It’s doubtful many would argue the 2020 presidential election was normal. In more ways than electoral scholars would expect, 2020 brought out some of the most peculiar campaigns and elections our country has seen.

From the resurgence of white supremacy groups as major political players to a yearlong movement in support of Black lives and against long-lasting police violence, the 2020 election cycle changed how national politics will work moving forward.

But what is often overlooked in the political chaos is the role of social media in the political development of young people. Gen Z is already projected to be a left-leaning generation, much like Millennials. Even though Millennials were the first to start using social media, Gen Z has already taken the reigns and begun using social media to start one of the largest grassroots political bases in history.

Gen Z has grown up with social media as a part of their daily lives and by being online, the generation’s online presence is defined by “meme culture.” For those unacquainted, the “meme culture” is the culture derived from internet memes and the ways internet memes change over time. Creating these memes has become a part of daily life for many Millennials and Zoomers, and it’s no surprise these have taken a political turn in the recent climate.

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In the midst of the Trump presidency, many groups rose to the occasion to create jokes about the ever-changing world we live in. These groups propagated all over Facebook and may be the last bastions of the dwindling young membership Facebook has endured in recent years. Some groups have names specific in scope, like “Ah so this is the right’s fabled memeing ability” while others are more general, like  “Political Shitposting.” Within these groups, both Millenials and Gen Z have begun to leave their mark on politics.

Though many of these groups merely make jokes about the political world, some have risen to meet the traditional model of politics. One group, entitled “New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens” — or NUMTOT as they refer to themselves — took the next step to become a legitimate political organization.

The group focuses on public transportation and the role of government in creating a greener and more just transportation system. Following his support of public transportation and the Green New Deal, the administrators of the NUMTOT Facebook group actively endorsed then-presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in his campaign.

It’s well and good for anyone to “endorse” a candidate without the world batting an eye, but what makes this moment especially important is Bernie accepted and thanked NUMTOT for its endorsement, stating via Twitter, “Thank you NUMTOT for your support of our campaign, and for all you are doing to create the lasting and fundamental change our country needs.” 

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Never before has a loosely associated group of social media users gotten the legitimate recognition of a politician. This moment has set the stage for new social media based political advocacy groups to have a legitimate role in national politics going forward.

These Facebook “meme groups” are not the only place where social media has prompted real political action. When Black Lives Matter protests began in the Madison area in June, a Facebook group entitled, “What’s next forum: Madison” was started. This group describes itself as an environment focused “on educating, organizing, and acting to dismantle the institutions created by malicious actors that follow the violent ideology of white supremacy.”

At the same time, activists took to Instagram to begin sharing videos of the protests as well as stories of racial injustice. Instagram quickly became the place to learn more about the protests and movement as a whole.

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Millennials and Gen Z alike use social media constantly, so it is no surprise these apps would become a hotbed for their political development and activist efforts. The 2020 election cycle highlighted just how important the grassroots activism movement is to traditional politics. With this past election showing over 50% of the youth voter turnout, legitimizing social media as a political platform is the key to finally engaging the youth vote.

Ryan Badger ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in political science.