‘Celebrities care but politicians have an agenda’: what young people think about how others use social media

How celebrities and politicians engage young people through social media – as well as what those young people think of their efforts – is the subject of a new report in the Journal of Youth Studies.  

Nathan Manning and his co-authors explain: “The question of how young citizens interpret politician and celebrity attempts to be authentic and ‘cool’ on social media is significant as popular culture and politics are often conceived as mutually exclusive fields with young people having little interest in electoral politics.”

To gauge youth opinion, the authors of the report quizzed over one hundred young people aged 16–21 in the US, UK and Australia. Their subjects were shown informal ‘selfies’ of Barack Obama, Boris Johnson or Kevin Rudd, according to what country they lived in, and then asked to give their views on politicians’ uses of social media.

As the authors observe: “Many respondents were positive about the images. … They thought they were generally a good thing, working to humanize them, showing them as fallible, capable of ‘fun’ and revealed them as more than just politicians.”

The participants also broadly shared the view that politicians used social media in ways which made them more ‘authentic’ and ‘accessible’ for young people. However, the politicians did not compare favorably when their social-media discussions of social and political issues were put up against those of celebrities.

After such a comparison, the authors write: “Politicians were typically interpreted as pursuing an agenda for their own benefit while celebrities were thought to be expressing genuine personal beliefs. This contrast highlighted that the informality of celebrities aided perceptions of them as authentic because they were able to 'speak out' about issues and, unlike politicians, celebrities did not have to 'hold back'.”

Interestingly, although young people felt celebrities to be more genuine and authentic because of their regular, highly personal and informal social media communications, they did not want their politicians to act in the same way. In contrast, politicians were expected to adhere to a different set of standards. They were expected to be ‘informed, serious and responsible’ and to maintain a slightly more rigid boundary between their public and private lives.

In short, to engage with the young, politicians must neither be ‘aloof’ nor ‘overshare’. It’s a fine line to tread, but it’s one worth treading – especially in the United States, with presidential and congressional elections just two months away.