Digital Youth Civic Participation for Monitory Democracy

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

Author: Samapika Gautam

Behind the victorious election campaign of the youngest Chilean president Gabriel Boris, as reported by Reuters, stood his vast network of youth supporters who mobilized their digital media spaces to collect the required support. His electoral success spring-boarded several other aspiring youth politicians and youth civic actors to plunge into institutional politics by leveraging their digital skills in publicizing their political beliefs.

Here in Nepal, only a few days prior to the news of the historic Chilean president breaking across international outlets, pop-culture artist and engineer Balen Shah, 31, grabbed the attention of Nepali youths through his announcement of declaration to contest for Kathmandu’s Mayoral position. Since then, Nepali netizens have been looking forward to the upcoming local elections in May. The sphere of Nepali politics has been established as the domain of affluent older citizens, resulting in the systematic exclusion of young people from political debates and decision-making positions. In hindsight, during Nepal’s national and state-level legislative elections of 2017, the Election Commission Nepal (ECN) registered only 14.7% participation from young voters aged 18-24, which has made their formal political participation the lowest among all other electoral engagements.

The phenomena of young adults abstaining from marking their ballots is not just the result of lack of empathy, disenchantment, or indifference. While the aforementioned elements have play a role, it is also the result of the alienation of disenfranchised ethnic minorities and insufficient civic education.  Voting is a quintessential act of civic participation in a vivid and resilient democracy so paucity of youth’s civic presence worsens the present and the future. Voter information and education are part of larger civic education endeavors. A country requires peer-centered, interest-driven youths who are aware of generating their thoughts, sharing them on the offline/online networks and taking civic actions on public matters. As youth tend to engage in more informal and alternate participation mechanisms like service-oriented activities, these proclivities invite multiple stakeholders to incubate civic behaviors by reinvigorating the traditional civic learning spaces along with the digital structure.

Institutional Agents in Digital Civic Learning Spaces

Formal and Informal social institutions inundate civic skills and behaviors on young learners through unique and specifically tailored pathways. First and foremost, it can be posited that a young member’s pathway towards becoming an informed and engaged citizen, begins from his/her family. American Statesperson Charles Evans Hughes quotes, ‘The first lesson in civics is that efficient government begins at home.’ Sociologists identify the idea of ‘self-government’ as the interconnectedness of our lives with government and label ‘Family’ as an important prerequisite for democracy where all the members learn critical citizenship. A family holding a meeting once a while involving every member and communicating household updates effectively, watching media contents together and promoting cross-learning is helpful in creating safe and healthy discussions, are some ways the members are engaged in civic behaviors. Through shared experiences and learning, family members can carefully monitor how media culture provides significant statements or insights about the social world, empowering visions of gender, caste, taboos and internal biases.

School functions as an important institution in helping youth develop their civic competencies through Civic Education. Imparting proper civic education enables students to identify their role as a source of power in democracy. Civic learning enables students to active classroom participation and derive necessary civic competencies from content knowledge, develop their own intellectual skills, enhance their participatory skills and imply it on their daily dispositions.  Students can get engaged in decision-making processes through meaningful youth voice forums, extra-curricular programs and volunteer opportunities. Because of a narrowed curriculum, civic learning is often pushed off the edge by other routine subjects. The overall study experience turns dry, mostly based on rote learning which detaches young students from acquiring these intertwined life skills.   Only a few Nepali urban schools are affording to incorporate Civic Learning because of lack of instructional resources.

For this reason, besides strictly formal educational materials, educators and curriculum planners can also plan creative ways of engaging learners through digital games and participatory media. This strategic process, termed Gamification, incorporates features of gaming style into everyday activities from which research proposed a possibility of increased youth participation in online communities. Game developer, Kurt Squire, designed games like Civilization and Citizen Science where users collectively shape, build, fill in the loopholes of the gaming milieu and imply these learnings in real-world situations to create more democratic modes of participation. Nepal has taken an initiative on launching a digital app Election Education, inviting a fun way of civic participation and civic learning.  In 2014, the Election Commission of India (ECI), with support from the EC and UNDP, developed the video game “Get Set Vote,” which is available on its website ( with their goal to engage citizen of every way to learn about democracy and electoral process.

