Whether because of their consumption of hip-hop, sagging or their so-called addiction to television programs like Basketball Wives, contemporary Black youth are often chastised for squandering the political and social gains bequeathed them by the Civil Rights generation.  A new study suggest though, that contrary to popular belief, Black youth are on the cutting edge of new forms of participatory politics that may have the capacity to broaden their impact on traditional political practices.

Black political scientist Cathy Cohen (University of Chicago) and Joseph Kahne of Mills College are the lead researchers in the new report, “Participatory Politics: New Media and Youth Political Action” in which a team of researchers surveyed nearly 3,000 youth between the ages of 15-25 about their use of social media and their engagement in participatory politics. The report is part of Youth and Participatory Politics project, funded by the MacArthur Foundation.

The authors describe participatory politics as “acts that are interactive, peer-based, not guided by deference to elites or formal institutions, and meant to address issues of public concern.” Though participatory politics are not solely defined by forms of social media and digital technology, the authors note that social media allows youth to access and mobilize large networks, to “amplify” issues of concern to them, particularly with regards to news coverage, and to remix political content to fit the taste and consumption habits of younger audiences.

In the most traditional sense, social media is premised on the animating of social and political networks. The Greensboro Sit-In of February 1, 1960 and the subsequent “viral” explosion of sit-ins as a political strategy throughout the 1960s is a great example of how such networks can work.  However, contemporary social media is unmatched in the speed in which those networks can be energized and in its ability to counter “official” narratives.

The recent shooting death of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman is only the latest illustration of the ways that social media can literally raise a nation of hood-wearing citizens to consciousness. Despite criticisms that social media represents a form of “armchair activism” that can not replace traditional on-the-ground organizing, the Trayvon Martin case set in motion a series of political activities that not only raised awareness about the social profiling of men and boys of color, but also the increasing popularity of  “Shoot First” laws (aka “Stand Your Ground”) around the country.

Because of the widespread awareness of the circumstances of Martin’s shooting, the organization Color of Change mobilized via on-line petitions—a 19th century form of protest introduced to the digital era—to press major corporations to withdraw their support of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the entity largely responsible for pushing “Shoot First” laws (and also, voter suppression laws) to state legislators. Months after Martin’s death, twenty companies had agreed to break ties with ALEC, including McDonald’s and Wal-Mart.  As Cohen and Kahne note, “A turn to new media is not a turn away from offline activity. Rather, it is essential to recognize and highlight the integration of these domains in the lives of young people.”

It is not lost on some, that many of the most visible forms on social media activism in recent years have involved the lives of Black youth, from the Jena 6, the police shooting death of Oscar Grant, and Martin’s killing (though one would be hard pressed to think of similar mobilizations around issues dealing with Black women and girls). Yet, the popular belief is that Black and Latino/a youth primarily engage new media largely for entertainment and daily communication purposes.

Twitter, for example, often becomes the host site for the communal viewing of reality television shows such as Love and Hip-Hop and Basketball Wives, and though the series are intensely problematic—a Change.org petition to boycott Basketball Wives has generated over 30, 000 signatures—the communal viewing aspect often offers young viewers the opportunity to engage others about what is acceptable, and far too often, “respectable” behavior among Black women and girls.

Yet Cohen and Kahne challenge our thinking about the impact of the uses of social media by Black youth, arguing instead that their ever developing and increasingly sophisticated uses of social media—which social media providers often seek to mimic—serves as a training ground for using social media in political contexts.

The authors readily admit that Black youth are more likely than their racial peers to engage in “friendship driven activity” like sharing links, updating statuses and using sites like Twitter as a form of instant messaging, but are also more likely to offer assistance to those within their networks (an example of fictive kin), create their own media (often in response to their misrepresentation in mainstream media), and speak back to existing media, like the various reality TV offerings found on Viacom’s VH-1 network.  As Cohen and Kahne write, “young people’s repeated participation in these online spaces or cultures may shape their expectations about how communication and interaction should happen in other spheres of life, including the political domain.”

More likely to be embedded in new media than their racial peer groups, Black youth have developed what the authors call “digital social capital.” According to Cohen and Kahne, “those using new media to pursue interests and hobbies from sports to technology to gaming may be gaining knowledge, skills and networks, that is, digital social capital, which makes engaging in participatory politics more likely.”  This is no small fact; those with such digital social capital are five times more likely to engage in participatory politics, and even more surprisingly, four times more likely to engage in traditional political acts.

In some ways, the role that Black youth are playing in dictating styles of protest and political resistance for their peers, mirrors the same role that Black youth played more than two generations ago with the Civil Rights Movement; the anti-Vietnam protests of the late 1960s are practically unimaginable without the emergence of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and their militant acts of non-violent protest.

However comfortable Black youth are with new media and digital technology, many of the respondents expressed concern over their abilities to be able to discern legitimate information from misinformation—“Twitter Death,” when a celebrity or some fictitious character is declared dead on the social network, is one great example of how quickly rumors spread via social media.

Anybody embedded on Twitter, for example, are well aware that its audience, particularly young people, are hungry for information and knowledge.  This fact is the biggest reminder that Black scholars, journalists, and activist cannot simply cede social media to corporate media and advertisers, but we need to see ourselves as partners in the  “new and expanded opportunities for political engagement facilitated through new media.”