The tone of helplessness in America's anti-war movement of the Sixties, embodied in the young protesters' lament that they were "old enough to kill, but not to vote" -- has permanently been silenced by the social media revolution. In fact, the physical act of voting has become almost irrelevant in an age when a single voice in the wilderness can log on to Facebook and raise an army of 400,000 strong to undermine a terrorist organization; when college students can take to Twitter to incite political revolt; when stay-at-home moms can bring multi-national corporations to their knees by blogging; or when common citizens can expose human rights violations and police brutality via YouTube. Activists once took their grievances to the street. Today they take them to the Web.
What all these incidents have in common is the sudden and overwhelming ferocity with which young people use social media to effectively challenge authority. In Columbia, Oscar Morales' Facebook page inspired 12 million people around the world to protest Columbia's extremist FARC group, severely weakening its influence. Last summer, the suspicious election results of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ignited protest throughout the country, fueled by graphic images and video that flooded the Internet. Today, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez's increasingly unpopular administration faces the relentless harassment of students who coordinate their opposition on Twitter.
Around the world, corrupt governments are feeling the heat. Tech-savvy young citizens are circumventing tradition media, physical boundaries, cultural differences, and language barriers to bring their social and political concerns to an attentive global audience.
A Cause Célèbre
Yet, while world leaders pay lip service to the power of social media, few genuinely grasp what it is and how to use it. Ironically, major corporations, seizing upon cause marketing to promote their brands, are taking the reigns and engaging young people through these new communication channels. In the process, they are opening opportunities for young people to organize and become politically and socially active in a way - and to a degree - that they never could before.
In the latest example, heads of one of the largest advertising agencies in the world are putting social media to the ultimate test. David Jones, global CEO of Havas Worldwide, and Kate Robertson, Euro RSCG UK group chairman, are the driving forces behind the One Young World summit - the largest global youth leadership gathering ever to be held. Social media was used to identify hundreds of young delegates under 25 from every country in the world, who will meet to address topics that include political leadership, business, the environment, the role of media, and global health. The inaugural meeting takes place in London on February 8-10.
"World leaders often get it wrong," says Jones. "We want to give today's young leaders a change to get it right. That's why we specifically kept ages under 25 - because by 30, you're part of the establishment."
And he's bringing the heavy artillery to back him up. Among the international political, social and cultural icons to participate are Kofi Annan, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Prize Laureate Muhammad Yunus, Sir Bob Geldof, HRH Crown Prince Haakon of Norway, British Council CEO Martin Davidson, and Columbia's Oscar Morales.
"Young people can have incredible influence and power," says Jones. "Why did the Copenhagen summit fail to produce a global climate change treaty? Because everyone played politics. Everyone said, 'well, you act first.'"
For Jones, the idea that businesses have a moral obligation to help improve the world isn't a sudden inspiration for promoting the brand, it is a lifelong conviction. In addition to a barrel full of industry awards, accolades and accomplishments, he has been widely acknowledged as an active social entrepreneur. In 2008, he was recognized as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. In 2006, the Financial Times and Aviva named him one of the Top Five European Pioneering Thought Leaders. He is also involved with David Cameron and the U.K.'s Conservative Party. Meanwhile, he and his team lead the global advertising for Kofi Annan's Campaign for Climate Justice.
Just as Jones has an uncanny knack for reading his audiences in the advertising world, he also knows how to rally the right young people to create a spark. One Young World's participants are not your typical Boy Scouts and Soup Kitchen optimists.
"Our delegates include some amazing people who are academic, political, and social leaders in their own right," he notes.
Delegates include Lauren Bush, niece of former President George W. Bush. She is the force behind the FEED projects, which recently partnered with Whole Foods Market to feed all the children of Rwanda for a year. Also among the delegates is a 21-year-old former boy soldier from Uganda, who vows one day "to lift Uganda and the world at large from their political constraints;" a Pakistani from the Balochistan province, who promises to help his people to "raise their voices against the cruelty of the occupying forces; " and a Ghanaian who is focused "on helping my country achieve education and gender equality."
One Young World Youth Coordinator, Rachel-Haltom-Irwin, is a former coordinator for the White House intern program and former Iowa Youth Vote director of the Obama
campaign. "Social media is an amazing tool to start and spread an idea - an idea that can easily move across states, countries, socioeconomic, and ethnic backgrounds, factors that were often barriers in the past," she observes.
China, India, and Brazil - the world's largest emerging nations - lead the delegate pack, which comes from the world's 192 countries. After the summit, draft resolutions will be distributed internationally to global institutions such as the U.N., The World Economic Forum, and TED.
"This generation of young people has unprecedented access to information and knowledge like no other generation before them. They can impact and influence the world and affect real change," says Jones. "One Young World gives them a platform to enact the positive change they seek; it allows the next generation of world leaders to have a voice today and actually begin to shape the future. We want it to be the Davos for 25 year olds."
While aging baby boomers once heeded the call to "turn on, tune in, drop out," today's generation is turned on and plugged in. They live, breathe and move through social media, and they have proven capable of surgically taking out the opposition one grievance at a time. They have discovered, through social media, that they can be an unstoppable force.
Sixty million Americans cast their votes to elect President Barrack Obama in 2008; yet, millions of young people around the world had already giving him their stamp of approval on Facebook. If his victory was not inevitable, it had at least been blessed by the global army of modern youth.
For today's aging world leaders - what is the take-away message from the social media phenomenon?
One Young World summit may be saying it loud and clear: Youth must be served. Or else.