- Epilogue Migration Policy on the Run - December 3, 2023
- Social Science Works released a new book: Migration Politics on the Run - November 12, 2023
- General Introduction to Migration Politics on the Run - November 12, 2023
The political participation of young people in general and rural youth in particular is not optimal. Consequently, they are underrepresented in politics, which in turn affects the extent to which their interests are reflected in public decision-making. This can cost them dearly in the long run: no affordable housing in an unlivable climate are just two consequences.
In a project that began in fall 2019, Social Science Works sought to engage young people in East German rural areas in politics by connecting more closely with their (assumed) lifeworld. The participation opportunity offered was more hands-on, more time-bound, more focused on a concrete event and more interactive. It also made use of Instagram, a communication tool loved by many young people. The project was made possible by the Federal Office for Political Education.
We formed four groups of 8 to 15 young people each between the ages of 15 and 20 in rural regions in Brandenburg and Saxony-Anhalt. For in total five days we first offered political education. In the workshops, we reflected together with the participants on the fundamental values that hold our societies together – democracy, pluralism, freedom, citizenship, equality, respect – and how these values can be successfully propagated. In addition, we offered knowledge about the functions and working methods of civil society organizations. This included how to use social media for political participation. Following these activities, the groups immersed themselves for about six months in a theme of their own choosing. They also used social media to build an audience for this theme and to present this relevant information. The plan was to conclude it all with a deliberative meeting with 50 to 200 participants. Each group would organize such a meeting. Unfortunately, Corona measures ultimately made the latter impossible.
The project was deliberative in nature. We see deliberation primarily as an open and courteous exchange of ideas and visions that promotes the discovery, understanding, contextualization and development of political preferences. In today’s prevailing economic conceptions of democracy, the main purpose of political participation is to transform preferences of individuals into collective decisions and policies. How these preferences came about, whether they are informed and can be justified, whether they are “political” in the sense that they relate to public issues, are questions that are rarely addressed. In deliberative conceptions of democracy, however, these questions take center stage.
In this article, I report on our experiences. Several topics are covered: the use of social media to recruit young participants for political activities; the importance of local confidants; the suitability of social media for social and political communication with and among young people; the potential of Zoom or other video platforms to carry through political education and participation; the themes the groups chose as important; and the motivations of the participants.
1 Recruiting participants through social media
In 2022, German young people between the ages of 14 and 29 spent on average almost five hours a day (284 minutes) on the so-called Media Internet (the reception of video, audio and texts by Internet) and more than three hours (195 minutes) on non-Media Internet (personal communication, games, online shopping). They primarily use the internet as a source of information. The more youthful, the lower the importance of print, radio and television. Furthermore, the majority of 18 to 24 year olds say they primarily use Social Media as a source of information on the Internet, rather than the Internet pages of traditional media or other private and public institutions. The most popular among 12 to 19-year-olds in 2022 was WhatsApp. This was followed by Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat. Facebook first came in fifth place and seems to be rapidly losing significance. 94% of 12- and 13-year-olds owned a Handy/Smartphone; 99% of 18- and 19-year-olds. Daily smartphone use among German youth is still on the rise. In 2019, 44% of 16- to 29-year-olds claimed to use the smartphone for more than two hours a day. Two years later, this was already 70% (Vom Orde and Durner 2023: 14ff). German young people are by no means unique here, of course. According to a study by Radesky and others, most teenagers in the United States, for example, use the smartphone for about 4.5 hours a day. Daily smartphone use among German youth continues to increase. In 2019, 44% of 16- to 29-year-olds claimed to use the smartphone for more than two hours a day. Two years later, this was already 70% (Vom Orde and Durner 2023: 14ff). German young people are by no means unique here, of course. According to a study by Radesky and others, in 2022 most teenagers in the United States, for example, used the smartphone for about 4.5 hours a day. In doing so, most American youth between the ages of 13 and 18 picked up their Handy more than 100 times a day (2023: 3). With a sleep time of (hopefully) eight hours, this is about six times per hour.
The long-term psychological, social and political consequences of all this new media-use are largely unknown. We are dealing with a social experiment that is unprecedented in speed and scale. Academic research in this field is still in its infancy, the results are contradictory and there is a great lack of data (A fine overview of the state of research is provided by Wibke Bergemann (2021)). Google, Facebook and co possess vast amounts of data that would be very useful for research, but do not share it with others, including academia. Fortunately, Mark Zuckerberg has our best interests at heart.
