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Empowering Youth Participation in Governance Through Digital Space

Communication does not only strengthen every aspect of life including relationships, businesses and governance, it is an integral component of it. The advent of social media about a decade ago has not only changed the dynamics of communications, but created opportunities for millions of people all over the globe who are now connect through platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

Without question, the evolution witnessed in the digital space over the last decade has contributed to the democratisation of civic voices, allowing the most marginalised groups in society to actively lend their voices to issues that affect them, no matter how little their spaces are. It has also enhanced learning and increased citizens’ participation in governance, among other notable developments.

Digital space has evolved to be an important space for youth development, socialisation, and learning. The 21st century youth are growing up in a more networked, information-flow environment, leveraging on digital tools to articulate their creativity, seek knowledge and attention, garner information and network. Young people also use these platforms to establish and manage relationships, communicating with their peers and mentors.

Currently, over 170 million people in Africa are registered members of diverse social media platforms, specifically Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and WhatsApp , with youth constituting over sixty per cent of registered users . In Ghana, ninety-four per cent of the youth population are registered on one or more social media platforms. Similarly, about ninety-five per cent are in Nigeria also. However, while millions of young people remain active on these platforms, less than five per cent use the space to communicate transformative ideas; engage or drive advocacy activities or mobilise for a just-cause including demanding for accountability, transparency and good governance from leaders across the continent .

This article seeks to provide a few ideas on how the youth can use their access to social media and digital space in general, to actively engage actors and leaders in the political arena, amplify their voices and demand for their rights and sustainable development.

Youth and Digital Space
The digital space is a social space which helps in exploring all forms of online communication, social interaction, expression, and identity formation, as well as how they can be sustained by the resources available within the online setting . It is a coherent social space that exists entirely within a society and in which new rules and ways of being have emerged for both youth and adults. This digital space has created a world in which youth interact with one another and the larger society to foster civil dialogue and scale up creative expression including driving similar interests, despite their geographical location and time differences. This has particularly helped to detach individuals from the constraints imposed by location as well as freed them from the constraints associated with offline personalities, culture, religion, political inclination and social roles .

Digital space remains an important asset to this generation, as 1) it serves as a platform for the youth to express unexplored aspects of themselves and to create a virtual personality, 2) it is used to freely express opinions, criticize, agree or disagree with government policies, create awareness, build networks of relationships, reflect real life experiences and for reportage, 3) it opens a door of possibilities for youths to explore opportunities for engagements and innovation to their advantage , and 4) it creates new forms of social relationships, in which participants are no longer bound by the need to meet others face-to-face but can expand their social arena by meeting others across the globe virtually, to share on and learn about issues of common interest .

Digital Elements and Youth Participation in Governance

The digital world presents young people with a whole range of tools & platforms to actively drive and participate in innovative initiatives that are of significant contributions to governance processes including:

Online campaigns: In recent years, social media has changed the bulk of political campaigns from offline to online activities; politicians, political parties, governance institutions, and political think tanks are now using social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as a new tool to communicate and engage with their constituencies. Likewise, electorates now use social media to voice their opinions, engage with a wide network, and connect with like-minded individuals. This has changed the nature of electioneering, as more citizens and politicians prefer to connect, mobilise and engage voters directly. The option for users to share, like, comment or retweet information has given both parties the opportunity to express their views, discuss manifestos and engage each other for accountability. The successful use of online campaigning by Mohammed Buhari in the 2015 Nigerian elections, Barack Obama and Donald Trump in the 2008 and 2016 US elections, respectively, and others have changed the rules of political communication. Indeed, online campaigning has become a major enabler for youth participation in the democratic process because it provides easy publication, creates transparency, and provides faster, easier and cheaper access to information. It allows a more experiential generation, the youth, to feel like a part of political and social movements, like the “Yes We Can” campaign of Barrack Obama, that generated unprecedented amounts of youth volunteerism and participation .

Virtual Mobilisation: This is one of the most frequently used digital elements for youth participation in governance. It is about systematically planning and directing flow of information to build strong virtual allies in bid to complement an action in the real world. Virtual communities are often formed with individuals who share similar values and concerns and then link up with real-life groups for concerted action. For instance, the use of internet tools for political protest in the summer of 2009 in Iran, known as "Twitter revolution," appears to have proved a point that internet is a space of unlimited freedom and an avenue for the organisation of political actions .

Other useful elements of digital spaces for promoting youths’ participation in socio-political affairs include:
•Form pressure groups to drive policy agenda and gain attention of political actors;
•Foster public debates on general issue such as upcoming conferences, new treaties, campaigns etc;
•Expose opinions and needs of a suppressed or marginalised group to the wider public domain;
•Catalyse wider participation of diverse groups, especially the youth, in decision making processes.

Using Digital Space and tools to Strengthen Youth Participation in Governance
The youth have emerged at the vanguard of online activism and citizen journalism in the contemporary world. The rise and use of social media platforms by youths have caused a seismic shift in the political landscape, with compelling evidence as witnessed in the political revolutions in Africa and other parts of the globe within the last decade.

For instance, prior to and after the annulment of Kenya’s 2017 presidential elections, Kenyan youth shared information and updated the citizenry on post-election decisions through various social media platforms. Similarly, Gambian youth used online platforms to their advantage during the last political impasse that saw the removal of former president, Yayah Jammeh.

Therefore, to strengthen their continued participation and influence through digital space, young people should consider the following approaches;
•Shared learning: Young people should intensify the effort of sharing knowledge & experiences with other committed youth connected to digital space. Being an approach that aligns with the preferred way of learning among contemporary youth, leaders should encourage and motivate young people to share their thoughts, opinions and demands on democratic and development processes via digital platforms.
•Engaging your audience: Social media should be used to focus on constructively engaging instead of attacking stakeholders of different viewpoints. The tone of exchanges should be simple, respectful, conversational and relatable. Youth should avoid hardy, insulting and hateful speech, even if they hold dissenting views.
•Build Alliances/Networks: Digital platforms should be continuously employed by youths to build networks across the globe without face-to-face meeting by a) consistently connecting and providing valuable content for your alliance members; b) spending considerable time online promoting your alliance members or network; c) respect your alliance and do not take advantage of them.
•Training: Training is a learning activity embarked on with the intention of improving knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to function effectively. Training spaces and opportunities should be created for young people to enhance their skills on leadership and governance to make real life impact specifically on social media.

Digital space provides users with the arena to freely express themselves, largely free from government interference and control. It has, to a considerable extent, democratised citizens’ voices including voices of those often marginalised. However, to further increase youths’ contributions to governance and development through digital space, it is important to strengthen their capacity to effectively use digital spaces, responsibly and effectively.

*The Author, Chikamso Apeh, is an intern under WACSI's Next Generation Internship Programme*

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