Plugged in: young people believe social media is essential to social change, but benefits of digital campaigning risk being unevenly distributed

 New research from Demos think tank finds nearly two-thirds of young people (64%) see social media platforms as essential for achieving social change.

o   Around half a million young people now engage with political groups through social media, and nearly 1 in 4 communicate with community groups, charities and campaign groups.

o   However 65% of young people feel their use of social media is misunderstood by older generations, and 55% of 35-50 year olds agree that they don’t understand the positive ways young people use social media.

  • Yet campaign groups warn that the growth of digital-first social action brings potential new dangers.

o   Those without the skills to campaign online risk being left behind.

o   Groups are being disempowered: victims of online abuse, of censorship, of poor-quality moderation

o   Demos warns there is a real danger of changing the face of who can participate in social action.

  • Demos calls on platforms and the government to take the health of online communities seriously: by measuring the impact of online social action, by helping digitally excluded campaign groups, and by supporting voices for positive change.

Plugged In, a major new report from Demos think tank, which has been supported by Facebook, reveals a new picture of social media as a tool for social change. Drawing on new polling with 2,000 citizens across the country and interviews conducted with campaigners, the research demonstrates the smartphone generation’s continued belief in social media as a platform for social change, but warns that social action risks becoming two-tiered.

Two-thirds of young people (64%) see social media platforms as an essential part of achieving social change and over half (55%) of young people believe social media makes positive offline change more likely to happen.

They have reasons to be optimistic. 7% of young people have used social media to communicate with politicians and political groups in the past twelve months – around half a million young people across the UK – and young activists credit social media as integral to successful campaigning. One in four report involvement with non-party political campaigns like this year’s Women’s March. Despite this, 65% of young people feel their time on social media is misunderstood by older generations.

However, campaign groups warned of a potential activism gap. While crediting social media for enabling new types of low budget campaigning they also pointed to polarisation and division in which some groups flourish while others struggle to find an audience and face digital exclusion. Online abuse, manipulation, disinformation and mistrust were felt to have damaged the reputations of social media platforms as custodians of this civic space and risk excluding vulnerable or unskilled groups from using their tools.

Demos argues social media must be taken more seriously as a force for social change: online social action should be recognised for its power, measured by government and protected by platforms.

 Key Recommendation:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

 Measure Digital Community Health

The DCMS should incorporate a measure of digital community health into the yearly Community Life survey, measuring the extent, participation and impact of social action and the quality of community interactions and cohesion as they appear online. Social platforms should support this work by improving public data access, showing where social media is being used for good and where it is being abused.

Commenting on the report’s findings, its author Alex Krasodomski-Jones said:

At a time when digital platforms are facing serious criticism for mishandling the spaces they are responsible for, this research finds young people are still optimistic about how these platforms can be used for good. As social action goes digital, we cannot allow it to benefit only those parts of society comfortable and capable of using these spaces. Recognising the power digital platforms now wield in shaping our society means ensuring they are open, accessible, transparent and reflective of the full breadth of our democracy.”

Antigone Davis, Head of Global Safety at Facebook, said:
“Like many parents, I think a lot about the time my daughter spends on her phone, and the example I’m setting her. At Facebook, we are doing the same, after all, we want the time people spend on our platforms to be time well spent. We know that millions of young people are using social media in really inspiring ways and are having a genuine impact on their communities; it’s great to see recognition of that in Demos’ research and giving a voice to those young people.”

Media Contact

Caitlin Lambert – Communications Officer, Demos

Phone: 020 3878 3955

Vicky Gomes – UK Communications, Facebook

Phone: 07927 564 806 | [email protected]

Paul Crouch – Senior Consultant, Teneo Blue Rubicon

Phone: 07795 226 361 | [email protected]



Methodological notes:

Demos commissioned Opinium Research to carry out a representative survey of 1,000 Britons aged 16-25, and another representative survey of Britons aged 35-50. Of the 2,000 people we surveyed, 96.5 percent were social media users.  Demos also conducted interviews with a range of campaigners, campaign groups and influencers who had used social media to promote, organise or coordinate social action across a wide range of concerns and issues.


About Demos

Demos is Britain’s leading cross-party think-tank: an independent, educational charity, which produces original and innovative research.