Македонски Shqip English

Alexander Johnson

Becoming Social: Human Rights in the Age of Social Media

Introduction

Social media has taken hold of global audiences since it emerged at the end of the 20th century in a way that no other media platforms have previously done. The introduction of Myspace in 2001 marked a significant shift in the media landscape, as users now were able to control their own media markets, creating the first type of mass social media that would later go on to include “microblogs” such as Twitter 1. In the years following, several high profile social media platforms have spread worldwide, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Tumblr, and LinkedIn, among others. These platforms provide ways for users to share and create experiences and are avenues for discussions to happen.

These platforms are channels for information exchanges between users and sources both within and outside their native countries; citizens in Macedonia are no longer bound to just their local and national media outlets. Instead, with social media, users have access to global networks of communication in the form of media companies (i.e. CNN, BBC) and other individuals. This rapid spread of information in the age of social media can be seen as a consequence of continued globalization, and its effects are being seen in Macedonia today.

As recently as 2014, over one third of Macedonian citizens are active on social networks 2. With a total population estimated to be just over 2,075,000 3, this would mean that over 690,000 citizens participate in at least one social media network. A study in 2011 places the number of active users on Facebook alone to be just shy of 709,000 4. As new networks are introduced, and the concept of social media becomes more regular, this number is likely to increase. The most used social media networks in Macedonia stand at a mix of globally recognized sites, as well as sites that are more specific to the Balkan region 5.

 

Human Rights in the Age of Social Media

Modern social media platforms have transformed the way in which information pertaining to human rights issues, violations, and advocacy are being addressed. Citizens of Macedonia no longer must wait for their traditional media sources to report on issues; those who witness transgressions, especially ones that violate the fundamental definitions of human rights, can easily post photos and captions online that spread throughout the online community. When these posts are shared online, the diffusion of information can become rapid, superseding that of traditional media sources, such as television, print, and radio.

Three primary social media platforms have been fundamental in changing the way human rights issues are dealt with in Macedonia: Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. All three of these sites are within the top ten most used social media networks in the country 6, and each of these platforms has their own affordances that make them unique and useful in changing the media landscape of the country.

Facebook is far and away the most prolific social media platform worldwide; with over 2.2. billion active users, it surpasses the next most used social media platform, YouTube, by over 700 million users 7. Twitter sits much lower on the list at 330 million active users across the globe 8. The widespread usage of Facebook gives users a much wider audience than that of any other network, which is one reason social media campaigns on Facebook can be more successful. Although Twitter may lack in the number of users worldwide, they make up for it with a brand built on instantly sharing concise information; media outlets and individuals alike are able to share brief tidbits of information rapidly, and the act of “retweeting” diffuses the information just as quickly.

            While Twitter and Facebook are able to host a variety of media types on their platforms (i.e. text, photos, videos), YouTube is unique in that it is built specifically to host video content. This content cannot be shared with an individual’s network in the same way Facebook and Twitter, but unlike other platforms, YouTube does not require an account to view most content on the site. Although there are privacy restrictions, videos are generally made public to attract viewers.

            This was the case in October of 2010, when YouTube served as the central platform for exposing a corruption scandal within the Macedonian government. The video clip, anonymously published to the site, allegedly showed former president Branko Crvenkovski paying 500,000 euros on a “PR strategy aimed at destabilizing the government in 2008 led by the opposing party” 9. The clip quickly made the rounds on social media, leading to outrage within the country and neighboring Balkan countries.

            Without YouTube, the publication of a video like this would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to spread across the country. Television networks would be the most viable option for sharing this information, and even then, it is extremely limited in who has access to a television at the time in which the information is broadcasted. Traditional print and radio networks could only describe the information in the video, limiting its effects. Perceiving information visually, especially in a video-based format, gives a stronger connection to the information 10. Those who see this video, rather than hear or read a description of it, would be more convicted to share it among their social networks.

            The current media environment in Macedonia only promotes the use of social media platforms as a way to spread information. In 2018, Macedonia ranks as the 109th most free nation in the world for journalists, meaning that in Norway, the number 1 country on the index, journalists enjoy the most freedom 11. Macedonia ranks as one of the lowest in the Balkans, second only to Bulgaria. Although its rankings have improved since the VMRO-DPMNE, the primary right-winged political party of Macedonia, was voted out in 2017, its current ranking still reflects the chaotic state that journalists must work in.

