An intriguing take by EUC's own, Joanna Thimme
19. September 2021, one week to go until the Bundestagswahl in Germany: This important election will decide who, after 16 years in office, will succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor. Alongside me, a lot of young people will be able to take part in a general election for the first time.
Although it feels like a lot, in proportion to our entire population, young people (<30) will only constitute about 15% or lower of the entire electorate base this year, according to the office of the Federal Returning Officer. This general trend of aging populations poses the problem of an increase in a generational imbalance of elections.
For a while now, politicians have been trying to curb this problem and have been searching for a solution to engage more political participation of younger voters. By proposing to lower the voting age to 16 years, as is already possible in some state and local city council
elections, policymakers try to “give young people the opportunity to participate and help shape the future“ (The Local, 2020).
I guess teens would be happy about that! But what about young people’s news and political information literacy? Are they even informed and engaged enough in public discourse to satisfy a voter’s responsibility? Where do they get their news from and how reliable is it? A persistent visible trend is found in how news is consumed. A study by the Pew Research Center indicates a stark contrast between young people under 30 and everyone above thirty. Almost two-thirds of late millennials and Gen Z’s prefer social media and the internet as their source to get political news, whereas older generations mainly use cable TV news as their primary source. Next to young adults, a study by Otto Brenner Stiftung shows that especially teens use social media and the internet more than traditional political information channels like TV and print media. In Political Effects of the Internet and Social Media, the authors highlight the low barriers of entry that distinguish social media from traditional news outlets. They simply give more space to previously marginalized groups, which young people often miss in the well-known news, and make the entirety of the establishment of news more accessible. Yet, the gatekeeping of the quality and relevance of news, in particular political news, is sidelined by the overflow of posts found on social media.
While there is no denying that young people are interested in the news, the problem with social media is that the information is picked up only incidentally. News is not necessarily sought out but “passively” consumed, as is especially evident on platforms such as Instagram and TikTok.
Thus, conceived information may not stick and a rather firm opinion could be formed based merely on so-called micro-news, as on these platforms, users mainly scroll through their feed
and receive news at random in the midst of pictures and videos of friends, influencers, etc. At least my brother said: “It’s mostly people talking about news on TikTok, so what I do is go into the comments and check whether others call them out or say it's true”.
In particular, the new social media platforms play an important role in the risk of receiving already opinionated news, as users often “seek out alternative perspectives in social media that they believe mainstream media are ignoring” (Digital News Report, 2021). Also, the vast increase in news sources allows users to tailor their feed, given that it is mainly driven by algorithms that are based on popularity as well as personal relevance. Furthermore, young people have been found to lack the “motivation to seek [news] out in its traditional spaces”, which means they are easily exposed to a significant amount of fake news and to the danger of sliding into echo chambers. If young people fall into echo chambers, which means they repeatedly engage only with certain information, this could have great implications for their voting behavior. This means that pre-existing attitudes are more and more reinforced with time, so a vote is probable to be based on increasingly polarized attitudes formed through un- or misinformed social media posts.
Nevertheless, political engagement depends highly on the opportunities provided to the young on how to engage with political content. As the report by Otto Brenner Stiftung pointed out, also the environment of the 16- and 17-year old’s plays a considerable role in the process of becoming qualified voters.
The chance of reaching younger voters in a non-biased and open manner, say uncoupled of the influence of social media and the dangers it brings, is a lot higher when these are still living at home and/or going to school. Thus, lowering the voting age to 16, could actually give more importance to making an election a central theme in their home environment, say
their household or their school. And, in turn, could establish the possibility of properly educating (future) eligible voters as well as lay the foundation and set standards of political information literacy for future elections.
However, being engaged with political content as such does not even provide that the more or less politically literate young people also go vote. Hopefully, the upcoming election can give us some insights into the importance of the youth vote.