The midterm elections are coming up in a few weeks, and I’m sure you’re already tired of the rhetoric and the candidate ads. This piece is not going to be about why you should vote or who you should vote for, but rather an exploration of how young people view voting this midterm, and if the enthusiasm on social media will translate into action.
Browsing Twitter over the past couple of weeks, I’ve continually seen tweets about the midterms that have seemed a little unusual: young people are talking about the midterms and actively trying to get others to care about it. This isn’t to say that we have never talked about it before, because we definitely had a pretty strong presence in the 2016 elections. But my point is young people are caring and talking about this election, but in the way that we do best. We are making it into a meme.
It may seem stupid to anyone over the age of 30, but memes have a certain place in having real conversations about important issues. They can be used as a tool to get a point across, they can be used to mock bad ideas, and they can be used to highlight important topics. Young people connect through memes and have a kind of shared experience through them.
Memes about the midterms, the candidates, or the parties are relatable because we (or anyone with our same political affiliations) all see that joke as a form of verification about our ideas and beliefs. It fulfills that primitive “us against them” urge that we all have and get gratification from.
But I think there is another reason why we feel a shared experience from these jokes: we all seem to have this imperative that this election matters more than any other before it. We all have an increased pressure to actually go out and vote, and when we see others talking about voting, we feel more encouraged and inclined to actually go out and do it. Or that’s what we hope.
There are different theories of thought when it comes to social media promotion and social movements. One is that social media brings awareness to the topic and gets people talking about it, and then assumes that they will do something about it. The other is that social media brings awareness and conversation, but ultimately fails to promote useful physical action for a movement.
In a 2015 piece for The Guardian, Elizabeth Day examined the Black Lives Matter movement and the impact that social media had on it. She interviewed Ethan Zuckerman, who is the director of the MIT Center for Civic Media. Zuckerman warned Day that, “although social media can give the illusion of empowerment, it also runs the risk of diverting attention away from the knottier problems of longer-lasting policy change.”
While this idea of empowerment is associated with a particular movement in this case, it seems reasonable to me that it can be extrapolated to voting as a whole. I worry that, as Zuckerman says, “Social media is a place where people feel they can move the wheel… But the fear is that it might be harder to make these much bigger structural changes…”
Although it seems like voting and changing our nation is somehow cool with the younger generation on the internet, it is ultimately hard to measure how useful this enthusiasm will be without using hindsight as a rubric.