The Pitfalls...

By Chaebong Nam

We have seen numerous cases of viral messages that move quickly from a digital context into mainstream media headlines, where they draw still more attention from the public. Celebrities or other influencers can contribute to such online virality as well. Rarely, going viral happens spontaneously. More typically, it results from effortful online and offline efforts or latent conflicts such as #BlackLivesMatter or #Ferguson, the top two most cited hash tag movement in the short Twitter history of social causes.

Whether spontaneous or intentional, such viral online movement leads to public scrutiny and often controversies. Most importantly, they serve an agenda-setting function, forcing prioritizations of collective and public attention, while sometimes also putting concrete actions or policies on the table for consideration. Virality is neither always desirable nor representative of the entire picture of the digital political landscape. But it helps reveal critical issues about which civic actors should be mindful, including information leaks, trolling, incivility, cyber bullying, and so on. These are not the only challenges to quality in civic participation in a digital landscape.

Another challenge to achieving high quality civic participation with new tools comes from the direction of what has been called “Slacktivism.” Commentator Egevny Mozorov, for instance, has criticized young people who limit themselves to “easy” forms of participation such as hitting like, retweeting, or signing on-line petitions (Mozorov, 2009). His concern is that these modes of participation do not develop into deeper commitments to action offline. Echo-chambers, polarization, and a lack of deliberation are other well-known potential pitfalls in the digital environment, problems that can undermine the legitimacy of political actions and decisions.

In short, the digital landscape has introduced new democratic potential but actualizing that potential depends on civic actors’ ability to avoid the digital potholes. Civic agents need a sort of a dashboard­­ to help them navigate practical and ethical challenges. The YPP Reflection-before-Action Frame originated as an effort to provide such a tool.

Once one notices the challenges of the digital landscape, a series of questions follow––how do we help youth recognize their self-interests? Also, how do we help them see a shared interest beyond their own self-interest? How do we help them learn negotiate and seek equitable relations? How can we help them see the multiple purposes of raising one’s voices? Is raising one’s voice a matter of mere expression, or a strategic effort to achieve influence? How can we help young civic agents come up with tailored strategies for specific purposes? Also, what are the risks out there? How can we protect young people from many unknown risks? Lastly, how can all these ethical concerns be addressed in a framework that offers a developmental sequence? The Reflection-before-Action Frame may not be able to resolve all these issues in detail, but it can tackle the major challenges. It offers an ethical handrail for successful civic-political agency.