Thus, the Internet and social media have become part and parcel of young people’s lives. If one wants to politically involve young people, it therefore makes sense to investigate whether these young people can be reached through social media. Could we recruit young people for political participation with the help of these media? And, could youngsters through social media, especially through the immensely popular Instagram, create an audience for their political issue? In both areas, the results were disappointing.
To begin with group recruitment, we first posted extensively about our project via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and our website, asking interested people (including social workers and teachers who could connect us with youngsters) to contact us. Despite relatively large numbers of followers and visitors on our media channels, this did not generate a significant response. We then conducted three paid advertising campaigns via Instagram and Facebook to find interested young people in Saxony-Anhalt. Flyers developed by students specifically for this purpose were used for this purpose.
An Instagram ad in March 2021 in Haldensleben and surrounding areas reached 3472 people aged 18 to 25. Facebook did not allow us to show people under 18 an ad about this project. Twenty-four people clicked on the link. Five people liked our post, one person wrote a comment (“Mensch*innen sollten sich dafür interessieren” – “people should be interested in this”), one person started following us, no one contacted us.
Since it was possible that politically interested people are more active on Facebook than on Instagram, we then created an ad campaign on Facebook, with a customized flyer (see Figure 1). Incidentally, as noted above, most young people consider Facebook a hopelessly outdated platform used only by young seniors aged twenty-five and older. Our ads reached 2143 people aged 18 to 25 who, according to Facebook, had an interest in volunteering or social issues. One person liked this post. Sixteen people opened the flyer. No one contacted us.
2 Group recruitment through local confidants
The second and probably most important way to recruit participants for social and political projects consists of contacting local actors who have already established trusting relationships with members of the target group. In this case, these were mainly youth workers and teachers in secondary and vocational education. This relationship of trust has proved essential in all our projects to persuade people to participate and can rarely be built through electronic communications.
In schools, we contacted the teachers responsible for political education or the “respect coaches”. Almost all schools in Brandenburg and Saxony-Anhalt that we approached reported already being overloaded by their existing assignments. This overload obviously only increased from the beginning of the Covid pandemic in February 2020. No time or energy was available for additional projects.
Many schools also simply reported that their students had no interest in politics, and thus no interest in political education. Our counter-argument that this could be the very reason to offer us access to their students was rarely taken at face value. In another educational project that we carried out for the European Union in Berlin and Brandenburg , we encountered the same social inequality: the (approximately 30 contacted) educational institutions with already privileged pupils eagerly participated, and the (approximately 150) schools in rural areas or deprived Berlin neighborhoods with pupils who could have benefited the most from the project, did not (Blokland and Perrin de Brichambaut 2022).
Our main focus was therefore on youth workers. After we had E-mailed them, they were contacted by telephone. We also advertised (without much result) our project in the newsletters of their organizations. In total, we spoke to about 150 people in this way, sometimes over very long periods of time. These contacts were often extremely tiresome. As we have also had to observe in other projects, this professional group, at least in states such as Brandenburg and Saxony-Anhalt, seems to be highly demoralized. With some important exceptions, they regularly seem to have lost faith in their own activities. Societies are falling apart, and the forces behind this seem to render many of their efforts futile. The Corona pandemic has further reinforced this state of mind. Many social workers have reported to us that the little social capital they had managed, often with extreme difficulty, to build up among their target population had been destroyed by the Corona measures. In the end, nevertheless, with the help of local youth workers, we were able to recruit two groups.
3 Political communication through social media
Part of the project involved the groups opening an Instagram account and using their posts to form an audience for their chosen topic. Each group also received an average of one day of training from an SSW specialist on how best to design posts to reach a wide audience. Four Instagram accounts were indeed crafted. These also gave us an idea of the potential of social media to engage particularly young people around social and political issues. This potential again proved limited.
Probably the best account was created by the participants in Zehdenick in Brandenburg (https://www.instagram.com/meetuebermeat/). Those involved published no fewer than 148 high-quality posts on everything to do with meat consumption. The hope was that more information would lead to a decrease in the ( here excessive) digestion of animals. Proportionately, this could contribute greatly to sustainability, livability and public health.
