The future of politics is social media

Airi-Alina Allaste, a visiting scholar funded by the Kone Foundation, investigates the political participation of young people via social media.

As her research subject, Airi-Alina Allaste focuses on TikTok and municipal elections in both Finland and Estonia. Currently, Allaste is collecting data on the Finnish municipal elections. In mid-October, local elections will also be held in Estonia, where the voting age is 16.                        

The global use of social media platforms has fundamentally transformed contemporary politics. Discussions and election campaigns are increasingly held on social media. Some people are creative at utilising the platforms to their benefit, others might claim that social media only aggravates the crisis of democracy.

A lot of discussion has been centred on the overall decline in voter turnout and apathy among young people. According to Allaste, the situation is not this cut and dry. Social media in particular is thought to offer new methods for policymaking. The opportunities afforded by social media can be of particular importance in countries with no established civic society.

“Opportunities for seeking information have considerably increased,” Allaste notes. “Having said that, the spread of disinformation is a natural consequence of that. Algorithms might feed political polarisation.”

For this reason, TikTok

Allaste is interested in creative and alternative participation, and how young people use social media platforms to be active in politics.

“The practices of the TikTok platform provide an excellent opportunity to explore the imagination of users. In addition, it is very popular among young people. And yet, there is not much research-based knowledge and analysis on how the platform is used, for example, in politics.”

Allaste finds it interesting to observe how young people express their political opinions through music, dance and performance.

“TikTok has potential to facilitate and increase active participation. Political ideas and opinions can be presented in an attractive form, making them also spread easily. Unfortunately, TikTok’s ease of use and form of expression also might increase xenophobic and racist activity, and you cannot always verify the truthfulness of TikTok videos or make anyone assume responsibility for them.”

A limitless audience

TikTok encourages people to create content, and anyone can join the platform, which has no restricted groups. Communication takes place via video recordings, which can garner a huge audience that is not restricted by the number of friends or followers as in older social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter.

“While I recognise the potential risks of the platform, I believe that the performative and engaging nature of TikTok also gets young people interested in politics and grow as citizens,” Allaste says.

Allaste believes that social media can play a key role in the empowerment and expression of the younger generation, which makes it an important environment for investigating creative political thinking. New forms of participation employed by young people are not sufficiently acknowledged in politics.

“For instance, the results of expert interviews conducted with decision-makers in eight EU member states demonstrated that, while the interviewees repeatedly spoke about the obligation of participation for young people, they never mentioned social media. In many countries, politicians and decision-makers draw a clear line between young people active in organisations and those they consider to be just passive hangers-on on social media.”

More media literacy needed

Media literacy carries increasing weight when trying to make the best of the positives of social media and avoid risk factors.

It is important for young people to be familiar with the technical features of platforms, the functioning of algorithms and their effect on communication. At the same time, young activists who use social media are already well informed about these matters.

“Young people’s experiences and participation practices as well as their knowhow could be utilised in civic education to include a youth perspective.”

Airi-Alina Allaste focuses on topics relating to youth

Airi-Alina Allaste, Doctor of Social Sciences, works as a Kone Foundation fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, University of Helsinki. She defended her doctoral thesis at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki, in 2006.

Allaste works as professor of sociology at Tallinn University, where she served as the director of the discipline of sociology from 1 September 2008 to 31 August 2015.

Allaste is the vice president of the European section of the International Sociological Association’s Sociology of Youth research committee. She has also chaired the Estonian Association of Sociologists and served in the executive committee of the European Sociological Association.

In her research, publications and teaching, Allaste focuses on topics relating to youth.