Youth participation in traditional democratic institutions such as voting and political party membership has been in decline. But this disengagement is not necessarily apathy. Rather, it may be an active choice (and political act) of youth to withdraw support from systems they deem to be deeply flawed. Instead, youth have gravitated to newer, more informal, and community-centered forms of youth political engagement. In this article, the author suggests that promoting youth engagement in traditional democratic institutions and strengthening their ties to these institutions requires trust-building strategies. She explains how authenticity as a communications framework can be used to mobilize youth and focuses on social media platforms as a promising site for this concept to be put into practice. Drawing on interviews with 12 MLAs from the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, the author outlines how politicians have chosen to use social media platforms, ways in which these platforms may be used to communicate authenticity, and some of the barriers both politicians and their audiences encounter in these spaces. She concludes by noting that communicating authenticity through social media is but one of many strategies that could and should be undertaken to rebuild trust in traditional democratic institutions among young people.
Jerika Caduhada participated in the British Columbia Legislative Internship Program in 2022.
When looking at the pattern of low voter participation among the youngest electoral age groups,1 it is easy to fall into the pervasive narrative of youth apathy. This narrative purports that youth are disengaged simply because they do not care about political issues. Youth engagement scholar Peter Levine proposes another idea — that young people’s withdrawal from traditional democratic institutions, such as elections and political parties, may instead be an active choice of young people to not endorse forms of participation that they believe to be deeply flawed.2 Levine posits that young people’s disengagement comes not from indifference, but rather from intention. In this way, disengagement itself can be considered a political act. However, despite any sentiments of disenchantment or distrust among young people, traditional democratic institutions have fundamental roles in long-lasting systemic change. This article tackles the question of how to (re)connect young people with such democratic institutions by focusing on the use of social media by Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) of B.C. Recognizing the importance of trust in any relationship between an elected representative and their constituents, this article focuses specifically on the concept of authenticity as a framework within which political communication on social media can operate in service of trust-building and, relatedly, youth democratic mobilization.
I begin with a discussion on youth disengagement from traditional democratic institutions. Next, I provide a brief review on the rise of newer, more informal, and community-centered forms of youth political engagement. Together, these sections demonstrate an appetite among youth to engage in political issues but also reluctance to pursue such engagement with traditional democratic institutions. To strengthen young people’s relationships with such institutions, I argue that building trust is critical. I explore authenticity as a framework within which politicians may operate to make themselves knowable to, and thereby build trust with, their constituents. I focus on using the concept of authenticity specifically as a communications framework on social media, a space generally populated with youth and already employed by some youth to engage politically. Drawing on my interviews with 12 MLAs, I explore potential hesitations and barriers that may arise amongst politicians when attempting to employ an authenticity framework to communicate with young voters. I conclude with a final reflection on the democratic value of authenticity and its potential on social media for supporting youth democratic mobilization.
Youth Political Engagement
While “youth” is a perennially flexible constructed category, for the sake of the following discussion on democratic engagement, the term “youth” will refer to people between the ages of 18-30. This demographic’s declining engagement with traditional democratic institutions is well-studied. A 2019 Abacus Data poll shows that nearly three-quarters of Canadian youth say that politics and government are too complicated and therefore inaccessible. Sixty-one per cent of people in this group say that they do not believe the government listens to them.3 A recent study commissioned by Elections Canada suggests cynicism among youth is high, particularly amongst marginalized groups.4 Of course, cynicism is not limited to youth: only 19 per cent of Canadians in a 2018 Environics study claimed strong trust in democratic institutions such as Parliament, and only 10 per cent in political parties.5 From increasing worry and discontent over systemic issues such as the climate crisis and racism as well as the rise of misinformation and disinformation, there are varying points of potential disconnect between government and the public. However, in the face of these problems it is even more vital for people to remain connected to – and feel they have influence over – their democratic institutions. These institutions have unique power to address problems of such magnitude.