The posts were made with much love and skill and contained a large amount of information. Sub-topics included the environmental consequences of meat consumption, the living conditions of animals in the meat industry, the question of how much meat to eat for health reasons, vegetarian recipes, information on meat substitutes, water consumption, microplastics, antibiotics, et cetera. A link was also made with the Fridays for Future movement. Despite the relevance, great competence and the use of many Hashtacks, in six months no more than 78 followers were gained, the posts were “liked” by an average of no more than about 15 people and people only responded to a post in very exceptional cases. It also proved impossible to increase the group’s membership in this way.
To put this somewhat in perspective: one of our fellows has the curious habit of posting a photo on Instagram of every evening meal he consumes (a lot of meat, by the way). He has five times as many followers, and can count on significantly larger numbers of “likes” and comments.
If one wishes to motivate people to become politically active, it helps to have a problem that one would like to discuss and solve together with the public. This is where a problem arose with the second group: the group members were predominantly of the opinion that there were actually no significant problems in their hometown in Saxony-Anhalt. The biggest problem they saw was that so few people, especially young people, were aware of this. Instead, most youngsters wanted to leave (see Neebe 2021, Blokland 2021). The goals the group had set itself as a Youth Advisory Council (Jugendbeirat) were therefore quite modest. The biggest success, also widely reported in the social media used, that had been achieved in recent years was the installation of a crosswalk.
The group’s account (https://www.instagram.com/visionbernburg/) aimed to communicate that there were good reasons to stay in Bernburg, or even to move to Bernburg: “Let the youth come and stay. Living here is more beautiful than you might think. Be part of it, shape a future for your city with us.”
Basically, the chosen theme has many social and political dimensions that could have been addressed in the posts. One might think of the social and environmental consequences of urbanization and commuting, population aging and shrinkage, or the age-old theme of what actually constitutes a Good Life and a Good Society, and to what extent this can be realized in the big city or in the countryside. Unfortunately, people in this group appeared to have little ability to make this translation. The 39 posts that were published offered images of beautiful tourist spots in Bernburg or aimed to advertise the group or its members. Nevertheless, this account gained 157 followers in one year. On average, the individual posts were liked by about 25 people. Comments or discussions were not generated. Nor did this lead to more interest in the VisionBernburg project.
Another group in Saxony-Anhalt also emerged from the local Youth Advisory Council. The chosen goal here was to raise awareness of the council and its activities. The group’s Instagram account existed before, but suffered from similar shortcomings as the one in Bernburg. By September 2021, they had published only 22 posts. These had hardly any political content, nor had they ever provoked substantive reactions or discussion. One had met, or had organized a party or a soccer tournament. Nevertheless, the account had 197 followers. Since Corona, there were no meetings anymore, so there was nothing to report about. Corona could, of course, have reinforced the use of social media, as an alternative to real meetings, but this substitution could not be observed in any of our projects.
The second group in Brandenburg, in Fürstenwalde, created two accounts (https://www.instagram.com/ju_fuewa/ and https://www.instagram.com/ju_fuewa.voices/) with 132 and 51 followers, respectively. The theme here was boredom and the problems that can partly result from this: moving away from Fürstenwalde, alcohol and drug abuse, mental health problems, undesirable behavior in public spaces, crime. The problems focused
mainly on a square in Fürstenwalde where large groups of young people gathered in the evening and tried to have fun with music, booze and drugs, mostly to the displeasure of local residents.
More than the other groups, the participants in Fürstenwalde managed to initiate discussions, also using other media (a WhatsApp group was started, for example). To this end, people were explicitly invited to respond to statements or questions. Those involved also tried other media. For example, a Graffiti workshop was organized and a podcast was made, after first attending a workshop on podcast-production. The reach of the podcast was again very limited, but its production probably strengthened the understanding of local issues, as well as the skill of using media for social communication.
4 The use of social media to realize personal goals.
Serious politics is primarily about formulating a vision of the common good and generating public support to realize this vision. Deliberation is therefore central to our projects. We try to involve as many citizens as possible in developing and implementing substantive, reasoned visions for the public good. Evidently, social media could play a role here. This perspective on politics and democracy was beautifully expressed in Zehdenick and Fürstenwalde, but did not appear to be shared by all participants.
Many appeared to perceive politics almost exclusively as party politics. They sought skills, tools and networks to make a career in a political party and in public office. Interest in substantive discussions about social developments, problems and goals was often limited. The deliberation that should have taken place at the end of the project was immediately and almost exclusively conceived as stage discussions between leading local politicians and a listening audience of young people.
