From the Political to the Personal

We explored the intersection of social media and politics among young people during a particularly divisive election season, and learned that there are no easy answers — only an invitation to listening and empathy.

by Amixa-Ray Calzado, Devansh Gandhi, and Clara Too

Part 1: Research + Problem Space

Social media has influenced our way of life, how we interact, and our advertising strategies. According to Emarketer, in 2016 more than 80% of social network users interacted with social media through their phones, and it comes as no surprise given that we use social media for everything… even for politics. Having been through two elections with access to social media for a while, there’s no doubt that the rise of digital spaces has become an impactful hub. Social media is not just for expressing identity and humor — it is also a space where people have partaken in voicing activism, ideals, and political values. This has the unfortunate side effect of strong echo chambering in spaces that may lead to polarizing political views.

Social media is a great tool in increasing political activism, but many people use it as their source of news as well. People are prompt in reacting to what they find on platforms like Facebook or Twitter. They see an emotional headline and share a post publicly without doing any research on the subject. This is especially true for the younger population. It is inadvisable to use Twitter and Facebook as a sole source of news, because most posts on social media regarding a specific issue are likely incredibly biased.

We can break down the political interactions of young adults into three major categories: News Sources, Social Media, and Personal Relations; these all mesh and interact with one another. Learning about events and updates, forming opinions and voicing personal aspects, and reading or participating in political conversation with peers can highly impact the values of young voters. The process of navigating this complex system is what we wanted to unpack.

Upon finding and meeting our participants, we offered them an introductory survey prior to the interview to introduce them to our research space. The survey asked them about their voting registration and any voting history they may have. This also primed them to get into the headspace of social media and politics in hopes that they would ponder their ideals, values, and political views before the semi-structured interview.

We conducted our interviews about a month before the 2020 elections. Each semi-structured interview took around forty-five minutes to an hour (usually closer to an hour). The interviews proceeded as follows:

  • Introduction (5 mins): We first asked for and gained consent to record the interview session. We then gave a brief explanation of our problem space. We broke the ice with a cheeky question: How spicy do you like your politics?
  • Semi-Structured Interview (45 mins): The primary purpose of the interview was to find out how each participant had come to arrive at their current political views, and how social media and others had influenced their values.
  • Social Media Walkthrough (10 mins): This activity simulated scrolling through polarized political posts on social media. We wanted to understand the thoughts and reactions of participants as they engage with the information presented to them by social media.
Example Instagram post shown in social media walkthrough (@joebiden)

We met with 9 individuals with their consent, and went through the whole interview process, through which we heard an array of stories. 6 of the 9 interviewers are US Citizens, and 3 of them are non-US citizens. They were all politically inclined on US politics and or had individuals they care for in the US. 2 of the 9 have right-leaning values, while 7 of the 9 have left-leaning values, likely due to our location in Seattle. However, most did not identify as being either a Republican or Democrat, and instead used a myriad of terms to describe the nuances in their political ideologies. Many of their stories shared more commonalities than we anticipated, and they told deeply compelling stories of how they came to decide on their values and views.

We wanted to learn how different groups of people interact with social media and how it shapes their perceptions around certain political issues. Does it inform their stance? Why or why not? How do they react to this? What do they consider important before sharing information? Do they trust everything they read? Do they share everything they consume? How do they deal with news they don’t particularly agree with but are forced to consume? What are the repercussions certain groups face for being vocal about their opinions? How do they deal with those?

INSIGHTS

  1. Young voters are unsure how much their vote matters, but believe people have an obligation to vote regardless.

Depending on their location, a lot of voters are discouraged by the weight of their vote, as certain states have a strong history of voting Republican or Democratic, and their electoral college has the final say. Local elections are the only instances where they feel like their votes can truly count.

“ I believe that there’s not much I can do about the election and voting doesn’t have a lot of impact. In the grand scheme of things it sure does but at a micro level, not so much. I still think it’s a privilege, though.”

US citizen from Hawaii

2. Non-US citizens who cannot vote want greater influence in politics, as they are deeply personally affected by them.

As they are denied the right to vote, non-US citizens still want a voice in US politics as this greatly affects their place of employment and study. Speaking publicly on social media can lead to problematic repercussions in personal and professional life, especially if taken out of context, so the most they can do is become conversation starters and encourage US citizens to use their ability and vote. However, this can be a very long and unrewarding process, and there was a clear desire for more immediate and greater impact on politics.

“ I don’t have a lot of power. I go to Instagram, post my story, I say what I have to say, talk to people, and that’s it. I can’t vote so all I can do is talk. And that’s a very long process.”

Non-US citizen from India

These first two insights ensured we wanted a design response that encourages and facilitates civic engagement.

3. Young voters purposely ignore content on social media that they disagree with, especially the intent of curating their feed to suit their tastes.

“ I don’t really want to react to unofficial political posts, because then the algorithm can spew all kinds of accounts that are similar to that and bombard my feed.”

US citizen from Washington

The notion of polarized politics was quite evident when listening to our participants’ remarks about their social media feeds. They acknowledged that this polarization is deeply influenced by the algorithms in place by social media outlets. Some of our participants are very aware of the algorithms and try to use the algorithm to tailor the experience for their own comfort and benefit. The slightest interaction with time retention, engagement the comments, or liking posts can influence their personal feed immediately, so the incentive to avoid content they disagree with is very high. Our participants generally keep people who agree with them within their social media circle and prioritize gaining insights from peers or public figures that support their existing views before seeking opposing opinions. We noted that there were a few participants who actually engaged with people of opposing opinions more often, but this happened in the context of one-on-one conversations, not public posting.

4. Voters like to believe that either their preferred source of information is unbiased, or that their perspective is balanced out by a range of sources.

