the ramifications of scrutiny about their publicly observable political beliefs (something they usually avoid during routine times). This study highlights the ways youth circulated and processed political information with one another online and mobilized for collective action offline. Implications consider the unanticipated consequences of public civic activity. By mobilizing through social media networks during events heightened by viral hashtags, youth reveal their personal and arguably private relationships.

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