The whole thing blew up pretty quickly; it blew over just as fast. Last week, Emma Sullivan, a Kansas teenager, wrote a nasty tweet about her governor, from the back of a crowd of students that had gathered to meet him. "Just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot," she tweeted. As political commentary goes, it wasn’t the most elevated (it also wasn’t true: she hadn’t criticized him to his face). But both the governor’s office and Sullivan’s school reacted quickly, with the latter demanding she write a letter of apology. On Monday, Sullivan held her ground, refusing to write the letter and citing her right to free speech. By the time the afternoon rolled around, the governor himself apologized—via Facebook: "My staff over-reacted to this tweet, and for that I apologize. Freedom of speech is among our most treasured freedoms."
This story may have turned out to be a minor tiff, rather than the epic showdown between teen and governor some had hoped for. Even so, there are a number of lessons to be drawn from the funny Kansan encounter between 18-year-old Emma Sullivan and Governor Sam Brownback, and about the emerging ways a generation weaned on social media is participating in politics.
1. Teens are using social media to engage politically.
"I do think that social media has helped Millennials become more politically aware, and some more politically active," Melanie Shreffler, editor-in-chief of Ypulse, a "guide to youth" for marketers, tells Fast Company. She thinks that Sullivan’s casual criticism of the governor is mirrored, in a somewhat more serious manner, in the various ways teens have become involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Shreffler visited Zuccotti Park last month to interview youths who were assembling there. Many of the young people had learned of the movement online and had come by the park to see what it was about; only some of them would go on to lend their full support. "Social media may be the starting point—they hear about an issue online from a friend and then take it upon themselves to learn more—but it's not enough to activate them in a cause." Still, it can keep the flames of dissent alive, she adds, by "reminding them of what they can do to further the cause."
Chally Kacelnik, a 21-year-old Australian journalist who has written about teenage bloggers, agrees. "There's a widespread and false idea that teens are politically apathetic," she says. "Social media like Twitter are helping to push that established youth political engagement further, enabling activists to connect, quickly share information, and organize in real time and across the world."
A stray tweet like Sullivan’s is relatively low-stakes, when measured against some of the digital activity of politically minded teenagers abroad. A dissident Syrian teen blogger recently went to jail, on "charges of revealing information to a foreign country."
2. Social media can be a more effective way to reach politicians than traditional methods.
Because of Twitter’s relative novelty and its perceived influence, politicians are monitoring it very closely. Sullivan’s tweet, as you will have noticed, did not include Brownback’s Twitter handle (and therefore wouldn't have shown up in his Twitter mentions); it was a tweet directed only to her 65 or so followers at the time. And yet someone from the governor’s office tasked with monitoring social media mentions got hold of the tweet and responded to it. Twitter has become a sort of all-purpose customer service line (for politicians as well as for businesses, it seems), in which you may garner a faster or stronger response than via traditional channels. "While Emma's way of expressing her displeasure with the governor may seem disrespectful," says Shreffler, "I have little doubt that it was more effective in opening a line of communication with the governor than if she'd simply sent a letter expressing her opinion."
3. Politicians and brands should treat teens like adults (even if they don’t always behave like them).
The reason the governor’s office emerges so badly from this affair is that it treated Sullivan like some snot-nosed brat, pettily ungrateful for the time the governor deigned to spend with her Youth in Government program. Brownback’s people and Sullivan’s school mistook political criticism (Sullivan particularly loathes Brownback’s decision to cut state arts funding) for the gripes of yet another thankless teen. "That's the telling part," says Kacelnik, who was recently a teenaged political blogger herself. "She was asked to perform what reads like a kid's punishment for bad behavior, and the Governor didn't even contact her directly to ask for one, as would have been respectful."
Shreffler agrees, adding that brands could learn from Brownback’s overreaction: "My advice would be not to ignore or talk down to Millennials when they express dissent; instead, reach out and ask them about their opinions and where they come from," she says.
Kacelnik, for her part, sees Brownback’s reaction as part of a larger Internet-wide bias against the opinions of teens. "On the Internet, teen producers of content are often treated with a great deal of contempt," she says. "Their opinions are dismissed and belittled, to the extent that many avoid talking about their age online so as to be taken as seriously as their older opinion-making peers."
She thinks that Brownback’s decision to apologize via Facebook was insufficient: "An older person would be much more likely to have been addressed and apologized to directly, especially after having been treated like a naughty child."
4. It’s tough juggling Twitter punditry and high school.
For other teens out there looking for insta-punditry, be careful what you wish for. Fast Company reached out to Emma Sullivan this morning to request an interview. "Unfortunately, I am at school today and after school I am fully booked for interviews today," she emailed. ("School has gone well so far," she wrote in a few hours later, though she added, "There have been some harsh things said by other students.")
By the time of this writing, Sullivan had acquired over 11,500 Twitter followers, up from last week’s 65. Here’s hoping those 11,500 new listeners are just as interested in Justin Bieber and the Twilight movies—representative subjects of Sullivan’s tweets, prior to her politicization—as they are in mildly foulmouthed political commentary.
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