Contact: Jean Dykstra
“There have been times when new kinds of media have transformed the nature of political communication,” said Cathy Cohen, the David and Mary Winton Green Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.
She cited Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside radio chats and the role of television in the Nixon-Kennedy debates as examples.
“Does today represent another transformative moment?” Cohen asked. The research she is conducting through the MacArthur Foundation suggests that it does.
Cohen, a prominent queer activist and the founder of the Black Youth Project, gave Gallatin’s Distinguished Faculty Lecture on March 6. She engaged the audience in the Jerry H. Labowitz Theatre for the Performing Arts in a discussion on the role of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in global politics.
Cohen referred to an article in the New Yorker magazine by Malcolm Gladwell, in which he contrasted the deep ties of the Civil Rights movement with the weak ties of contemporary social movements that are forged by new media.
She countered that digital media have, in fact, played an important role in recent group actions such as the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements.
“The use of new media in the Occupy movement to raise money, recruit members and archive their history points to the important and longstanding role that new media may play in reorganizing young people’s lives and politics,” she said.
The role of new media in politics and social movements has expanded across the board, said Cohen, who pointed out that the readership of the top 10 political blogs is equal to that of The New York Times.
“More and more people receive their information about politics and candidates from the Web,” she added.
Young people have a digital skill set and live in a participatory culture, which plays to the strengths of social media.
“Young people expect frequent contact and the sharing of information across networks,” she said. With new media, young people can customize the information they share, influencing what their friends read and framing how they consume the news.
“The ease with which people can blog without the oversight of gatekeepers has widened participatory politics,” she added.
“In the past, our networks were bounded by physical constraints—our church, our class or our block. Today, participants have the opportunity to engage with a much larger group of people who may or may not agree with them on all issues.”
The digital access that young people of color have can be leveraged into power, she concluded. Noting that young people of color went to the polls in record numbers in 2008, she said they can use their digital social capital to move their own political agenda forward.
“An exciting possibility of the new media framework,” she said, “is the possibility of what might be.”