The heavenly scent of freshly baked waffles hangs in the air outside the Student Campus Centre.
The quarry takes the bait. Students descend on the table out front like hungry flies, lining up on this sunny day for a meal of sticky pastry with a side-order of informative pamphlets. This insidious trap is but one of the Ryerson Student Union’s recent efforts to educate people about student issues, and maybe, just maybe, get them involved. The talking point of the day: a proposed three to four per cent funding cut for services, the latest in a series of cuts as tuition fees continue to rise.
Here, RSU President Jermaine Bagnall is in his element, speaking one-on-one with his fellow student. “You can get tons of information,” he says, “but unless it’s presented in the right way, people don’t care.” If a little sugar is what it takes to get people’s attention, so be it. “We all have our different sparks.” So far the campaign is going well — cash-strapped students typically respond to the squandering of their hard-earned dough. That, of course, is what makes free waffles so irresistible.
Bagnall looks up from the table and spots a familiar figure. It’s his friendly nemesis, the Two- Face to his Batman, one of many students he feels compelled to convert whenever he runs into him in Ryerson’s halls. He, like most of Ryerson’s student body, lives his life outside the realm of politics. Despite Bagnall’s efforts, their conversations always end the same way: “Look dude, I like what you guys are doing here, but I just want to get done and get out.” As if this time will be different, the president calls over his arch-rival. Bagnall explains the campaign, what’s at stake. “That’s cool,” says Two-Face as he walks away.
This indifferent attitude is the reason why students have typically been branded politically disinterested, whether out of cynicism, apathy, laziness or frustration. It’s an accusation backed up by a significant amount of evidence. Only 11 per cent of students voted in the 2010 RSU elections — a record number. The last federal election saw only a 37.4 per cent turnout among 18- to 24-yearolds, a 6.4 per cent decrease from the election two years before. An Elections Canada report blames the persistent downward trend in voter turnout over the past few decades on the young. But with a new generation coming of age, some are seeing the potential for an unprecedented era of political engagement. Alternatively labelled Millennials, Generation Y or Generation Next, current 18- to 29-year-olds are being hailed as the ones who will buck the long-established trend of youth disillusionment. An American study just released by the Pew Research Center found Millennials to be confident, upbeat, open to change and highly educated, with faith in the role of government.
More than just their disposition, the tools available to Millennials seem to have set them up for a life of engagement. Social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are increasingly being used to inform and organize the public on political and social issues, easily reaching and bringing together large swaths of people. Nowhere is their acceptance greater than among Millennials, three-quarters of whom have created social networking profiles, according to the Pew study, compared to only half of the previous Generation X. Millennials most often cite their use of technology as what defines them, twice as often as their predecessors. This puts them in touch not only with one another, but political leaders and organizations that are only too happy to spread their message. Stephen Harper, Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton have Twitter and Facebook accounts. The prime minister announced last week he would be taking questions on the throne speech over YouTube.
But social networking might not be the magic answer to the problem of student disinterest. Although social media has irreversibly changed the game of politics, it may not change a politician’s mind — and, in fact, might be robbing students of what power they have.
Not since the ’60s and ’70s have we seen a young generation that took so easily to the streets, and in such numbers.
But after decades of scandals and wars, youth lost faith in a parliamentary system that no longer seemed to represent their interests. Politicians today have inherited that proud tradition.
“The system working in this way is producing a wave of cynicism the kind of which I don’t think I’ve ever seen in my life,” says Neil Thomlinson, chair of the Ryerson politics department. “And this cynicism is nowhere stronger than in the young.”
Thomlinson doesn’t consider it to be a product of the Millennials themselves, but rather their upbringing. The later Baby Boomers and Generation X after them have been labelled skeptical and pessimistic, especially distrusting of government after events like Watergate and the Vietnam war. Millennials have been indoctrinated with these ideals, leading people to “believe the system is much more badly broken than it is,” says Thomlinson. “Cynicism shouldn’t be the knee-jerk reaction to everything.”
The Canadian government has its own history of questionable behaviour — the prorogation scandal, for instance, or the international ridicule at the Copenhagen Climate Conference — but Thomlinson doesn’t see many students taking up pickets against The Man.
“If the generation is as progressive and liberal as the Pew study says, how can they stand to see things continue as they are? You’d think that generation would be horrified by what’s going on in Canada,” he says. “The only conclusion I can come to is that they aren’t horrified because they don’t know.”
Although Millennials are on track to becoming the most educated generation in history, Thomlinson blithely notes, “You can be highly educated and still not know shit about politics.” Even at the university level, he says, “the people who are coming into my class barely know the difference between a premier and the prime minister.” He claims that the cynicism of previous generations has led to the decline in political education. Currently the only mandatory civics course for high school students is a half-year in Grade 10. When Thomlinson was growing up in the mid-60s, he was required to take full-year social studies (which included politics) in Grades 10, 11 and 12.
Perhaps most importantly, he had political engagement firmly driven into him from an early age. He fondly remembers his father taking him by the hand at a young age to see him vote. By Grade 3 his classes were holding mock elections. In high school, televisions would be wheeled out into the halls to broadcast throne speeches. “It was impossible to not know that there was a throne speech going on,” he says, while his students today don’t know when it occurs.
But he’s quick to forgive them for their faults. “My students are a product of their times.”
If education has coloured how Millennials regard politics, it is technology that has determined how they express themselves.
The ease and speed of communication through social networking has been credited with ushering in a new age of activism, and by all accounts it seems to have the potential to do so. Facebook is particularly popular for its massive user base — over 400 million strong. It’s free to use and easily supports multimedia and open discussion amongst members. Back in 2007, the Facebook group “Support the Monk’s Protest in Burma” was made by a Canadian college student and eventually reached over a half-million members. They were successful in organizing protests in 100 cities across the world, some of which contained thousands of people. More recently, the Facebook group “Canadians Against Proroguing Parliaage ment” tapped into widespread outrage, reaching over 225,000 members.
