‘A royal mess’: Behind Gen Z’s fight with (mis)information overload

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The post has a galvanizing visual power because of its self-made quality, her youthfulness and the genuine outrage behind her complaint. All are markers of authenticity and credibility to Generation Z, the first Americans who grew up in a social media-dominated ecosystem. The tirade was quickly viewed more than 2 million times on Twitter and 10,000 times on TikTok. The leftist meme page thatsnotrightpolitics shared it with its more than 80,000 followers, where it got over 800,000 views on Instagram alone.

“This is about as un-American as it gets. There’s no exaggeration anymore. Trump wants to be a dictator,” read the thatsnotrightpolitics caption on the video. “Fair and free elections are out the window.”

That is, if it were true. It’s not. Her ballot didn’t come from the government.

Political parties and campaigns often mail out voter registration forms to encourage people to vote. It’s a legal practice that has been reported in a handful of Southern states. There have been no reports of official election notices coming wrapped in partisan advertisements. The mailer probably arrived by coincidence, and a formal application, complete with the Official Election Mail logo, would have been on its way.

The woman in the video, 22-year-old Kendall Olivia Matthews, a Georgia-based actor, told POLITICO she knew it wasn’t from official election organizers and tried to stop its spread when she saw that was how people were interpreting it. The viral video was taken from a series of posts in which she detailed her discomfort in receiving ballot request forms with campaign material, she said.

The viral video wasn’t deliberate disinformation, brewed up by a cabal of Russians or other anti-democratic forces. Rather, the video’s journey from one young woman’s complaint to viral sensation is emblematic of the unprecedented misinformation challenges Gen Z voters face, despite their social media savvy. With an inundation of information, a penchant for picture-based platforms that can obfuscate nuance and an emotional media landscape rife with conflicting and dubious accounts, Gen Zers can and do fall into pitfalls with serious implications on their political outlook.

“Trust in institutions is down across the board, but teens experience even more cynicism about institutions just as a function of their time of life,” said Peter Adams, senior vice president of education at the News Literacy Project, a group that teaches youth about media literacy.

“That can easily lend itself into falling into conspiratorial thinking traps,” he added.

a new media landscape

Gen Z social media habits often drift toward Instagram and TikTok, photo and video platforms where the origins of information can easily be obfuscated. YouTube and Instagram were ranked as the daily new source of choice among a plurality of Gen Zers when compared with text-based media such as Reddit or newspapers, according to a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll.

Add to that the emotional atmosphere surrounding this presidential election, an incumbent with a fractured relationship with the truth, a national reckoning on race and the global pandemic of a barely understood disease, and the instincts to fact-check often go by the wayside.