USC Annenberg scholar talks popular culture and political change
Henry Jenkins reflects on youth activism, social causes and sci-fi fans
Henry Jenkins, Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts and Education at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, is recognized as a leading thinker in the effort to redefine the role of journalism in the digital age.
His latest book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, examines how contemporary young Americans are using new forms of communication, like social media and viral memes, to fight social issues, dispelling the notion that they have no interest in politics and current affairs.
What role does social media play in youth activism? How do non-millennial activists view social media?
Young people get much of their information from social media, which means that news and political messages are integrated into their everyday interactions with their friends. While social media is one tool among many for today’s social movements, it has a special status because it connects so immediately with people’s everyday lives. Many young people complain that the language of politics is exclusive [in that it assumes a policy wonk already well informed about the political process] and repulsive [in that it reads every issue through partisan gamesmanship]. The use of memes and remix videos, for example, spread through social media, allows young people to experiment with other languages through which to frame political messages. And these platforms are appropriate for the models of social change driving their campaigns — change that comes on a grassroots level, change that comes through educating people and shifting the culture rather than necessarily changing laws.
That said, researchers often find young people moving away from political speech on social media over time because of discomfort in bringing divisive issues into what is for them a core support mechanism. We hear more and more stories of people getting so fed up by the divisive political debates on Facebook this election cycle that they are abandoning social media altogether, or conversely, choosing to keep their political opinions to themselves. So, as they say in Facebook-land, it’s complicated.
What’s the role of entertainment in promoting social justice causes, such as the events put on by Invisible Children or, more recently, celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio’s participation in the protest against building the Dakota Access Pipeline?
What you are describing are examples of celebrity activism, which can be effective, especially at drawing mainstream media coverage to particular causes, and also sometimes in getting media to circulate broadly through the celebrity’s network of fans and followers. Yet the use of celebrities can often blunt the critical thrust of activist messages since the celebrity will not want to put their professional lives at risk.
Such efforts are centralized and top-down, which make them the opposite of the kinds of decentralized and bottom-up political movements we discuss in our book.
You’ve written extensively about science fiction fandom. Which would be more likely to bring about social change: Star Wars fans or Trekkies?
We can imagine political activism emerging from both fandoms, but they might take somewhat different shape. For my generation, Star Trek was very much a show about inclusion and acceptance of diversity. What diversity means has shifted through the years, but I’ve written about how LGBT activists have used Star Trek’s promise of a more inclusive society to lobby for the inclusion of queer characters on the series. Star Trek fans have also rallied behind inclusion in terms of recruitment for NASA, a cause which Nichelle Nichols [Uhura] spent many years promoting.
Activism around Star Wars, on the other hand, has started from the notion of the Rebel Alliance, a metaphor which has been used by activists on both the right and the left. In the past year, I’ve seen Star Wars fans rally for campaign finance reform [battling against Dark Money as the Dark Side of the Force] and as a platform to celebrate teachers [because of the role of Obi-Wan and Yoda as mentor figures]. But most pervasively, it has also in the past year been used to reflect on issues of inclusion, because of the growing diversity in its cast of characters.
Both offer us resources we can use to rally for social change, but doing so depends on matching the right metaphor to the right cause.
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