Young people represent an important stakeholder group in the Transatlantic Relationship. The issues relevant to young people (aged 18-29) tend to be increasingly global and diverse, ranging from online privacy to climate change. Addressing these challenges requires greater cooperation between institutions on both sides of the Atlantic. Democracies run from the bottom up. They require experimentation and innovation at a grass roots level to continuously adapt to the changing landscapes in which they operate. Young people can be key drivers of this upward momentum for change. They are less encumbered by preconceived notions and existing norms regarding the way things should be done and more likely to evaluate issues on a case-by-case basis rather than identifying with any particular party.
The question arises of how to increase youth engagement. With the proliferation of online news and political discourse on social media, many young people are keenly aware of what issues are most important to them. However, when it comes to understanding what they can do on an individual level to address these issues there is much less clarity. The desire for change is present, but one lacks the tools to bring this change about. This paper will outline a resource that can demonstrate ways for young people to implement meaningful change, while also spurring a cross-border dialogue on important issues.
This resource would be a digital initiative that could help frame the way discussions are managed in the online space. It would have an easily searchable and attention grabbing name-ViralPolitics. ViralPolitics would be an online platform consisting of both an app and a website, monitoring the ebbs and flows of trending topics and generating feedback from political parties pertaining to these issues. ViralPolitics would force political parties and other significant actors to respond to certain viral threads in real time creating a ‘policy menu’ on how specific issues could be tackled. This would make it easy for young people to distinguish different policy options, spark debates around topical issues, and more importantly, prompt greater interaction with existing political institutions. The platform would also work directly with third-party organizations providing opportunities to engage with the issue more directly at the community level.
ViralPolitics would require the commitment of political parties to ensure success. More specifically, the youth arms of political parties would be great partners because they could speak with credibility on these platforms, while still adhering to their party’s core principles. With youth participation at record lows, ViralPolitics could offer a unique value proposition to these institutions eager to find new ways to connect with young voters. ViralPolitics could provide political parties with valuable insight into what issue areas drive youth engagement. If a party did not have a platform on a particular issue that went viral, ViralPolitics would call them out. ViralPolitics would allow users to reach out to the organization directly and encourage them to develop a stance. The site would become a tool where slow to adapt political parties could gain a better understanding of the problems relevant to the next generation of voters.
The topics ViralPolitics engaged with would be generated organically, e.g. by going viral on social media, and responses would be easily and systematically accessible on both a separate app and on a web platform. There would need to be guidelines as to which issues should be addressed to foster a legitimate and fruitful debate. An open-ended platform approach should be encouraged. However, political parties need to adapt to social media, not vice versa. Once a viral issue reached a given threshold of user engagement on social media (for example received 10,000 likes or 3,000 reposts) and was deemed a sufficiently pertinent issue, the digital platform’s political partners would have a set deadline (48 hours) to publish their official concise stance on how to address the issue on ViralPolitics. Each party would also be asked to provide opportunities, internally and with partner organizations, for young people to get involved locally and become actively engaged in addressing the specific issue.
Take for instance the #PostitSquad campaign, a viral campaign that asked young people to place Post-its with body-positive messages on public bathrooms and fitting room mirrors. The campaign aimed to raise awareness around eating disorders and spread body positivity online. It began in Norway but has since spread to the US, Russia and the UAE. #PostitSquad emerged organically from an Instagram post by a Norwegian television star / political activist. It grew because it brought to top of mind a salient issue. As the campaign gained momentum in Norway, it would have generated a national ‘policy menu’ on ViralPolitics, outlining the main political parties’ responses and strategies to counter eating disorders. This would make people more aware of their party alignment as they identified which party’s stance fit most with their own. Through ViralPolitics one could also find which third-party organizations to support if one wanted to work more directly with this issue on a grassroots level. In this way, ViralPolitics would become the channel through which young people, excited to engage with an issue like body positivity, learned how the issue was currently being approached and what they could do to address it within their community.
As the campaign began gaining traction internationally, ViralPolitics’ ‘policy menu’ would grow, adding the policy positions of foreign political parties in a separate category. What does the U.S. Democratic Party have to say on the issue of eating disorders? How does it differ from the German Conservative Party’s stance? This would spur a global dialogue, share best practices and make people more aware of their political alternatives.
Social media has been an incredible tool for giving young people a voice in politics. What has been missing is a mechanism that allows millennials to turn their individual voices into collective action. Providing a platform like ViralPolitics is crucial to activating this key stakeholder group. Engaging a broad spectrum of young people in identifying and addressing the challenges facing their generation gives them both the knowledge and resources necessary to begin shaping the Transatlantic Relationship of the future.
Co-authored with Asgeir Barlaup: Asgeir recently completed his studies in Comparative Politics at the University of Bergen. Asgeir has interned with U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar and the World Movement for Democracy. He has also served as a Private in the Norwegian military as a member of the prestigious King’s Guard.