            Issues of censorship and media dishonestly have been prevalent in Macedonia for decades, and the country is still marred by these controversies. It is in this current state that social media platforms have become a new type of news outlet, with stories being generated by those typically unaffiliated with the media sector. Although the government has tried to extend its tendencies to censor unflattering information on social media, it is much more difficult to censor individual accounts, especially when they can be anonymous and can be remade under different usernames.

            In June of 2011, reports broke on Twitter and small news sites that Macedonian police had beaten a young boy to death after the VMRO-DPMNE announced it had won the election earlier that day 12. Major news outlets did not report on the story until hours after it broke online. In the days following the beating, outcry and passionate responses increased online, making the story a trending topic on talk shows worldwide 13.

            Protest broke out across the nation, specifically in Skopje, all sparked by a singular tweet. One of the primary tools used to organize these protests was Facebook 14, used for its ability to reach the widest audience of any social media platform within Macedonia. The ability to organize a widespread protest in Skopje, paired with the fact that it avoided being censored by the government, proves that social media is changing the landscape of human rights awareness within the country. Although some accounts and pages were shut down by the Ministry of the Interior 15, Facebook and Twitter ultimately assisted the overall success of the protests.

 

Drawing Comparisons and Moving Forward

            In terms of rates of media usage and media literacy, Macedonia is behind that of more traditionally developed countries. Even with a global average of 42% media penetration, Macedonia falls behind most of the main social media consumers worldwide, including the United States (71%), the United Kingdom (66%), and Turkey (63%) 16. General trends seen in these countries where social media is more widely used can be tentatively applied to Macedonia in order be cautious and prepared for what increased social media usage may look like in Macedonia.

            The benefits of an increasingly media literate society outweigh the less than stellar side effects. High levels of media usage could be potentially beneficial, especially if there are continued cases of human rights violations and police brutality, provided that the government allows for a free and open media market. The political scene of 2018 in the United States has been partially characterized by a disproportionately high number of cases in which police are called on black citizens for doing activities that are mundane in nature, such as having a family barbecue at a park 17, selling water 18, and sitting within a Starbucks 19.

            Increased social media usage allows for more people to see these captured moments of racially charged discrimination, and often lead to public outcry. Hashtags started by activists on Twitter become trending across the country and those who instigated the racially charged incidents have often faced considerable backlash 20. Conversations are started, and progress can be made by passing policies and increasing education.

            However, this use of social media is not immune from negative side effects as well. The creation and distribution of false news, which is purposefully sensationalized to attract viewers and sway political opinions, can drastically harm the media landscape and those who fall victim to it. Macedonia is no stranger to the creation of deliberately false news; rather, it houses an incredible amount of the false news generated during and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election 21. Across the world in India, reports have been released citing multiple instances where the spreading of false news about specific people being child kidnappers led to multiple people being stoned to death 22. As more people gain access to credible and reliable information, they also gain access to a world of information which is unfounded and dangerous.

            In the coming years, it will be the responsibility of the Macedonian government to ensure social media is being used responsibly by its citizens. The general blasé attitude displayed by the mayor of Vales when asked about his citizens’ role in swaying the 2016 U.S. presidential election 23 is concerning; it is also a stark reminder that Macedonia’s own elections and public affairs can become the target of these social media crusades in the future if it is not adequately addressed. This does not, however, constitute a rise in state-owned media; rather, Macedonia must find a balance between allowing their citizens to exercise free control of their media, while also ensuring that media is used responsibly and safely.

 

Conclusion

As Macedonia continues to develop into a modern nation, so will the media habits of its citizens. The continued usage of social media platforms in the country has built a network between the state, its citizens, and varying news outlets that expediate the exchange of information. Access to information that extends far beyond the physical borders of Macedonia open a world of global news and opinions that modernize the nation.

Social media affords the ability to shine light on human rights offenses much faster than traditional news media can. A singular tweet, post, or video can spark a discussion that in turn create visible action in society, leading to protests, investigations, and policy changes. Macedonia saw this happen on two separate occasions, and as the country continues to advance towards being a more globally minded nation, social media will continue to progress in the same way.

