Adolescents’ Analyses of Digital Media Related to Race and Racism in the 2020 U.S. Election: An Assessment of Their Needs and Skills

Published date01 January 2023
AuthorMatthew Coopilton,Brendesha M. Tynes,Stephen M. Gibson,Joseph Kahne,Devin English,Karinna Nazario
Date01 January 2023
Subject MatterCivic Empowerment of Underrepresented Communities
208 ANNALS, AAPSS, 705, January 2023
DOI: 10.1177/00027162231195186
Analyses of
Digital Media
Related to Race
and Racism in
the 2020 U.S.
Election: An
Assessment of
Their Needs
and Skills
Adolescents’ heavy engagement with digital news and
social media brings them considerable exposure to
race-related content, especially during election cycles.
We assess how well young people navigate that kind of
digital content, using a nationally representative longi-
tudinal study in which baseline data was collected dur-
ing and after the 2020 election. We categorize young
people’s responses to two real-life examples of digital
media related to participation in the election as begin-
ner, emerging, and mastery level in terms of their abil-
ity to critique racism. We also find responses that we
categorize as race evasive, anticritical, and white
supremacist. Most of these young people performed at
the beginner level, and a minority achieved mastery.
We argue that there is a clear need for young people to
be better prepared to assess race-related online infor-
mation and that educators need to support them in
developing those skills.
Keywords: digital literacies; online civic reasoning;
critical race digital literacy; 2020 election;
critical race media literacy; adolescent
civic engagement; computational propa-
During the 2016 and 2020 elections, race-
related disinformation and propaganda
proliferated online (e.g., DiResta et al. 2018;
Reddi, Kuo, and Kreiss 2023). This content
Matthew Coopilton (formerly Hamilton) recently com-
pleted their PhD in urban education policy/education
psychology at the University of Southern California
and is now a President’s Sustainability Postdoctoral
Fellow at the USC School of Cinematic Arts’ Interactive
Media and Games Division. Their research focuses on
how people learn and develop critical digital literacies,
especially through playing and designing games.
Brendesha M. Tynes is Dean’s Professor of Educational
Equity and professor of education and psychology at
the University of Southern California. Her research
focuses on the racial landscape adolescents navigate in
online settings, online racial discrimination, critical
race digital literacy, and the design of digital tools that
empower youth of color.
furthered racist agendas, undermined informed electoral engagement, and con-
tributed to broad race-related political polarization. If adolescents are to be gain-
fully politically engaged in this historical moment, they need to develop skills to
critically assess and analyze race-related digital media. Teaching those skills,
then, should be integral to civics learning in the post-2020 sociopolitical world.
Educators and scholars have increasingly been highlighting the importance of
digital and media literacy (e.g., Garcia et al. 2021; Kahne, Hodgin, and Eidman-
Aadahl 2016; Kellner and Share 2007; Tynes et al. 2021). Teenagers tend to
access news media online; 53 percent of young people ages 18 to 29 found online
sources such as social media and news websites/apps to be more helpful than
other sources for learning about the 2016 U.S. election (Gottfried et al. 2016). A
2018 report found that three-quarters of teens say they get news from social
media “often” or “sometimes” (Dautrich 2018).
Entangled as they are in the digital world, teens must develop critical digital
literacy skills to help them navigate life online. With these skills, teens will be
better equipped to build healthy communities (Mihailidis 2018) by understand-
ing how the internet shapes information (Lynch 2016). Adolescents need to know
how to seek and find high-quality information (Breakstone et al. 2021; Metzger,
Flanagin, and Medders 2010), how to challenge oppressive media narratives
(Mills and Unsworth 2018; Tynes et al. 2021), how to navigate an oppressive digi-
tal infrastructure with biased algorithms (Noble 2018; Tynes et al. 2021), and
how to critique corporate digital platforms (Benjamin 2019; Garcia and de Roock
2021). These digital skills will both enable youth to engage media reports about
electoral politics in a manner consistent with such democratic ideals as informed
and agentic decision-making and will also help them navigate polarized, and pos-
sibly abusive, media content. Few studies have assessed young people’s critical
Stephen M. Gibson is currently a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the Developmental
Psychology program at Virginia Commonwealth University. His research focuses on contextual
factors that protect or mitigate the effects of racism on mental health symptomatology among
Black youth.
Joseph Kahne is Ted and Jo Dutton Presidential Professor for Education Policy and Politics at
the University of California, Riverside. Professor Kahne’s research, writing, and school reform
work focus on ways that educational practices, policies, and contexts impact equitable out-
comes and support youth civic and political development.
Devin English is an assistant professor in the Department of Urban-Global Public Health at
Rutgers University. His current research aims to promote the health and wellbeing of Black
LGBTQ youth communities through understanding and confronting the intersection of racism
and heterosexism.
Karinna Nazario is a developmental psychology PhD student at the University of California,
Santa Cruz. Her research examines adolescents’ and emerging adults’ civic identity develop-
ment on social media. She is particularly interested in how aspects of young people’s cultural
identities such as political ideologies and worldviews shape, and are shaped by how they navi-
gate information online and develop digital literacy skills.
NOTE: This study was funded with a Lyle Spencer Award to Transform Education from the
Spencer Foundation. This article and findings do not necessarily represent the views of the

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