“ If I want to learn more about something, I go to Twitter as it’s a very vocal space versus other social media. I get information from both sides, while it’s not accurate with people’s opinions, it’s a good place to research the information. Gives me more of a general understanding.”

Canadian citizen from India

In order to come to a conclusion about any political issue, there’s a process that our participants take, which tends to generally exclude traditional televised news stations. Most participants mentioned that upon encountering news, they will evaluate the importance of the information and do further research if it concerns them enough. Dubious information is often fact-checked with articles from multiple websites, as well as reading tweets and watching YouTube videos, all with the purpose of cross analyzing research to gain a generalized understanding. We found that they are most likely to fact-check before voicing their own opinions on political matters.

Due to the biases on social media and our participants’ desire to see a more balanced view, we wanted our concept to allow and show many viewpoints.

5. Fear of social, professional, or even physical harm creates a need for caution in political engagement.

“ I had friends who were going to be at the protest and they asked me if I wanted to come and obviously I didn’t want to go with, when you think about…the repercussions of it”

US resident with student and work visa

Many of the interviewers only express their political voice within their immediate circle of relationships. Rarely do they take it to their personal social media platforms, let alone public spaces. Main concerns expressed were scrutiny, career punishment, or even physical harm when views, or what people assume views to be, are unpopular or disagreed with.

These concerns for personal safety were even more heightened for our participants who are residents but not citizens of the US. For example, we learned from one of our participants that they received an email from a professor that urged international students to go out and protest. This made us think about the inclusion of non-US citizens in politics, for it directly affects their lives being residents in this country. Should you be arrested, we learned that the risk of deportation is relatively high. An arrest can have significant consequences for visa holders. Those consequences could include the inability to renew the visa, the disqualification to apply for a change of status, or the cancellation of a visa. While they are free to protest, a person can be arrested, legitimately or mistakenly, for different crimes. A curfew violation, probably not even a crime. But if violence breaks out around you and you have to push and shove your way to safety and end up being arrested for assault, that charge is considered a violent crime that will get reported to ICE. Then your fate is in the hands of ICE and an immigration judge.

These grave concerns pointed to a need to protect and foster privacy in our design response to protect everyone involved.

Glass flowers
Inspiration for our design (from Artful Home)

Part 2: Concept + Speculative Design Response

Reflecting upon our insights eventually led us to the question, “How might we humanize and give non-US citizens a voice in politics?” During the ideation phase, we conceived of many different possible design responses with the help of our classmates, from allyship stickers to digital non-voters’ voting maps. Although many of the ideas were meant to directly impact the voting process, we realized that these ‘quick fix’ solutions were a band-aid at best, and performative ‘allyship’ at worst. Instead, our most impactful ideas centered the stories of non-US citizens as a means of breaking through the political divide and avoidance we observed, with the hope of sparking deeper empathy and change in the long run.

The Echo Garden was born from the desire to amplify the voices and stories of non-US citizens, who had expressed to us their deep frustration with their lack of political voice. We wanted to use flowers as a representation of the fragility and value of human lives, as political choices can easily be the difference between life and death for the most vulnerable in our society. Using a familiar form may help spark curiosity rather than the immediate stereotyping, dismissiveness, and avoidance that we continually observed during our social media activity. Our initial concept was a garden exhibition featuring flower sculptures, which would represent non-US citizens. When a visitor walks up to a sculpture, the motion sensor would trigger the flower to ‘speak’ the story of the non-US citizen through a speaker from a first-person perspective, telling of the hardships they have experienced. These stories may involve policies that have directly harmed them and their families, or may simply detail the hardships that come with immigration, such as racism or fear of deportation — issues that some of our participants had experienced firsthand.

The flowers would ideally be made of glass, so as to highlight the delicacy of the subject, and the ease with which human souls and lives can be easily harmed by carelessness or lack of respect. The form of the flower and change of pitch would protect the anonymity of the non-US citizen. Although some of our other concepts showed the faces of participants, we realized through peer critique that these faces are not as necessary for humanizing participants — the sound of a voice and a moving story would be more than enough to make their struggles real to the listener.

Although this initial idea was well-received by our peers, conversation with our professor pushed us to consider whether there was a way to craft a more long-lasting relationship where the listener would have to put in more effort to hear these stories. In real life, the sharing of these stories would normally only happen with a gradual increase of trust over time. In our research, we found that conversations with healthy disagreement only happened within trusted relationships. In order to simulate this sort of relationship and establish deeper emotional connection, the visitor would only be able to hear a short but intriguing snippet from a single flower the first time they come to the garden. At the end of the first visit they will receive a note tailored to their experience in the garden. The front of the note would have an identification barcode that encodes the information about which flower they listened to. Each day, the visitor could come back and scan this note to hear the next part of their story. When all the stories have been heard, the flower would give them an option to receive updates and reminders about the community this person is part of through the existing technology they have (text, email, etc). And in order to give visitors a way to respond, the back of the note they received would let them know how they can support non-citizen US residents, through voting for policies that would benefit them or giving to organizations that partner with them.

In the process of testing our behavioral prototype, we found that the interaction sparked much confusion when not introduced with enough context beforehand. We were asked, “why is this flower talking to me?”, which prompted us to think more about how best to introduce the concept. Our participant confirmed that the use of headphones was familiar and comfortable, as it is consistent with the museum audio tour experience.

Overall, although the concept would need further testing and refinement, we feel that the Echo Garden provides an organic and raw approach to healing the political division that social media exacerbates. Though we began with a focus on social media, we learned that social media is merely a symptom of greater inequalities — a deep problem which can only begin to be addressed when people are willing to hear and respect perspectives that differ from their own.

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