“Stephen Harper was gambling on Canadian apathy to get away with this self-serving move,” says Justin Arjoon, who organized the Toronto protests. “We wanted to make sure he could never get away with that sort of thing again.” Arjoon, 27, joined in early January when the group was only around 6,000 strong. Without any direction from the top, random members began calling for action. Arjoon volunteered to lead the Toronto rally, and over 7,000 people hit the streets of Canada’s largest city on January 23. “It was really a strong grassroots movement from the beginning,” he says. “There was a lot of enthusiasm without any pushing involved.”
Here social media was the very foundation of political movement, rather than just one tool for people to communicate. Yet Arjoon considers the strength of social networking to be this kind of open forum, rather than simply acting as a demonstration of mass dissatisfaction. “I think [Facebook groups] can have political power on their own, but we want to use them to create a discussion because that’s what we see badly lacking in Canadian politics.”
Now that parliament has returned from its extended break, the institution has reorganized as “Canadians Advocating Political Participation,” with Arjoon as its central coordinator. The new CAPP is dedicated to protecting the democratic process by rooting out ignorance and disillusionment among Canadians. To go with its rebirth, CAPP has created a new Facebook group and intends to keep using social networking for outreach. “There are a lot of people on social media that you can’t reach through other means,” says Arjoon. “It’s way more efficient.”
The question remains, however, if the most popular methods favoured by Millennials will make a difference.
According to Thomlinson, politicians have a weighted system for civic response. A written letter, signed in ink, is of the utmost seriousness. This is followed by phone calls, with petitions at the very bottom. “It’s based on how much effort it takes. And let’s face it; a Facebook group isn’t going to scare anyone.”
Thomlinson considers social media essential to having raised the public against prorogation, “But I think the big problem is that it engenders into people the idea that clicking on a Facebook group is an act of political engagement.” Participants in Facebook activism have long been labelled “slacktivists,” who click join on a group but otherwise contribute nothing to the movement. This causes a rift between those inside and outside the parliamentary system. The insiders are frustrated at the ineffectual flailing of the outsiders, while the outsiders consider the insiders just part of an inherently corrupt system. In an age of convenience, many people are attracted to the easiest, quickest way to vent their anger. Unfortunately, it’s probably the most impotent.
But what about the case of C-61, the Internet copyright bill that was delayed until it was scrapped by prorogation, allegedly because of a Facebook protest group that reached 20,000 in a matter of days? “Everything’s situational,” says Thomlinson. A strong enough proof of public dissent may be enough to dissuade the government from policies they aren’t enthusiastic about. However, “If the government’s really committed to a particular action, I don’t think a Facebook group would change their minds.” Instead, it might have the opposite effect and nudge politicians into pushing harder on public relations. Far from being the silver bullet that ushers in a new era of political activism, social networking could herald in the golden age of slacktivism.
The unfortunate reality is that far more people sign up for Facebook groups than actually take part in them, and even fewer participate in subsequent protests, letter-writing campaigns or boycotts. According to Forrester Research data, over 80 per cent of young adults consider themselves to be “joiners” or “spectators” online, while less than half take more interactive roles. The disconnect between most online activist groups and real- world action has contributed to their dismissal by politicians.
“I think they’re pretty condescending,” says Arjoon. “Our group was mocked and reviled in the early days. Even when we had 60,000 people, they were still like, ‘whatever.'”
There were initial concerns that CAPP would lose momentum, but as registration ramped up to a hundred people a minute, those fears were alleviated. Yet the hordes pouring in weren’t the forerunners of an educated, politically engaged young generation. “We actually found that the majority of our support is from the 40-60 age group,” around half of their membership, while Millennials make up just 10-20 per cent. While it may be hard to imagine packs of old folks angrily pounding on their keyboards in defiance of the government, statistics show that more than 30 per cent of people on Facebook are over 35, and that number is rapidly growing.
So while Facebook might truly set off a glorious revolution, it’ll be lead by those who have always held the cards, while the young throw their support behind “1,000,000 Strong for Stephen T Colbert.”
So where does that leave the state of Millennial engagement?
The Pew study found that although Millennials lag behind their elders in voting and contacting politicians (except through email), they match them in volunteering and boycotting products. A Statistics Canada survey, though published in 2003, the age before Facebook, also found that youth far exceed the national average for partici pating in marches and protests.
Yet voting remains the strongest message any citizen can make to politicians. It’s an unfortunate fact that voter turnout is low and only getting lower (although other age groups are dropping even faster than the young). Without faith in their ability to change things for the better and an understanding of how the system works and who stands for what, the easiest thing to do is to ignore voting entirely. Thomlinson sees the common mentality as “I’m not prepared to do the work it would take to figure this out, so I’m just going to consider them all a bunch of rogues and not vote for any of them.”
Ryerson’s own Jermaine Bagnall is sympathetic and forgiving of students’ apathy.
“Here in Canada, we haven’t had our Obama,” he says. “We haven’t had a charismatic, galvanizing figure, not since Pierre Trudeau.”
Social media has the potential to serve as a galvanizing force for students. But Bagnall is quick to point out that they are just the means to an end. “I think we’re going to see a new way of getting politicized,” he says. There’s no problem to this “as long as people realize that they can’t leave it at the Web 2.0 level. You have to put your feet to the concrete and get out there. People have to realize the power they have collectively.”
But will President Bagnall pursue political activism later in life? “Maybe. Right now I’m just trying to finish my thesis and get out of here,” he says, echoing an earlier conversation made over freshly-baked waffles. “As active as I am, I’m still a student. We’re all just trying to find our way.”