The Daily Show Effect: Attracting Young Voters to Politics One Joke at a Time

The Daily Show Effect and the Politicization of Young Voters

Posted Oct 08, 2010

Here are some headlines and comments from recent research on the media's impact on politics:

  • Election 2008: Second-largest youth voter turnout in American history. 23 million young Americans ages 18-29 voted, resulting in a youth voter turnout of 52%.

  • More Young People Look to the Times, Colbert and Stewart for News: Colbert Report (80%), Daily Show (74%) and New York Times (67%) have the biggest percentage of viewers and readers in the coveted 18-49-year-old demographic.

  • comScore Releases First Comparative Report on Mobile Usage in Japan, United States and Europe: In the U.S., 25-34 year olds were 44 percent more likely to access mobile media than an average mobile user, with 18-24 year olds 39 percent more likely.

As I travel the country and speak to a variety of audiences from educators to parents to corporations, I constantly hear one refrain: "Those young kids are spending so much time on Facebook just playing around and wasting away their lives." This is usually followed up by, "And I don't understand why they need to text all day long. They are constantly checking their phones and interrupting themselves to respond to a text message."

With 500 million Facebook users, and 1 in 14 people worldwide having a Facebook account, as well as youth sending and receiving massive numbers of monthly text messages, it is not difficult to see why people feel this way. However, that being said, this is not the most narcissistic generation in our history (as some have called it). In fact, as the most connected generation in history our young adults are becoming more interested in politics and have more sources from which to gain their political perspectives. The numbers bear this out. The Net Generation, those born in the 1980s, is ready to lead and govern.

There is a wealth of information about our 18- to 29-year-olds and their voting records and political preferences but what I find intriguing is the next generation which has been dubbed the iGeneration (for their love of anything "i" - iPod, iPhone, Wii - as well as anything "i"ndividualized and personalized). Little is known about this generation and their values and aspirations. Recently my colleagues and I have begun to study not only these teen iGeners but also preteens and children who will make up the next "mini-generation" of Americans. Research is still in progress but here are some things that we do know:

  • Even the youngest children multitask with the amount of multitasking peaking in the late teen years.
  • Media usage increases steadily as children spend five and a half hours per day mostly watching television and playing video games, preteens add on other forms of media to bring their total to nearly 10 hours a day, followed by young teens who spend nearly 16 daily hours consuming nearly all forms of media and then older teens who up the ante to more than 20 daily hours. Of course, much of this media consumption is done while multitasking as seen in studies by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Pew Internet & American Life Project and my own research lab.

Our current work is examining values among these age groups. Preliminarily, we are finding that even the youngest children are showing a strong value and belief in social and political issues. Coupled with their older brothers and sisters in the Net Generation, this points to the 2008 and 2012 elections as critical in the progressive impact of youth on politics. In 2008 youth voters comprised 18% of total voters (up from 17% in the 2004 election). When we add in all of those young adults who have turned 18 since the 2008 election we should now start seeing a very powerful voting block that are ripe for information and political guidance.

Where do we go to reach those youth? Well, according to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, our youth are consuming news from a variety of sources BUT primarily through electronic sources. According to a Pew report, "those in their 30s are the only age group in which a majority (57%) reports getting news on one or more digital platforms yesterday." So, there are clearly two avenues to our Net Generation young adults and our iGeneration teens - media and technology! And, from the popularity of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report among these youth, humor goes a long way.

The Daily Show Effect -- first mentioned in a 2006 journal article in American Politics Research, and now also referred to as WWJSD (What Would Jon Stewart Do?) -- speaks yards about our newly politicized youth. They live in a connected, media-driven world replete with hours spent switching from Facebook to YouTube to text messages to video games to the Internet, on their omnipresent iPhones, Droids, laptops, iPads, and literally any Internet-enabled device. They enjoy and appreciate social and political issues and are ready to gobble them up as long as they are presented with the following in mind:

  • The messages must be delivered via some form of media.
  • The messages must be short and to the point.
  • The messages must be delivered using multi-sensory inputs (auditory, visual, tactile, kinesthetic, etc.).
  • The messages must entail humor.

Long messages will not fit on one smartphone screen or will roll off the bottom of a Facebook wall. YouTube videos longer than a few minutes exceed their task switching limits [NOTE: for those of you who would argue that this is evidence of a generation with short attention spans see interesting work done at the University of California, Irvine campus by Gloria Mark and her colleagues who found that information workers spend about 3 minutes on a task before switching to another]. Messages must be delivered in formats that will grab young viewers' attention as does everything in their world. A teen or young adult's world is full of bright colors, moving objects, vibrations, beeps, whistles, and every imaginable sensory input vying for the user's limited processing abilities in a rich multi-sensory world. Messages must compete with the 10-plus screens open on the laptop, the constant bombardment of text messages arriving and departing, and the constant status updates and wall postings on Facebook.

This is why the Daily Show works and why there is a true Daily Show Effect. It uses brief (often just a few seconds) video or audio clips, in engaging formats, with snippets of information leading the viewer to an obvious conclusion. Whether Jon Stewart is dishing out "fake news" or not, the impact is the important feature. That young viewers clamor to watch his show (many of whom do so online as they task-switch voraciously) and they pay attention to the information he dispenses. They do not look at him as some sort of icon. Rather, they see him as a leader in bringing them news in a manageable, hip, understandable, and humorous format which they can digest, return to at a later date, forward to their friends, and post on Facebook. As one 19-year-old told me recently, "Yeh, I know Stewart says he is giving us fake news but he's really just getting me interested in following up a story myself to see what else we are not being told. I love it when I can post a DS clip and watch my FB friends react to it. It's not the news. It is a portal to more news. That's The Daily Show Effect. It has turned my friends and I into wanting to know more and we know how to find more but it helps that he gives us a starting point."

I am excited that in the next month or so we should have data from hundreds of children, preteens, teens, young adults and older adults examining and comparing their personal and work/school values. It should be fascinating and as a researcher I can hardly stop myself from jumping online and watching the anonymous data roll in. Such is the life of a Baby Boom researcher! 

POSTSCRIPT: I am thoroughly humbled by the extremely modest success of my latest book which has had three printings in the 6 months since its release.  Quite honestly, when you write a book you never know IF anyone will read it and if they do what they will think of it.  This latest one appears to have resonated well with readers.  I get e-mail nearly daily from teachers and principals telling me how much they struggle with integrating technology into their schools and how my book helped them conceptualized ways of doing this without massive capital expenditures.  Two high school principals actually bought books for their entire core of teachers!  I beamed for days after that happened!  The notion of an "iGeneration" of teens also seems to have struck a chord with people.  I guess when you are immersed in research and see trends, they make sense to you but somehow writing and speaking about it has opened my eyes to the way people have been wanting a way to characterize this group of high-tech, mobile teens.  I look forward to jumping into the data that we are collecting now on even younger kids.  They are truly different!  My friend has an 8-year-old who makes a weekly TV show of his own. He films it, edits it and even adds titles and transitions and then "broadcasts" it to his family.  HE IS 8! And he is not unusual.  I hear stories about these young kids and watch their facilty with technology and media.  For them, technology is just another aspect of life.  If they dream that something should be done then they have the know-how (or the understanding of how) to make it happen.  Truly inspring and all of this makes me very excited about watching them grow up into teens and young adults.