Professor Peter Hopkins – written evidence (DAD0053)


Professor Peter Hopkins, School of Geography, Politics and Sociology, Newcastle University, in collaboration with Dr Katherine Botterill and Dr Gurchathen Sanghera


Background to submission - our comments here draw upon our Arts and Humanities Research Council project about the everyday experiences of Muslim and non-Muslim young people growing up in urban, suburban and rural Scotland. Overall this project worked with 382 young people from diverse ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds including Muslim young, other South Asian youth (such as Sikhs, Hindus and non-religious South Asians), asylum seekers and refugees, international students, Central and Eastern European migrants and white Scottish youth. Most lived in Scotland’s main cities, but some were from Dumfries, Fife and Inverness. Some of our findings point to the role and influence of digital technologies in the lives of ethnic and religious minority young people and we draw upon this work to inform this submission. Our final report is available here.


In response to the questions identified by the Committee, we respond in particular to questions 1, 3 and 8 below

1. How has digital technology changed the way that democracy works in the UK and has this been a net positive or negative effect?

              We found that the vast majority of the information and material that ethnic and religious minority young people engaged with that was relevant to democracy was through digital technologies including social media, mobile phones and the internet more broadly. For young people from ethnic and religious minority backgrounds, digital technology is a key location where they encounter racism and Islamophobia. In this sense, digital technology has having a negative effect on ethnic and religious minority young people’s lives. However, we also found that young people are turning to practicing democracy online and via social media because many do not necessarily associate with or have close affinities to the national political parties and sought alternative ways of engaging with politics. 

We found that political engagements were frequently facilitated by social networking platforms, which created the potential for new forms of sociality that were less bound by place and across social status and age. Indeed, such technologies were used for the performativity of citizenship. Many of our respondents received information about the Scottish referendum from mainstream media (print and broadcast), the Internet and various social media platforms (e.g. Facebook, Twitter) and they often used these platforms to share it with their acquaintances, friends and family. This in turn assisted the creation of social capital (i.e. informal networks and connections of people who share similar norms, values and beliefs) that for some respondents informed the democratic processes. Young people develop digital socialites as an alternative to (or lack of alternatives) existing democratic structures and practices.

For example, a male respondent talked about how young people discussed on Twitter and Facebook the ways in which the BBC was seen to be pro-Union: 


‘[During] the Scottish independence debate. . . there was a BBC reporter, Nick [Robinson]... at a conference, he asked a couple of questions to Alex Salmond, who then spent around 10 minutes answering them, and there was a 37-second news. . . clip in which he said that “he didn’t answer”... it was very Unionist... all over Facebook and Twitter this got pulled up and everyone got to point and laugh at him [Nick Robinson, BBC news reporter] for being an idiot. I don’t think the older generation would necessarily be able to see that or click onto that, because they’re not online. So, I think the way information’s more public, in some ways they’re more clued up.’ (Male, 16–18, White Scottish, Edinburgh) 

This respondent outlines how young people during the referendum engaged in politics away from traditional methods, using modern technology and social networking sites. In the interviews, young people discussed how this often meant that they were able to share opinions and views about independence debate over social media. Such forms of online socialities, or social media as sites of performative citizenship, are important because there was a perception among some young people of the absence of formal spaces to debate politics (e.g. at school).  So young people are finding alternative avenues to traditional practices of democracy because they feel that there is no space for them in existing structures.

3. What role should every stage of education play in helping to create a healthy, active, digitally literate democracy? 

                Given the significant role that digital technologies play in transmitting racism and Islamophobia, every stage of education has an important role to play in helping to creative a healthy, active and digitally literate democracy. We advocate the importance of engaging young people in education about digital citizenship and the importance of ethical conduct when using digital technologies.

              Furthermore, as noted above, digital technologies play a crucial role in enabling young people to engage with political issues and in the democratic process more broadly. Recognising the important role of digital technologies are crucial for the future of democracy as they provide a route for young people into exploring political issues and in participating in the political and democratic process.

8. To what extent does social media negatively shape public debate, either through encouraging polarisation or through abuse deterring individuals from engaging in public life?

We found that social media can negatively shape public debate due to the problematic way in which ethnic minority communities and the Muslim community are represented on such platforms. There are a number of themes within this that we discuss as follows:

8.1 Everyday racism - The vast majority of the ethnic minority youth who we have worked with in our research experienced racism on social media; some experience it on a daily basis. These experiences included aggressive threats and name-calling, taunting, or individuals being made the subject of jokes and “banter” on social media. Young people felt it is important to talk about racism and referred to racist incidences on the basis of accent, skin colour, faith, dress, nationality and ethnicity. Young people explained that racist incidents tended to be triggered by media stereotypes and people who were under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. Our participants understood that racism can be both covert and overt. Encountering and responding to racism was context-dependent, based on the intersection of place, community size, peer and intergenerational relations, and personal identities.

8.2 Islamophobia - Interconnected with racism, many of our participants felt discriminated against because of their perceived religion and so experienced personal and institutional forms of Islamophobia (as people often assumed they were Muslim). We have written about Islamophobia based on this research: More recently – and since this research has been completed – we are concerned about the high Levels of public Islamophobia and rise in hate crimes particularly connected with Brexit.

8.3 Legacies of negative media representation - Even although some media outlets may be making an effort to change how they represent Britain’s Asian communities, there is a legacy of exclusionary headlines and problematic images about British Asians that continually re-circulate on social media; these are very damaging for ethnic minority youth. Also connected to this is the fact that news stories are shared via social media out of context, in isolation and removed from any editorial ethics, e.g. Facebook sharing of news stories was reflected upon in that young people felt all sorts of unmediated ‘news’ is shared by ‘friends’ on Facebook which often leads to a proliferation of negative comments, and intensification of online racism.

8.4 Gendered and racialised stereotypes - a strong theme across our project is about the problematic stereotypes placed upon many ethnic minority young people, including the ways in which these are gendered, racialized and shaped by other markers of social difference. These powerful stereotypes operate to keep ethnic minority young people in their place and may restrict them for engaging in democracy. Such stereotypes present a significant set of barriers for young people.

8.5 Fear of being misrecognised as 'radical', 'extreme' or 'oppressed' - an important barrier to democratic participation that we found in our research was a reluctance amongst some young people to engage in politics in case of misrecognition. Here, young Muslims – and those who were mistaken for being Muslim - were concerned about being labelled as too ‘political’ or as ‘radical’; this led some young people to avoid talking about politics entirely on social media and in public.

8.6 Lack of awareness of the heterogeneity/diversity of Asian community in UK - all of our participants were concerned (and some were angry) about the lack of awareness of the diversity within the Asian community in the UK. They felt labelled, misunderstood and misrepresented as they were regularly assumed to belong to a homogenous Asian community that lacked any internal diversity. Young people were eager to correct this and to point our divergences, differences and disjunctures within the Asian community (and within sub-groups of this community) whether this be based on politics, faith, family or education. Some used social media to do this.