This research project emerges from the context of increasing political polarisation across media and social media platforms, leading to a hollowing of the centre, the amplification of mis- and disinformation, and an ensuing struggle for control over cultural narratives. The resulting “culture wars” become the background against which young people today learn about the world and navigate identity formation. This paper presents a summary of findings from a doctoral research project exploring how young people’s affective experiences of belonging in their online and offline social worlds inform their developing political identities, in Aotearoa New Zealand; a secular settler nation, pursuing a fraught path towards bicultural identity, and whose recent experiences with a white supremacist terrorist attack brought identity politics to the fore again. Both quantitative and qualitative analysis was employed to analyse young people’s practices and experiences online; through the administration of surveys to approximately 500 students, aged 16 to 19, across five New Zealand schools. Surveys asked participants to reflect upon their social media habits and behaviours, their perceptions of self, subjective experiences of belonging and non-belonging, and emerging worldviews and beliefs. Further to this, 21 in-depth and semi-structured interviews were conducted, with a subset of the initial respondents, in order to capture a more contextualised sense of how they were navigating belonging in response to the political narratives available to them.
Emergent findings show how the identities of young people are intricately woven across and through the lifeworlds they inhabit; discursively enacted and produced in online spaces as much as—if not more than—in offline worlds. Their identities, worldviews, and beliefs are thus socioculturally bound and politically located, as are the narrative environments that foster them, drawing on locally-specific concerns whilst also engaging with global movements and communities. While the 21 interviewees personally identify with a range of political positions—including leftism, libertarianism, conservatism, communism, environmentalism, and “conscientious centrism”—it appears that these identifications emerge from an affective attunement to the often overwhelmingly political environments of their online social worlds, and from the perspective of particular socio-political locations. The paper draws on examples from the analysis to illustrate this: where a 16-year-old white Christian male seeking a strong authoritative role-model finds validation in a misogynistic, anti-feminist self-improvement community, exposure to this same community helps a young Māori transwoman to understand her own identity and become a voice in the trans-teen community; a non-binary teen celebrates social media for allowing exploration and education, while admonishing it for the hate and devaluation that feels deeply personal; a group of boys start a “Big Ideas Group” to discuss hot-button issues, finding themselves unable to land firmly on either side of the debate, and attempting to create room for nuance. The project’s findings ultimately demonstrate that a desire for recognition and belonging drives many young people to seek validation and acceptance wherever they can find it, and that disparate online information ecosystems and communities of belonging make particular kinds of identity performances available where they may not have been before.