Social media influence rises in the region

04/12/2013

Social media enables people to connect with the world, but there is a danger of quickly spreading misinformation, experts say.

By Ivana Jovanovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 04/12/13

photo

Millions of people in the region have Facebook accounts. [AFP]

The popularity of social media in the Balkans and Turkey has grown rapidly in recent years, with both ordinary citizens and traditional media outlets participating in the trend. But experts warn the phenomenon is also adding to the spread of false information.

Social media helps traditional media become faster in reporting, said Borislav Miljanovic, professor assistant at the Belgrade Faculty of Political Science.

"TV and print editors in Serbia are gradually realising that classic news agencies are not the only source of information and that information is often available on Twitter or Facebook first. The information on a traffic accident or criminal assault is shared in a much faster manner if an eyewitness posts information on a social network. Thus they have more time to react, instead of waiting for agency news on the event," Miljanovic told SETimes.

But that can backfire, said Ozgur Uckan, a media specialist from Istanbul Bilgi University.

"In a social media platform where everybody becomes a publisher and a reporter, there is no editorial process over the users, enabling misinformation," Uckan added.

Uckan told SETimes that in the past five years, social media in Turkey has gained a prominence over the mainstream media mainly because of the worsening record of media freedom in Turkey, where many journalists are behind bars and the government exercises control over the media either through political pressure or economic ties with media bosses.

According to InterntetWorldStat, there are more than 35 million internet users in Turkey.

Since the massive Gezi Park demonstrations this summer, Turkey's government has begun an initiative to find options for restricting social media in the country. The initial hours of the protests were largely ignored by the country's broadcast media, but word of the protests spread rapidly on social media.

Interior Minister Muammer Guler said social media sites played a large role in organising protesters and inciting the riots.

"Twitter and Facebook are effective. We can share photographs or stories with hundreds of people at once," protester Timur Karadeniz told reporters in June. "The mainstream media has been horrible. We were fighting in the streets and CNN Turk was broadcasting a documentary about penguins. We call this the 'Penguin Revolution' now."

"There is a trouble called Twitter," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a television interview during the riots. "Unmitigated lies are there [on Twitter]." According to InterntetWorldStat, in Serbia, more than 3.5 million people used the internet in 2012, and 3.3 million are Facebook users. Among them are high state officials who sometimes address the public via their Facebook or Twitter profile.

The situation is similar in Montenegro where, according to InterntetWorldStat, 50 percent of the population used the internet in 2012 and almost half have Facebook accounts. Traditional media in the country use social platforms to report accidents or emergencies, Miodrag Strugar, executive director of Radio Antena in Podgorica and an independent media relations coach, told SETimes.

"This summer, there was a big bus accident in canyon Platije. Traditional media got photos and information from citizens who had been informing public about the accident via social media. The traditional media used social media as a real-time journalism tool in order to provide their users with more detailed and faster information," Strugar said.

However, Miloje Sekulic, internet consultant and co-owner of the Homepage agency in Belgrade, said that due to the speed of getting information, the details no longer matter.

"There is a new way of writing in order to make information 'shareable,' that is, to grab the attention of social network users. When the most popular daily newspaper in Serbia has two or three times more site visits than readers, the form in which content is being published is not an important parameter anymore," Sekulic told SETimes.

"Really, why do social network users have to share true data and reliable information? It is a matter of their moral or honour but nothing obligates them, unlike traditional media where there are professional codes and laws," Sekulic said.

Social media sites are also popular in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the growth relates to the political influence over traditional media and portals, Sejn Husejnefendić, assistant in Journalism Department on University of Tuzla, told SETimes.

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"Traditional media are conditioned by political powers. They are advertised through social media and reach a large audience, particularly young people. Today, they are a primary source of information, while social media is used mainly as a tool to further the dissemination of information," he said.

"Basically, journalists use social media as a source of information and a place where they get ideas for topics they can later explore to a much higher extent. The internet enables us to be connected with the world, but at the same time there is a danger of spreading misinformation," Miljanovic said.

Correspondents Menekse Tokyay in Istanbul and Bedrana Kaletovic in Tuzla contributed to this report.

How can regional media use social media to spread truthful information? Tell us what you think.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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