No, Claudia Conway and Gen Z Won't Save Us

Claudia Conway has 1.4 million followers on TikTok. (TikTok/ @claudiamconway)

By now, regardless of how old you are or what your political affiliations are, you've probably heard of Claudia Conway. Like other teens, the outspoken 15-year-old uses her TikTok account to vent about her mom, the Trump administration and things she sees online. Unlike other teens, Claudia has 1.4 million followers, the ear of the press and the attention of mainstream news media. Not because she's an activist or especially articulate. Rather, it's because she's the daughter of George and Kellyanne Conway—and her content is particularly unfiltered.

Claudia has found herself trending on Twitter four times this year—usually for documenting her turbulent relationship with her parents, especially her mom. This month, however, her "lol" and "lmao"-laden online statements were permitted even more gravity than usual, because they concerned the coronavirus outbreak in the White House.

The day after the president's diagnosis was revealed, Claudia posted a video of herself to TikTok, looking unimpressed, captioned: “my mom coughing all around the house after trump tested positive for covid.” The following day, she posted an image of herself wearing a mask, captioned, “update my mom has covid.” Two days later: “hey guys currently dying of covid!”

On Monday, Oct. 5, after Trump left hospital and tweeted, “Feeling really good! Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life,” Conway commented on a thread: “guys lmao he’s not doing ‘better’.” Later in the day, she wrote: “he is receiving the world’s best healthcare right now… ‘don’t be afraid’ he is such a joke.” And later still: “he is so ridiculous. apparently he is doing badly lol and they are doing what they can to stabilize him.”

She was quickly hailed as both a whistleblower and an excellent “reporter.” Especially by those exhausted by the mixed messages and contradictory information coming out of the White House.

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Elsewhere, she was dismissed as a disrespectful child, undeserving of anyone's attention—including that of her parents.

How we as a nation responded en masse to this shit-talking 15-year-old very much reflected how much weight we’ve become accustomed to casually piling onto Generation Z.

Malala Yousafzai's emergence in 2012 signaled that teenagers no longer had to work in activist groups to garner respect from older generations. But the narrow path Malala carved out was rapidly transformed into a highway by the wave of activism that greeted the Trump administration in 2017. And the proliferation of social media, along with a relentless 24-hour news cycle, put young campaigners in the spotlight in an unprecedented way.

It started in earnest in 2018. After 17 people were killed in a mass shooting at their school, the teenagers of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were thrust onto the national stage. The teen leaders—including David Hogg, Emma González and Cameron Kasky—that emerged that February went on to organize March For Our Lives, a national gun control movement designed for young people.

A few months later, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg inspired a global, youth-led movement for climate action. By September, she was addressing the United Nations Climate Change Conference. “This is all wrong,” she scolded the room. “I shouldn’t be standing here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to me for hope? How dare you.”

That same month, 23-year-old Boyan Slat sailed away from San Francisco Bay to try and clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—a plan he had been hatching since the age of 16. The hopes pinned on him have been consistently hyperbolic—“Ocean Action Hero,” one headline recently blared.

There have been others since, like 13-year-old LGBTQ+ activist Desmond is Amazing, who was the Grand Marshall of Brooklyn’s Pride parade last year. And Isra Hirsi, who founded the U.S. Youth Climate Strike when she was 15. Let's not forget that several of the Bay Area's biggest Black Lives Matter marches this year were organized by teens.

These young activists are inspiring, no doubt. But the adults watching them have created a narrative that these kids are going to fix national and global problems that currently seem insurmountable—thus absolving themselves of responsibility. On the flip side, glorifying youth activists as saviors has had the unintended effect of exposing them to online harassment and constant scrutiny. Which is why it seemed perfectly reasonable for adults to immediately hail Claudia Conway as both a hero and a villain.

Leveling that kind of judgment on teens started in earnest with the Parkland kids. They were presented first as heroes of the gun control movement, then routinely ridiculed and harassed. David Hogg, Emma González and Cameron Kasky have all been singled out for bullying by adults who should know better including Fox News host Laura Ingraham and Republican candidate Leslie Gibson.

Greta Thunberg has been subjected to a stunning number of attacks, perpetrated mostly by adult men. On Fox News (one commentator referred to her as a “mentally ill Swedish child”), on the president's Twitter account repeatedly (“Chill Greta, Chill!”), and in too many cruel memes to mention.

Slat's efforts to clean up the ocean have been dismissed and mocked repeatedly despite the enormity of the task he's taken on. (Earlier this year, the Vancouver Sun pondered whether or not his Ocean Cleanup was “the environmental version of Fyre Fest.”) Both Isra Hirsi and Desmond the Amazing (reminder: he is 13) have received death threats.

Youth movements have always been pivotal in transforming America, generation by generation. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, high schoolers led walk-outs over racial inequality and segregation in education. They protested the Vietnam war and voting access, and found themselves on the nightly news because of it. But never before Gen Z has there been so much focus and weight put on individual teens campaigning for change.

Which is why so many people have been able to ignore the fact that Conway, though opinionated, most frequently uses TikTok as a cry for help. Back on Sept. 15, she captioned a video: “no one believes you” “i have never abused you” “all you do is lie for attention.” The next screen read:  “why would i lie you broke me.” Last week, when one user posted, “Just saw your mom on the news with out a mask on,” Conway responded: “and you wonder why i have covid.” Recent clips show her checking her blood oxygen and asking the public if she needs to go to the hospital.

America would do well to start remembering that Claudia Conway, though intelligent, engaging and entertaining, is neither going to save us, nor bring down the government. Rather, she's a teenager trying to navigate a very unhealthy relationship with her family. We’ve just become so accustomed to overburdening Gen Z activists with messes of prior generations’ making, we think nothing of piling them onto her too.

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The narrative that Gen Z is going to save the world has been used like an emotional floatation device for adults during this entire presidency. And it is true that this generation is particularly savvy, organized, driven and smart. But if we want them to make a change that badly, it's time we start leaving them alone. They've already proven that they do much better without our interference, and they certainly don't deserve our abuse.