Youth Participation in Elections: Exploring tech platforms and advocacy campaigns

Written by: Rofhatutshedzwa Ramaswiela and Yasmin Shapurjee

While obstacles for young people in election participation may differ from place to place, it is evident that the role tech platforms and advocacy campaigns play a pivotal role in influencing young people’s political engagement on a global scale. The latest edition of the Digital Dialogue series, hosted by the Civic Tech Innovation Network (CTIN) and the International Civic Society Centre (ICSC) took place on the 4th of April 2024 and sparked a healthy debate on the intersection of youth participation in elections and the role (and influence) of tech and advocacy platforms. 

Young women holding a textbook, sitting in a desk with different digital devices

Image source: Pexels

The discussion highlighted the importance of having young people participate in elections and the democratic process more broadly. The panelists at this dialogue pointed out that trusting and involving young people from the beginning of every democratic process is crucial. Moreover, the discussion also alluded to the importance of media literacy, young peoples’ use and engagement with various technology platforms and tools, and the level and scope of digital access and inclusion. This article summarises the debate alongside reflections between the attendees and the panelists.  

Among the panelists were Fariha Khan, who currently serves as the European Youth Delegate of the Austrian National Youth Council, as well as Jason Bygate, an Impact Technology, Digital Inclusion, and Innovation Specialist and founder of YoMobi. While opening the discussion, Fariha mentions that the consumption of media currently differs significantly from a decade ago, with social media emerging as a pivotal source of information for young people worldwide.  

Fariha mentioned that the internet and social platforms have surged in relevance, whereas traditional media has seen diminishing use. According to Fariha this shift to online content consumption raises concerns about trustworthiness, particularly regarding the prevalence of misinformation and disinformation, often linked to an increase in conspiracy theories, some of which can foster polarisation alongside anti-democratic ideologies. She states that based on the pervasive role of technology in contemporary societies, young people must be equipped with digital media literacy skills. However, “schools often neglect teaching media literacy due to a lack of teacher training or inadequate resources’’, commented Fariha. In addition, Fariha believes that this educational gap is alarming considering the importance of reliable information, especially in making informed decisions during elections.  

“Despite the challenges posed by digitization and emerging technologies, digital tools and platforms also offer opportunities for greater youth engagement and supporting advocacy campaigns’’, said Fariha. Fariha also noted that a great example of linking technology to youth participation is the Austrian National Youth Council’s provision of digital youth checks before elections, which engage young people in political discourse throughout the election cycle.  

Jason emphasized the importance of considering the “warm layer” of technology. He stated that this layer encompasses factors beyond software and hardware, including connectivity and accessibility, which can erect barriers to participation and inclusion. However, he mentioned that this is often overlooked amidst our focus on software, hardware, and connectivity. This oversight can erect “barriers to participation and inclusion, whether it is accessing services through digital forms or being able to provide your input’’. Therefore, Jason reiterates the importance of prioritizing digital inclusion and participation through digital channels, considering factors like internet access and the prohibitive costs of data.  

While we continue to prioritize digital inclusion through different digital channels, teaching young people what their voices can do and encouraging them to go out and vote for what they believe in are topics that are often neglected, Fariha mentioned. However, even in the realm of media literacy teachings, the question remains, “How do we manage misinformation and fake news within the digital space?” Jason asked. 

Secondly, how can tech and non-tech methods drive greater youth voter turnout? As tech evolves, how are we discerning the information we use? Lastly, young people are using tech platforms to launch campaigns to advocate rights. Therefore, is there a link between advocacy campaigns and youth participation in elections? Is it possible to learn lessons from the West and similar contexts regarding youth participation and engagement in the African context? 

Both panelists highlighted how younger people are tech-savvy and finding innovative ways to access digital information, despite some of the persistent access barriers in some countries. Notably, Jason shared how young people access the internet by either identifying public wi-fi hotspots or sharing devices, allowing for one pathway towards lowering digital access barriers. Jason also pointed out that, even if young people are capable of navigating access barriers, it is important to make sure that systems are suitable for them. Although the digital gap is not just about access; Jason argued that it involves greater cultural representation in digital ecosystems that are currently mostly influenced by Western or Eastern viewpoints. Emphasizing the necessity for varied cultural representation in the global digital world also requires the need for authenticity, which is a feature that is common among social media influencers but frequently absent from political discourse as presented by Jason.  

In closing, the panelists highlighted that while tech is a great platform to get young people to get on board, we need to get young people to understand that they matter, and to have them engage on topics that they are facing. Moreover, Jason believes that effectively interacting with youth requires being real and conveying sincere messages through various media. Fariha recommended that “it is important to look into youth-led initiatives, invest in resources, look into all the tech youth advocacy platforms, fund and support them’’ to encourage and empower young people. 

  

  

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