As a high school senior, my daily Instagram feed is mostly a curated mix of TV shows, celebrities, clothing accounts, and my peers’ pictures. However, from the early days of September to Election Day, my Twitter and Instagram feeds were unrecognizable. As Election Day neared, my social media was bombarded with the constant sharing and reposting of political posts, ads, and campaigns. Reposted and shared posts from popular accounts like @settleforbiden, @rockthevote, and @feminist overwhelmed my feed. Nearly every scroll gave me information for registering to vote, especially for students on college campuses, and championed Biden’s policies, with a heightened focus on his commitment to racial equity.
It is no secret that social media is the most prominent tool in today’s political era. Whether for voter outreach or spreading political propaganda, social media’s accessibility and popularity made it the perfect platform for political gains. But, before this election, the way social media was used politically was mostly through Facebook, which catered towards middle-aged and older voters. In the 2016 election, for example, a new influx of conservative and Pro-trump groups found their home on Facebook, using it as a way to share ideas and meet people with similar views.
That all changed in this year’s election, in which social media was used as a powerful tool for tackling the most challenging problem facing both political parties: the mobilization of young voters. It used to be that younger voters were overlooked in political banter, but the last few years have dramatically shifted attitudes. Issues like climate change, college debt, and racial inequality, which have recently gained heightened political momentum, have excited a new bloc of young voters who used to be impartial or apathetic about other popular political issues like foreign affairs or business regulations.
This newly invigorated group of young voters turned to social media in this election cycle to make their voice heard. Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok were the three main platforms used. In a single day, I may have seen the same post urging people to register to vote at least eight times on various people’s accounts. With the concrete goal of removing Trump from office, Gen Z emerged as the most vocal group of voters.
But why did Gen Z turn to social media during this election? One obvious reason may be that, as young people, we tend to be more tech-savvy and comfortable on social media in general because of our prolonged use. Teens spend around seven hours a day mastering the skills of social media networks like Instagram or Twitter. However, the answer may lie more in the spring’s revival of the Black Lives Matter Movement to tackle racial inequality. After the killing of George Floyd, social media erupted to bring awareness and tackle this issue. I remember that all the rallies held and petitions signed were ultimately advertised and proliferated on social media. And these efforts were successful. Thousands of people showed up to student-run rallies, protesting and bringing awareness for the movement. Petitions and donations exceeded the expectations of young volunteers and activists as social media made it easier to inform others and get the word out.
A few months later, when it came time for the elections, young people who wanted to make an impact turned to something they knew would work: social media. Following the success of the Black Lives Matter Movement, our nation’s youth catalyzed the transformation of social media from merely an entertainment platform to a place for intellectual and political conversations.
The second answer to the question “Why social media?” lies in the politicians themselves, specifically Donald Trump. More so than any other President,Trump was notorious for his outspoken and prominent use of social media, especially Twitter, whether it was regarding domestic or international affairs. He did not hesitate to call people out, make racially motivated comments, or promote his own agendas on these public platforms. His unruly behavior on these platforms largely contributed to—and perhaps ultimately acted as the stimulus for—Gen Z’s social media revolution.
Young voters, often infuriated by Trump’s comments on his online platforms, turned to social media as a way to directly respond to the President and display their dislike for him. Constant retweeting of his comments with their own opinions or screenshotting his tweets to make fun of them on TikTok had become standard youth practices in the months approaching the election.
Trump’s controversial online presence ultimately prompted the social media counterattack headed by young people. The video of George Floyd that spread on social media further fostered the virtual political revolution that followed it, allowing social media to emerge as Gen Z’s weapon of choice in the 2020 election.
After this election, we know the significant role that social media played in voter outreach and the mobilization of young voters. Data shows that the percentages of college students who voted in this election increased significantly compared to past elections, with an approximate 10% increase from 2016. But as beneficial as this new development is, questions remain. Was this just a one-time occurrence during a very unprecedented election year? Will social media continue to be the same powerful tool for bringing awareness and inciting political activism in young voters if there are no stimuli—such as Trump’s contentious tweets, or the proliferation of George Floyd’s recorded murder—in years to come?
It is possible that this year has taught young voters the importance of civic engagement and that they will continue to be champions for democracy and active participants in government in the future. But lack of youth interest in the Georgia runoff elections indicates that this is not likely. Following the general election, political conversations on Gen Z’s social media deflated, as people took a step back to celebrate the hope and success of Biden’s victory. However, the Georgia runoff elections were just getting started, as results came in showing that no one met the required 51% threshold. Gen Z voters, who depicted themselves as active participants in government, ultimately displayed no real interest in this election.
There were no posts advocating for voter registration in Georgia or urging students at the University of Atlanta to vote. Gen Z’s disregard of such an important election changed when both Jon Ossoff and Donald Trump turned to social media. Ossoff built up a very impressive TikTok following, where he continuously posted snippets of his verbal attacks on his opponent, David Perdue. These videos picked up momentum and went viral among the younger audience on Tiktok. His comment sections were filled with supportive comments, such as “fight the system” and “if you see this, do not forget to vote.” On Twitter, as Donald Trump continued to cast doubt on the Georgia presidential election votes’ legitimacy, Gen Z once again fired another social media campaign as a response. “Flip the Senate Blue” and “Georgia, you’re our only hope” were common phrases seen on Instagram and Twitter platforms in response to Trump.
Once again, a stimulus was present in this situation. Gen Z’s extensive use of social media for political gains in the Georgia runoff elections only started after they were incited by both Ossoff and Trump’s social media presence.
This pattern highlights the looming problem for the future of Gen Z political activism and social media’s political influence. Does there always have to be a viral video, tweet, Instagram image, or personality on social media to excite this base of younger voters? Will the people who voted this year in the crusade of fighting against Trump and the system of racial inequality feel the same drive in the midterm elections or the 2024 presidential race?
With the removal of Trump as an unfaltering stimulus, replaced by Joe Biden’s more neutral and passive approach to social media, it is likely that this year’s heightened participation of younger voters will decrease by the next election. Gen Z achieved their goal of defeating Trump and getting Biden into office, but what will motivate them next time?
Social media platforms such as Instagram have indeed done a better job of mobilizing the young population this year than ever before. I have always seen schools and colleges host voter registration drives, and I have been a voter registration canvasser myself. Rarely do these efforts result in the level of success seen this year.
But while it seems like the perfect tool for wielding political participation right now, social media is not likely to live up to its legacy in future elections. The increase in political participation among young voters results from complacency with the idea of political activism being a social media trend. Peer pressure plays an important role, as many young users think to themselves, “Since everyone else is reposting this, I should do it as well.” This was especially evident with the Blackout Tuesday trend, which quickly spread among youth who were desperate to appear in support of the movement by sporting the #BlackLivesMatter tag with a black square on social media—though many critics point to this trend’s harmful effects.
While social media trends result in the short-term participation and activism that everyone desires, this mentality will not create a permanent base of young voters who are civic-minded and genuinely care about their political engagement. Instead, perhaps it is now time for Gen Z and young voters to take a step back, reflect on the political issues they are passionate about, and discover their reason for voting—beyond just the influence of Instagram and Twitter.