In Together We Rise, youth-based Canadian non-profit Apathy is Boring describes how youth are disengaging from traditional Canadian democratic institutions and gravitating to non-institutional and social movement-oriented forms of engagement.6 These more informal and personal forms of engagement draw on media, community, and cultural production to encourage political discourse.7 The existence of these forms of engagement are a testament to a democratic appetite amongst youth that is being sated beyond traditional democratic institutions. However, some youth have bridged these types of political engagement. Leading up to the 2015 federal general election, youth-led projects such as Be the Vote, Right to Vote, 31 Reasons, and Voting Buddies demonstrated a peer-to-peer engagement that centered on mutual education on electoral participation and community organizing amongst youth.8 Notably, many of these projects leaned on social media – a platform that is conducive to more informal and community-based forms of engagement employed by youth. Many of these projects and studies on youth political engagement focus on elections. This article intends to contribute to the discussion by focusing on youth political engagement beyond elections as observed through active relationships with elected representatives.
The observable shift of youth towards other modes of civic and political engagement means there is desire to be active citizens that contribute to social change; the challenge is directing some of this desire and concomitant energy to traditional democratic institutions. To accomplish this, it is vital there is trust that those institutions have the capacity to serve the public truly and effectively. In essence, the public must trust that their democratic institutions do what they purport to do. The issue of youth disengagement thus becomes a task of building trust, and the concept of authenticity becomes especially valuable when undertaking this task.
The Democratic Value of Authenticity
Contemporary politics have been transformed by a heightened focus on the personal – whether it be the lack of institutional trust or a rising preoccupation with the lives of public figures, authenticity has become a lens through which individual politicians are evaluated.9 The public seeks an “honest politician.” Various electoral campaigns have strategized around linking a candidate with that hypothetical ideal figure in response. For example, in the 2010 Calgary municipal election, successful mayoral candidate Naheed Nenshi explicitly named authenticity as a key goal. He sought “authentic two-way dialogue with people” during the election and committed to always answering social media messages directly and consistently and working to ensure that his social media messages presented him as “authentic.”10 A study of the election found that when questioned about candidates, respondents shared that Nenshi seemed relatable and they felt as though they knew “what kind of person [he] was behind the suit and the formalities.”11 A similar strategy was evident in Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign. Images of Clinton’s private life were used to promise Americans that they would “know” the “real Clinton.”12
These campaigns strategized around the concept of authenticity in different ways: one focussed on direct and frequent communication and the other focussed on connecting a politician’s private life with his public persona. The core similarity is the sense that the politician as an individual was knowable to the public.
This sense of “knowing” is precisely what the concept of authenticity offers. At its core, authenticity is inseparable from a certain trustworthiness. Despite the content of the authentic thing itself, in being authentic, it can be trusted to be as it claims to be. This alignment between how something is and how it claims to be is integral to scholar Ben Jones’s definition of authenticity in his article “Authenticity in Political Discourse.”13 Jones describes authenticity as being comprised of two things: (1) consistently upholding the values that define one’s identity, and (2) accurately representing those values to others.14 The democratic value of this authenticity is that it reveals the motivating forces behind a politician’s actions (their values) and validates them with corresponding and consistent action. Inherent in our system of representation is the fact that the public will not always be present to influence their representatives’ decisions; in such contexts, the public can find some security in being able to understand and predict how an “authentic” politician will likely behave.15 Of course, this sense of authenticity is not a guarantee of certain action. A politician may accurately represent their core values yet still choose contradictory action.
This article focusses on politicians who are interested in communicating their values, behaving in accordance with them, and maintaining active, reciprocal, and trusting relationships with their constituents, especially youth. The first two actions comprise authenticity, and together they facilitate the third – trust. Social media has become uniquely valuable in communicating authenticity to youth. Just as they have departed from participation in traditional politics and are experiencing decreasing trust in democratic institutions and political parties, traditional media also has less traction among youth. News reports, interviews with journalists and formal press releases are less likely to achieve attention. However, youth are capitalizing on their familiarity with social media to engage with political issues in novel ways. A cohort of youth with energy now exists on social media that could be potentially harnessed for democratic engagement, if activated properly. Politicians who establish authenticity on social media platforms may build trust and nurture active, reciprocal relationships with youth that have not thrived elsewhere for some time.