It is then the responsibility of the government to ensure that it listens to its citizens via these social media networks and responds appropriately and in a timely manner when human rights violations are brought to the attention of the public. Citizens should recognize these networks as being something more than just a place to share life updates and humorous photos; rather, these social media sites can be used as platforms to create visible change within society, an important quality both the Macedonian government and its citizens should quickly realize.

 

Bibliography

1 Tolmi, Peter; Procter, Rob; Rouncefield, Mark; Liakata, Maria; and Zubiaga, Arkaitz. “Microblog Analysis as a Programme of Work”. Cornell University Library. Last modified September 22, 2017. https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1511/1511.03193.pdf

2 “Social Media Guide – Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” Passport to Trade. Accessed August 20, 2018. http://businessculture.org/southern-europe/former-yugoslav-republic-of-macedonia-fyrom/social-media-guide/

3 “Population,” Republic of Macedonia State Statistical Office. Accessed August 19, 2018. http://www.stat.gov.mk/OblastOpsto_en.aspx?id=2

4 Emruli, Sali; Zejneli, Tahir; and Agai, Florun. “Facebook and political communication – Macedonian case,” International Journal of Computer Science Issues 8, issue 4, no. 1 (2011): 1694-0814 https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1109/1109.2418.pdf

5 “Social Media Guide”

6 Ibid

7 “Most famous social network sites worldwide as of April 2018, ranked by number of active users (in millions).” Statista. Last modified April 2018. https://www.statista.com/statistics/272014/global-social-networks-ranked-by-number-of-users/

8 Ibid

9 Belicanec, Roberto and Ricliev, Zoran et al. “Mapping Digital Media: Macedonia,” Open Society Foundation, (2015): https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/sites/default/files/mapping-digital-media-macedonia-20120625.pdf

10 Sherman, Lauren; Michikyan, Minas; and Greenfield, Patricia. “The effects of text, audio, video, and in-person communication on bonding between friends”. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 7(2), article 3. https://cyberpsychology.eu/article/view/4285/3330

11 2018 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters without Borders, available at: https://rsf.org/en/ranking/2018

12 Marusic, Sinisa Jakov, “Macedonians Protest over ‘Fatal Police Beating’”. Last modified June 7, 2011. http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/macedonians-protest-after-police-murders-youngster

13 Belicanec and Ricliev, “Mapping Digital Media”.

14 Marusic, “Macedonians Protest ‘Fatal Police Beating’”.

15 Belicanec and Ricliev, “Mapping Digital Media”.

16 “Active social network penetration in selected countries as of January 2018.” Statista. Last Modified January 2018. https://www.statista.com/statistics/282846/regular-social-networking-usage-penetration-worldwide-by-country/

17 LaCapria, Kim. “Oakland Woman Calls Police on Black People Grilling ‘Illegally’ in Public Park”. Last modified May 16, 2018. https://www.snopes.com/news/2018/05/11/oakland-woman-calls-police-black-people-grilling-illegally-public-park/

18 Rosenblatt, Kalhan. “White woman dubbed ‘Permit Patty” for calling police on black girl denies it was racial”. Last modified June 25, 2018. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/white-woman-dubbed-permit-patty-calling-police-black-girl-denies-n886226

19 McCausland, Phil. “Protests follow outrage after two black men arrested at Philly Starbucks”. Last modified April 16, 2018. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/protests-follow-outrage-after-two-black-men-arrested-philly-starbucks-n866141

20 Rosenblatt, “White woman calling police on black girl”.

21 Smith, Alexander and Banic, Vladimir. “Fake News: How a Partying Macedonian Teen Earns Thousands Publishing Lies”. Last modified December 9, 2016. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/fake-news-how-partying-macedonian-teen-earns-thousands-publishing-lies-n692451

22 Gupta, Swati and Wilkinson, Bard. “WhatsApp India: Five lynched after online child kidnap rumors”. Last Modified July 3, 2018. https://edition.cnn.com/2018/07/02/asia/india-lynching-whatsapp-intl/?iid=EL

23 Smith and Banic. “Fake News”.