For many, politics was thus understood primarily as networking, climbing hierarchies, the acquisition and exercise of political functions and positions of power. To this end, they were constantly on the go at party and other political meetings, and on social media. The posts on Instagram and Facebook focused mainly on the person (look, where I have been, which important people are my friends, how likeable I am!) and very rarely on an idea, position or proposal concerning a public issue. Therefore, social media were not used to involve a larger public in discussion and decision-making, instead they were used to advertise the individual to this larger public. Also in this sense social media do seldom contribute to the development of democracy. They mainly give room for self-promotion.
5 Political education via the Internet
The project involved political education and was to culminate in a deliberative session on a topic chosen by the groups. Because of Corona-measures, face-to-face meetings were sometimes not (or no longer) possible. We then used Zoom.
We have invested a great deal in abilities to offer political education on line. The limitations of this proved to be social and psychological rather than technical. When one wishes to exchange factual information with other professionals, on line meetings are often a welcome addition. One usually already knows the people, builds on previous communications, and interpersonal relationships are of limited importance. Nevertheless, as evidenced by research on working from home, even for professionals Zoom can rarely replace the desired face-to-face contact (cf. Sander and Baumann 2020; Kurzius 2021; Bailenson 2021). One misses a large part of communications (one thinks of body language), and many exchanges are not possible (e.g. quick, spontaneous and brief interventions).
The political education we offered was voluntary and had to be undertaken by the participants in their free time. This required a lot of their motivation. As long as we first had had the opportunity to generate commitment through personal contact, we were able to build on this for some time. However, where from the beginning we only worked through the Internet, building up commitment proved to be extremely challenging. As long as people could “consume” a Zoom meeting, without having to invest much themselves, they could suggest to be interested and motivated. But as soon as larger investments were required, as soon as people would have to organize something, for example, it turned out to be relatively easy to switch off. On the internet, commitment hardly exists.
6 Some concluding observations
In this project, the potential of social media to get people to participate in political projects turned out to be very limited. Hardly anybody reacted to invitations to start a project of their own liking or to become a part of one of the established groups. The potential of our target group’s preferred means of communication, Instagram, to stimulate social discussion also proved very small. The numbers of people reached through the Instagram accounts were insignificant and the interactions generated negligible. Many also use social media not to engage more people in public discussions and decision making, but only to promote themselves. This mostly distract from content, and thus from democracy.
Internet education via platforms like Zoom turned out to have comparable limitations. On line connections make the building of trust and commitment demanding. Therefore, these fragile connections can easily be broken. Where we had never really gotten to know each other in person, group chemistry, dynamics and commitment were small. Thus, interpersonal contact remains indispensable in political participation and it cannot be replaced by internet communications.
All in all, social media in general and Instagram in particular are for entertainment and self-promotion. In our societies there is a lot of both. As Neil Postman (1985) wrote, we are amusing ourselves to death. In his times, he was thinking about the impact of television in comparison to print. Social media have brought his fears to another level.
Bailenson, Jeremy N. 2021. Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue. Technology, Mind and Behavior. Volume 2, Issue 1.
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Blokland, Hans. 2018. How to deliberate fundamental values? Notes from Brandenburg on our approach.
Blokland. Hans. 2020. Deliberating Discrimination, Antisemitism, Racism, Sexism, Homophobia in Volatile Schools in Hamburg: Why was there a wall between East and West Germany and not one between the North and the South?
Blokland, Hans. 2021. . Junge Bürger in Bernburg (Saale): Ich will hier weg!
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Kurzius, Rachel. How the Zoom Era has ruined conversation. Washington Post Magazine. 11 Mai 2021.
Neebe, Mirjam. 2021. Junge Bürger*innen in Bernburg (Saale): Warum wollen sie weg?
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 This totals about 260 youth workers appointed in Germany in 2018 to counter perceived anti-Semitism, racism and other forms of discrimination in schools. See: https://www.lass-uns-reden.de/. As is so often the case in this field, this is mainly a matter of symbolic public policy: politicians have perceived the problem, they are proving their goodwill by releasing a budget, but no one expects this drop in the bucket to bring about a real change, all the more so since educational cultures and structures remain unchanged.
 A Jugendbeirat is an opportunity provided by law in several German states for young people to participate in municipal politics. Its mission is to investigate and express the interests and preferences of local youth. One usually has the right to be heard in the municipal council and to express the views of children and adolescents regarding policy measures. Ideally, members are elected; in the present cases, the composition of the council was determined by cooptation.