Barriers to the Authenticity Framework
In preparing this article, I had the privilege of interviewing 12 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) of British Columbia—five from the Government Caucus, five from the Official Opposition Caucus, and two from the Third Party Caucus. Outside of the Third Party Caucus, which I interviewed in its entirety, other MLAs were selected upon the recommendation of caucus staff. Priority was given to MLAs who were most active in using social media as a tool for political communication. Except for unique follow-up questions prompted by certain answers, MLAs were asked standardized qualitative questions about their approach to social media, the concept of authenticity, and youth democratic engagement. For the purposes of this article, social media generally refers to the platforms of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, which all MLAs interviewed used. Each interview concluded with a final open-ended question, allowing MLAs the opportunity to add any final thoughts on any topics that had not yet been discussed.
As a youth-dominated space already ripe for political engagement,16 social media offers a platform for the process of establishing authenticity. However, it is no easy platform for a politician to traverse; this was made clear in my interviews when discussing the barriers politicians face in establishing authenticity online.
While all 12 MLAs highlighted the necessity of a social media presence for any politician, eight expressed a tension with social media that discouraged them from engaging with it beyond professional political messaging. One MLA likened social media to a press release, capturing succinctly the perception that social media is a traditional one-way political communication tool to disseminate political messaging. Four MLAs approached social media with more personal goals –still to share their professional work but also to nurture public understanding of their identity, life, and values as an MLA. This group tended to share more “appropriately personal” content on their social media platforms, whereas the first group tended to share community news and political updates more exclusively. Despite these differences, a majority of the 12 MLAs agreed on two fundamental aspects of their use and experience with social media: 1) there is public demand for more personal content from MLAs online (eight explicitly noted this) and 2) the prevalence of “hate comments” directed at MLAs on social media prompted them to limit their engagement with social media for the sake of their work and mental health (all MLAs mentioned this). Hate comments, as broadly described by the interviewed MLAs, are hostile, often ad hominem messages online that also tend to be rooted in prejudiced and oppressive ideologies such as sexism and racism.
MLAs’ observations about public demand for more personal content corroborates the idea that the public desires a unique understanding of their representatives – a sense that they truly “know” them. One MLA elaborated on this by explaining how they had thousands of online connections on their public personal page while only a few hundred on their professional MLA page. Three noted that they received notably more engagement on their more personal posts – ranging from those on their gardening habits, adventures in the community, or reflections on their workday – than on professional ones sharing more strictly political work. Another MLA added that they believe this public demand for personal connections resulted from the prevalence of artificiality in society in general; this closely aligns with earlier discussions on public distrust and the democratic value of authenticity. However, as one MLA explained, exposing elements of one’s private life as a public figure can risk undermining a political career.
All 12 MLAs consistently and unequivocally agreed that social media is rife with hate comments that significantly deter their public engagement on the platform. Five MLAs added that they consider hate comments to be a worsening issue, and many considered such vitriol to be strongly enabled by the social media platforms themselves, both through the acceptance of anonymity among users and the promotion of contentious interactions for entertainment value. Social media was considered to be, in the words of two different MLAs, an “outrage machine” and an “endless, insatiable maw” that one must feed with constant content to maintain relevance. Two MLAs explained that they felt some commenters criticized hatefully, as opposed to productively and meaningfully, purely for entertainment. One saw social media as a space in which “opposing authority is like a recreational sport” for its users. Negative feedback was so common that another MLA said MLAs are “doing great [online] if only 50 per cent of people hate[d] [their] guts” because anything more was simply the standard. In addition to these deterrents, MLAs also noted that the steep learning curve of social media platforms dissuades use. While all MLAs expressed a desire to more strongly connect with youth, they felt a sense of unfamiliarity with kinds of social media and approaches to social media used by youth – at least at the outset of joining these platforms. There was also a shared sentiment that as soon as an MLA becomes familiar with one form of social media, youth attention migrated to another. The social media learning curve, the time-intensiveness of their other work, and the emotional toll of engaging in social media culture all deterred MLAs from using the platform as much as they might want to otherwise.
Other concerns about social media were raised in the interviews as well. The predominance of misinformation and disinformation and the potential for increased radicalization were named specifically by three MLAs. However, the observed public demand for personal content as well as the time-consuming and vitriolic nature of social media are most relevant to the discussion of evoking authenticity online as a politician. When asked about the concept of authenticity, six of the MLAs immediately spoke of having social media posts written directly by them. It was through the process of directly writing for each platform that they felt their social media engagement was genuine; over time as a public figure, they developed a voice that was true and unique to them, and it was important to them that this voice was heard on social media platforms. MLAs recognized and attempted to meet the desire of the public for authenticity. They understood social media users expressed a desire for “knowing” them as an individual separate from their political party or the larger democratic institution of which they are part.
