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Look Who Has a Megaphone!

Roxanne Bauer's picture

In an interview on TN TV Channel, Argentina in November 2013 Pope Francis said that, “Today we are living in an unjust international system in which ‘King Money’ is at the center.” He continued, “It is a throwaway culture that discards young people as well as its older people. In some European countries, without mentioning names, there is youth unemployment of 40 percent and higher.”

It seems Pope Francis has heard the rallying calls from youth around the world.

In 2010, youth in Mozambique staged protests in Maputo and Matola against rising food prices.

The ‘Geração à Rasca’ (Scraping-by Generation) of Portugal took to the streets in March 2011 as a spontaneous Facebook event to call attention to underemployment, lack of social protection, and unemployment that many experience.

Youth protests flared in Sao Paulo, Brazil in June and September of 2013 in reaction to high unemployment, low-paying jobs, inflation, and the high cost of living in big cities.

And just a month ago, around 2,000 unemployed Moroccans marched through their capital in January 2014 to demand jobs, a particularly thorny problem for university graduates.

The more famous protests of Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement and the Gezi Park protests in Turkey were also spurred, in part, by young people.

This news is not surprising considering the globally high unemployment rates among young people. 

The International Labour Organization (ILO) states on its youth employment channel that “The world is facing a worsening youth employment crisis: young people are three times more likely to be unemployed than adults and almost 73 million youth worldwide are looking for work.”  The ILO's global employment trends 2014 report states that 74.5 million young people between the ages of 15-24 were unemployed in 2013.  The total represents about 13% of the labour force and is three times the amount of adult unemployed.

A World Bank report entitled “Inclusion Matters” states that, “Globally, the youth cohort is the largest in history, living mostly in developing and conflict countries […] Consequently, reaping the demographic dividend requires concerted action to include young people in markets, services, and spaces, as well as skillful management of the political economy.”  

Social media has had a huge impact on the way these and other protests are organized. Many young participants of protests and other collective campaigns hear about an event through social media, update social media threads while attending an event, and then, if law enforcement attempts to control or end an event, they communicate the encounter through social media. 

There is a gap, however, between governments and the youth and the way in which these two groups communicate in the public sphere.  Governments, by and large, do not use technology and new media in collaborative ways; their first impulse is to manipulate social media, engaging in censorship and propaganda. There is, of course, a spectrum of government tactics, from slowing down connection speeds to complete shutdown of national networks. Surveillance and political pressure lie somewhere in between.

According to a study conducted by Freedom House, Arab governments employed a variety of responses to the Arab Spring, including increased website blocking and filtering, content manipulation, attacks on and imprisonment of bloggers, punishment of ordinary users, and coercion of website owners to remove content.   
 
Similarly, in a report by Tahseen Consulting, the authors state that Arab government entities use social media primarily to conduct one-way government to communication that records activity rather than offering additional avenues for public transparency or citizen participation and collaboration.  Open government programs in the Arab world focus on providing information on low priority activities that are already available via traditional media and institutional websites.  Thus, rather than adopting open government reforms, some Arab governments have perpetuated secrecy, centralized decision making, and paternalism in social media platforms.
 
Governments also increasingly use social media to identify and locate activists, pressuring them to avoid the spotlight. The U.K. Government set up a dedicated social media task force during the 2012 London Olympic Games to ensure safety at the event. They followed known activists on Twitter and were able to engage them in a dialogue and pinpoint their exact locations using geolocation tools.  

The problem is clear: youth unemployment threatens the livelihoods of young people, lowers national GDP figures, and hurts the investment stability of national governments and private enterprises.  If governments want to remain legitimate, they need to engage young people, their current and future population bases.
 
The solution seems almost as clear: use new communication technologies, in particular social media, not to silence young activists but to develop ways to reach out with messages, employment opportunities, and more.  An open, two-way conversation would allow governments and youth to co-evolve, identifying solutions and building legitimacy into any programs that might result. 
 
If governments engage their citizens via social media, it may also remove some of the fear associated with its use.  This will be critical in encouraging citizens to use social media to grow their businesses or become entrepreneurs, finding markets and customers and promoting their products.
 

Yes, it’s true that social media is not a panacea for all communication problems. Yes, it’s true that two-way conversations can breed hostile comments and may not always result in practical ideas.  But, it’s also true that using social media to conduct surveillance and pressure activists is not a solution to the underlying problem.
 

Photo by Moreno Berti via Flickr Commons

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Comments

Thanks for citing our research Roxanne. Based on an analysis of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts of 28 public sector entities in Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates, we found that most social media activity by Arab governments wasn’t adding to more transparency or citizen participation in the public sector. If you haven't seen it yet, you can download the report and see our webinar at http://www.tahseen.ae/r&iopengovernment.html#header

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