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Kimberly Black / Gavel Media

How Politics and Social Media Shaped Gen Z

Generation Z is one that has witnessed several influential events throughout modern history. We were raised in a post 9/11 world, years after many of us endured the hardships brought by The Great Recession, and not long after that, when I was only in 8th grade, I watched Donald Trump being sworn in as successor to the US’s first Black president. 

Even now, we are currently experiencing one of the most turbulent periods of modern history, the COVID-19 Pandemic, which exposed a myriad of society’s issues, exacerbating the already incredibly polarized political and cultural landscape of today. One such event during this pandemic, that heavily contributed to this polarization was the tragic death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. Whether we chose to acknowledge that impact or not, this event would have a significant influence on our ideologies and traits as a Generation, especially given the substantial role of social media throughout this event. 

A year ago, prior to Biden’s nomination, many news outlets had noted that the 2020 election would mark the first time Millennial's and Gen Z’s eligible voters would equal that of Boomers and all previous generations and that they’re also projected to continue outnumbering them in future elections. This forecast will undoubtedly grant great political power to Millenials and Gen Z, a voting bloc that typically supports progressive policies. 

However, this doesn’t guarantee future success for the Democratic Party. The Los Angeles Times revealed in a survey conducted on college students that only 45% identified themselves as either a Republican or Democrat, leaving the majority 54% to identify as independent or only slightly leaning towards a Party. 

This supposed ideological neutrality contradicts the dominant stereotype that all members of Gen Z are dedicated “social justice warriors,” with a commitment to preserving the cancel culture that thrives on social media platforms popularized by Gen Z . However, rather than viewing these statistics as an indication of Gen Z’s alignment with moderatism, they should be viewed as Gen Z’s refusal to conform to traditional politics. Gen Z likely has strong opinions that they feel no party fully voices, contributing to disillusionment with America’s standard bipartisan system. It’d be more accurate to depict Gen Z’s views on a spectrum rather than a binary, and this spectrum is no more apparent than during pivotal moments in our shared memory. 

As mentioned earlier, one such moment for Gen Z arrived on May 25, 2020. Only a few months after the beginning of our “new normal”, and the eventual realization that the “extended break” due to COVID would extend well into the next school year, our generation collectively experienced the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of police brutality. On that day, I vividly remember preparing for a final and my close friend asked if I had heard of the news. After replying no, she sent me a tweet of the 10-minute video exposing the horrific scene that would serve as the catalyst for a heated national discussion on racial inequality and other societal injustices. That summer, I recall friends and people my age passionately debating the extent and existence of systemic racism within America. Racial inequality was something constantly brought up in group chats, private messages, social media posts, and even in classrooms. 

In the hopes of discovering my friends’ perspectives, I performed a personal social experiment. I asked several of them for their thoughts regarding Floyd and the surge in Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, and their responses surprised me. Each of them had varying and distinct answers, with an abundance of similarities but no true identical opinions, with an extremely wide range of differences. I especially noticed that their biases were reflected in the diction they used when describing their perspective, as some referred to these demonstrations as “protests” and others “revolts,” while some used “death” and others “murder.” Throughout the course of this little project, I found that my perception of friends, family, and society as a whole had radically and continually evolved since its beginning. This era of polarization and unrest provided an opportunity to learn and to listen to others, to educate and expose oneself to the various pieces and works discussing the nuances of institutional racism. 

Admittedly, before starting that investigation, I agreed with the intentions of the BLM movement but personally sympathized with police officers and disliked their antagonization from protestors. I also felt that too many BLM protests were extreme in their methods, and that peaceful protests would be much more effective. 

However, many friends I talked to strongly disagreed with me. They exposed me to their own viewpoints as well as those shared online, and they sent me countless Tik Toks and Tweets which highlighted peaceful protesters, many of whom were my age, and were met with assaults of tear gas and rubber bullets. This altered my perspective, and through social media, my friends made me realize that several protests were peaceful, but violent protests were disproportionately being featured in media over peaceful ones. Additionally, while we had experienced several profound and dramatic events early on, we felt Floyd’s death more profoundly than others as it occurred at one of the most critical stages of our youth, the true cusp of adulthood, and of course, it shaped the way in which we view the world, society, and justice. 

I never would have come to this realization about the BLM movement if it hadn’t been for social media, and I realize that many other Gen Z’ers also had a similar experience in attempting to understand and navigate society at this time. Gen Z is often accredited as one of the most digitally literate generations, and because of this, we have access to a variety of primary sources depicting these protests and commentary responding to them, as the prevalence of social media resulted in an unprecedented level of transparency that hasn’t been afforded to any other previous generation. This all culminates in a population of individuals that are incredibly aware of the current sociopolitical climate, regardless of their stance or self-identified position in the ideological spectrum. 

Ultimately, though Gen Z isn’t necessarily a monolith of left-winged ideals, it is a generation that openly defies traditional norms in the pursuit of a brighter future, and one that should first credit themselves for the past obstacles that they have successfully overcome. 

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