In protecting their own privacy and the privacy of their loved ones, MLAs seemed to fall into two categories: those who chose not to entertain the public demand for personal content and those who chose to meet this demand in specific and deliberate ways. MLAs who opted to share personal content noted they may limit personal posts to their experiences within their riding or only post about their friends and never about their families.
The concept of authenticity offers another understanding of the personal: the personal as the traits that characterize an individual and make them relatable, identifiable, and understandable. In this reading of authenticity, the personal can also mean the values that are core to an individual’s identity. Whether knowingly or not, a small number of Members in the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, not all interviewed here, already enact this form of the personal and authentic. In sharing their own reflections on their work and current events, they highlight the values that guide their thinking, not only professionally but generally. In reconceptualizing the personal in this way, MLAs can offer their constituents an opportunity to “know” them without compromising their own right to a private life.
The notion of approaching social media anew, this time within a framework of authenticity, may be daunting to MLAs who know all too well the challenges of learning new platforms and navigating the oftentimes hateful dialogue that is observed on them. However, the beauty of authenticity as a communications framework is that it prioritizes making the self understandable. It is not about participating in the latest trends nor using any specific form of text or media, so long as the platform to which the authenticity is applied is one used by the target audience. This authenticity framework is not about responding quickly or directly to every comment – an unrealistic standard as most interviewed MLAs avoid this for the sake of their mental health and direct people to contact them via email or in-person. The request of authenticity as a communications framework is simple: it asks that you accurately represent the values that are core to your unique, individual identity and demonstrate consistent, corresponding behaviour upholding those values. This kind of content fosters the potential to bridge the gap of disenchantment and distrust between representatives and their young constituents.
The bedrock belief of this article is that youth energy, rather than apathy, is available – yet largely untapped – for engagement within traditional democratic institutions. Authenticity as a political communications framework for youth democratic engagement understands that youth are unlikely to be attracted into the sphere of traditional democratic institutions merely with frequent social media activity or the use of the latest social media trends. Intentional disengagement due to distrust or disenchantment calls for a re-engagement prompted by equally intentional trust-building. This is, of course, an incomplete and imperfect approach – social media is a platform of privilege, requiring certain knowledge, ability, and financial standing to access. Youth must still be engaged in other ways, through community events, in-person visits, and more. Additionally, trust-building for different groups within the larger category of youth will also be different—varying experiences of systemic marginalization, for example, result in varying experiences of institutional distrust and call for varying responses. Proponents of systemic change must consider the nuances of systemic harm. Nonetheless, authenticity as a communications framework offers a pathway for meaningful relationship-building between politicians and youth. Notably, this pathway, in its entanglement with social media, does not require politicians to divulge their private lives, dedicate time to learning new technological features or trends, or engage more directly with the emotional toll of social media culture. Authenticity as a political communications framework seeks instead to answer, in the most concise and elemental of ways, the questions any constituent would ask of their representative: Who are you? And how do you decide how to represent me when I am not in the room?
1 Voter Participation by Age Group: 2020 Provincial General Election. Elections BC, 2020. British Columbia Legislature. URL: https://elections.bc.ca/docs/stats/voter-participation-by-age-group-2013-2020.pdf. Participation of the 18-24 and 25-34 cohorts was 45.7 per cent and 39 per cent respectively in the 2020 B.C. provincial general election.
2 Mahoney, Tara, Samantha Reusch, and Caro Loutfi. “Together We Rise Report (2020).” Apathy is Boring, February 5, 2020.
9 Dumitrica, Delia. “Politics as ‘Customer Relations’: Social Media and Political Authenticity in the 2010 Municipal Elections in Calgary, Canada.” Javnost – The Public, 21:1, 53-69, November 10, 2014. DOI: 10.1080/13183222.2014.11009139
13 Jones, Ben. “Authenticity in Political Discourse.” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, vol. 19, no. 2, 2016, pp. 489–504. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24762640.
16 Mahoney, Reusch, and Loutfi, 2020.