Research conducted in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia finds that social media use strengthens the relationship between these moments of ‘self-actualizing’ citizenship and political engagement.(source: UNICEF). The participatory media platforms functioning in Nepali mediascape has an oasis of information groups such as Counterculture Nepal, Why so Offended? No Next Question which are raising questions on contemporary social issues of gender, patriarchy, feminism, sex education, social justice, inclusive economic growth and improving education system. These shared spaces on social media platforms encourage their netizens to critically observe, analyze and deconstruct the narrative frames on issues of advanced sexism, racism, ethnocentrism, homophobia, and other forms of prejudice, as well as misinformation, problematic ideologies, and questionable values, accordingly.

Traditional forms of civic engagement used measures of voting, attending public hearings, signing petitions, volunteering, attending communal functions, political party affiliations and such. Digital civic engagement embraces these traditional forms by providing easy and efficient access to wider civic actors. Digitally networked civic spaces invites youth to perform their democratic rights, learn, share, thrive and critically grapple matters of civic importance in a global community as digital civics. Digital interventions have undoubtedly become a greater part of a broad repertoire of youth civic engagement practices.

Evidence points out the use of digital civic space by youth for networked activism throughout the globe. A study in Indonesia points out that the youth, especially women activists, turn to their online spaces for civic participation as they were precluded from participating on the streets. During the military coup in Myanmar, most youth (GenZ) retreated to online space expressing their disdain and pleading for international support. In 2020, Arabian Twitter hashtags brought an unprecedented shift in youth’s cyber activism and increased active female participation in virtual campaigns, support groups, counseling and coaching services. A broadcast campaign in Cambodia actively used digital media to inform youngsters of their civic rights and duties through a collection of interesting global engagement stories to break the stereotype that youth should refrain from active roles in public life. Hence, digital space has invited global youth participants to bring forward their concerns on fighting xenophobia, ending racial discrimination, lending psychological support, protesting against global warming and standing for solidarity.

Possible deterrents and the way forward

Digital tools can be both the enabler and deterrents of youth civic participation. Abrar Fahad, Bangladeshi youth was brutally beaten to death for his Facebook post expressing his different opinion. Several digital activists who are freshly starting out to participate in engaging dialogues, are facing the issues of public scrutiny, privacy, ownership, sexually aggressive trolling and verbal harassments. The prevailing digital divide widens the access in civic spaces excluding youth, minorities and underprivileged genders. Cyber Bureau data for 2020-21 reveals 51% of victims of online harassment are female and around 5% of victims below the age of 18. Issues of quick judgements, mistrusts and fabrication along with propaganda and controversies brings down all the positive aspects of service this digital space could offer. The unfiltered contents on digital civics space and distrust in information could inculcate the next generation with their partisan worldview, making them susceptible to the effect of political echo chambers and proliferated polarizations.

Across the world, the trend of low youth participation and representation in institutional political processes and policy-making is consistent. In the era of monitory democracy , for those youth who’ve grown apathetic from politics because of their political leader’s incompetency to respond the crisis, the institutional agents should foster active citizenship from their spaces (home, school, community, and participatory media) which retains such Indispensable civic skills and values in their adulthood.  The digitization of civic space during the pandemic has intensified grass-hoot level youth civic engagement practices, so this is a golden opportunity for Nepali youths to expand their civic skill sets, practice their democratic franchise and critically observe the country’s democratic elections through crowdsourced digital monitoring. Given the scale and scope of youth engagement with digital media, which will likely continue to grow in the foreseeable future, these platforms have the potential to become valuable and effective tools to cultivate youth civic behaviors. Policymakers must prioritize building robust, inclusive, sustainable and innovative Online/offline civic engagement spaces for youth so these synergized policies gestates civic regeneration through increased connectivity.

The graphics, views and opinions expressed in the piece above are solely those of the original author(s) and contributor(s). They do not necessarily represent the views of Centre for Social Change.

Samapika Gautam is a Kathmandu-based thespian, a student of journalism and an avid navigator of pop culture. 

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