“There is nothing neutral about the net”: Millennials and Activism on Digital Policy

By Alison N. Novak

In a June 2014 segment on network neutrality, John Oliver encouraged his viewers to “turn on caps-lock and fly my pretties” in an effort to encourage the Federal Communications Commission to uphold the principle of network neutrality and an open internet. In a 20-minute segment that launched a thousand ships, Oliver’s remarks motivated the public to post millions of comments within the FCC online commenting system- ultimately overwhelming and crashing the system. For many journalists, Oliver’s call for action was a success and the motivation for the 2015 decision to uphold Network Neutrality. Chair Tom Wheeler even cited the millions of posts within his public speech and published verdict as one of the forces that changed his mind.

Network neutrality, or policy that support a free and open internet devoid of paid preferences, is a great example of what happens when complicated public policies are translated for a larger audience, and that audience is provided with a set of actions. While most news coverage focused on the large number of commenters and their impact, a more nuanced look reveals an important shared characteristic of most participants: generational identity as Millennials.

Millennial activism in, for, and against public policy is an under-explored area- yet one that is vitally important considering the impact it holds on topics such as network neutrality. Even after the FCC vote to repeal of network neutrality in 2017 (and went into effect in June 2018), Millennial involvement in this contemporary digital public policy remained high. Thus, a close examination of Millennial involvement reveals three ways how the group may change (and hold the ability to impact) other policy debates.

First, it is worth reiterating that news media largely ignored the identity of FCC commenters in 2014 and again in 2017, instead focusing on the group’s size. Most commenters were young and identified as Millennials (although later findings indicate that Bots may have used Millennial identities to enhance the amount of posts). This is congruent with previous findings on the Millennial generation’s participation in politics. Typically, media discourses of Millennial participation in politics cast the generation as apathetic and disengaged. In the 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014 elections, Millennials (despite record-breaking turnout) failed to receive positive coverage that recognized their contributions and investment in political culture. Even when there were clear examples of Millennial participation, such as the ground-breaking work of Adios Arpaio in 2012, these efforts are ignored by traditional news coverage because they challenge the hegemonic discourses that place Millennial participation as inferior to other generational groups. News media coverage of Millennials in the network neutrality policy debates seemingly follow this pattern, and the generation was once again ignored for its contributions.

Second, it was not just news coverage that dismissed Millennial involvement in the shaping of network neutrality policy. Current FCC Chair, Ajit Pai, released a video on YouTube that vaguely insulted Millennials use of digital technology as frivolous and inconsequential. In his video, Pai provides a list of things that Americans can still do with the repeal of network neutrality. His list included purchasing fidget spinners, participating in online fan communities, and posting pictures of food (all traits attributed to younger users). While he never directly called out Millennials, YouTube comments and social media posts made it clear that his dog-whistle insults had not gone unnoticed by the generation. As GQ reflected, the video enraged Millennials because of its dismissal of youth culture and attempts to belittle the true impact of the repeal of network neutrality.

Finally, there is also evidence that network neutrality (and more specifically, the repeal of network neutrality) may be a motivating force for Millennial involvement in the upcoming 2018 midterm elections. Reuters notes that network neutrality is a powerful way for Democratic candidates to connect with Millennial voters, particularly as Congressional votes reveal that network neutrality is a primarily democratic supported policy. This aligns Democratic and Millennial interests. As FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel (D) reflects that the repeal “may have woken a sleeping giant.” Other analyses similarly reflect that Millennials are more invested in network neutrality than other policies because of their relationship with digital technologies. Previous work suggests that Millennials were early adopters of digital media and helped make digital content popular and profitable. Thus, a policy that aims to dramatically modify how the technology operates is of relevance to the group.

Generations and technological changes seemingly go together. Historically, young generations have embraced technological changes faster than older groups, and often welcomed technological change as a form of agency over information and entertainment domains. Policies that regulate these technologies are thus similarly important and are viewed as structural components of the assertion of agency.

So, beyond comments posted to the official FCC commenting system, where else does Millennial activism appear within the debate over network neutrality? One obvious answer is on social media, where #netneutrality reveals millions of posts. While it is unclear if these are primarily Millennial users, previous scholarship denotes the popularity of the media among the age-group. Alternatively, comments are also found on YouTube, under videos of John Oliver, Ajit Pai, and the Vlog Brothers (who created the popular video “Net Neutrality in the shower”). Activism stretches offline as well, such as the July 2017 Net Neutrality Day of Action (which is set to take place for a second year in July 2018). The Day of Action encouraged civic protests and marches around the United States and even specialized protests outside of the headquarters of media corporations that lobbied for the elimination of network neutrality.

While the repeal of network neutrality went into effect in June 2018, Millennial engagement in the policy debate has not wavered. In fact, it is growing and will be used in the 2018 midterm elections as a central motivating issue. It is important to remember the success of Millennials involvement, just four years prior, as millions of their posts pushed then-chair Wheeler to reconsider his expressed interests to repeal the policy. It is possible that this involvement could again change the trajectory of network neutrality as the generation advocates for changes in current policy stances.

 

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