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Op-Ed: Gen Z needs to get our act together before we vote in next year’s midterms

Youth protesters stand outside Los Angeles City Hall
Crowds gathered near Los Angeles City Hall in 2019 for a youth climate strike rally that included teen activist Greta Thunberg.
(Tony Barboza / Los Angeles Times )

Gen Z is getting the vote. About 8 million of us will have turned 18 between 2020 and the 2022 midterm elections, and we need to get our act together now.

We’re coming of age in the looming shadow of the climate crisis, political unrest and a pandemic from which previous generations failed to protect us. As we expand our political voice, we need to act swiftly and strategically — an increasingly difficult task in a country that can’t agree on basic truths, and where we’re bombarded by false information on social media.

Joe Biden, the oldest president in history, depended on young voters to win in 2020. Can he keep their support?

In a world already dominated by Apple and Instagram, we consume media in a way that has never been seen before. At our age, our parents were watching TV and reading newspapers; we’re scrolling through Twitter and TikTok, spending hours immersed in constantly updating information. The difference is social media is riddled with misinformation and disinformation, favoring content designed to provoke. According to a 2020 Pew Research Center study, people who rely on social media for their news are actually less politically informed.

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There are many reports on the ramifications of the spread of false information via social media. Yet, there is little that helps young people spot and understand what they’re seeing. We’re not going to be able to address global problems unless we’re united on the facts.

Social media allows us to retreat into curated silos that tell us what we want to hear: Part of TikTok’s allure is the endless For You page, a customized feed that filters out what each user doesn’t want to see and can make it feel like our generation is uniquely polarized.

This is why we created Teens for Press Freedom (TPF), a national, youth-led organization, to promote media literacy among high school students. TPF holds twice-weekly online workshops about news consumption and current events. With rotating teen hosts, we draw a new audience of our peers every session: The participants may be from Missouri one week, Texas the next.

Our workshops are effective because the information is coming from young people. The sessions don’t feel like an extension of the school day; instead, they create an informal space to debate controversial political ideas. One past session questioned the value of wartime photography, another examined hidden corporate influence on trusted media, and one tackled the decline of local news.

Older Americans — experienced Americans — owe it to themselves and their kids and grandkids to push the nation in a better direction.

At these meetings, we briefly present on the issue to create a baseline for discussion. The host comes prepared with open-ended questions, though the conversation is largely steered by the participants.

In a recent TPF survey, 90% of respondents said the workshops have increased their awareness of misinformation and disinformation on social media. And they’re taking action. As one attendee said, “I’ve been more thoroughly checking everything I repost on Instagram.” Another told us that the workshops gave her the confidence to discuss propaganda and censorship with local business owners while pasting TPF posters around her community — part of our War on Truth campaign, for which we reimagined classic political posters to illustrate the prevalence and dangers of fake news.

Young leaders like Greta Thunberg are making history. But none of the movements youth advocates represent — whether it’s, say, climate change, racial justice or gun control — will succeed without a common reality based on facts.

That’s why we believe states and local school districts across the country should mandate media literacy training, with a focus on social media, in every high school government class. Only by teaching students how to assess information skeptically, verify sources and differentiate between news and opinion can we have the vigorous public discourse that democracy requires.

The News Literacy Project, a nonprofit organization, has been providing educators with curricula along these lines since 2020; every high school needs such a program now. As we have found in our workshops, even informal conversations about how we use social media can change behavior.

When millions of us step up to the ballot box in 2022, TikTok shouldn’t be telling us how to vote. Countering the pervasive and profitable ecosystem of fake news online starts with educational policy, moves through peer-to-peer conversations and ends in high school classrooms.

Charlotte Hampton and Isabel Tribe are seniors at the High School of American Studies at Lehman College in New York City and co-founders of Teens for Press Freedom.


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