While social media is becoming ever more popular in politics worldwide, the Balkan states and their officials seem to be struggling with the very notion of social networking. Just weeks after an event promoting local blogs and citizen journalism, organized by bloggers and attended by a few rare officials, Serbia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vuk Jeremić, instigated a situation that may very well seriously damage any relations that local citizen media and some politicians have been building in recent years.
Minister Jeremic not only noticed a satirical, “fake” Twitter account partially bearing his name and image, @vookjeremic, but decided to report the matter of this account to Serbian police and influenced authorities to contact Twitter's administrators and have the account removed from the network. He then proceeded to take legal action against the creator of said account. Jeremic and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs claim that said account and what was being tweeted from it was insulting and damaging to Minister Jeremic and his foreign colleagues.
‘Stuck in the age of unilateral media’
Twitter accounts (mis)representing politicians and celebrities, usually in a satirical, sarcastic and often comedic fashion, have been popular on Twitter and other social networking sites for a while, which is logical as these are channels that allow individuals and groups of citizens to freely state their opinions. While a few rare southeastern European political figures have taken to social networks and learned to use them to their benefit, both personal and professional, Vuk Jeremic seems to be stuck in the age of unilateral media.
It is true that insults and defamation should be sanctioned and are illegal. Dragan Pleskonjic, a b92.net blogger emphasizes that “Twitter Rules” clearly state that users “may not impersonate others through the Twitter service in a manner that does or is intended to mislead, confuse, or deceive others.” In this blog post [sr], this blogger goes on to say:
I would rather not place myself on the side of the Twitterer Vuk or Vook, real or fake Twitter account, or analyze the humoristic, social (un)reasoning, nor the action and reaction to the writings there and closing of the account. However, what I would like to say with this text is: if a company on the Web offers its services under certain terms, then it would be advised to read those terms well, before using their service. In the end, by the very registration of an account, you have agreed to the terms of service…
This brings about another question and one that is elementary in proving whether or not Mr. Jeremic and those like him have an adequate comprehention of social networks or the way people use and understand them. Are such “fake” accounts intended to mislead, confuse or deceive others? Or are they another tool that citizens use to demonstrate lack of satisfaction with their government officials?
In February, the New York Times, published an article on the very same subject, regarding fake accounts of United States politicians. The article says that “Twitter allows parody accounts as long as they are labeled as such…”.
Would the blatantly obvious misspelling of the Minister’s name, Vook instead of Vuk, and ridiculous tweets exchanged between the @vookjeremic account and the @FakeQaddafi account be obvious enough?
Weltschmerz, a Croatian living in Serbia, commented on this matter on his blog [hr]:
I don’t understand how many permilles (aproximately) of reasonable people can’t tell the difference between ‘Vook Jeremic’ and ‘Vuk Jeremic’. Nor how that can be defined as identity theft.
The aforementioned New York Times article also carries an interesting quote from a GOP consultant, Matt Mackowiak, for whom a fake and mocking account has been created on Twitter. Mr. Mackowiak, obviously undisturbed and even a little flattered by the account and what its authors tweet, stated:
The one thing everyone in Washington can use is a check on their own ego.
The same would apply in this case. Serbia’s government can use a check on its own ego, and Vuk Jeremic may be first in line. Mr. Jeremic is getting that check these days as Serbian bloggers are in an uproar about his reaction and the actions taken by the authorities in this matter. According to Alo.rs [sr], the portal of the local mainstream print edition of the same name:
After the request of the Minister of Diplomacy, Vuk Jeremic, to remove the profile ‘@vookjeremic’ from the social network ‘Twitter’, Twitterers have been more active than before, opening accounts with the names of almost all the leading politicians [in Serbia].
Active participation solution
In that same article, Jasna Matic, former Minister of Telecommunications and Internet Society and current Secretary of Digital Agenda of the Republic of Serbia, also a very active member of the local Twitter community, recommended that active participation on social networks is a solution, rather than closing profiles and implementing bans:
The general attitude of people who are in the business of digital communication is that the proactive system is better than banning, but it is also as important to allow less room for misinformation. Worldwide, a high level of informedness is expected, in particular of government officials. Whenever that isn’t the case, a window for manipulation is opened.
Vladimir Stankovic, an elementary school principal and one of Serbia’s most popular bloggers, wrote a post ranting, within reason, about this case. DedaBor, as he is more commonly known in the regional blogosphere, concludes in a blog post of his own [sr]:
My advice, and the advice of the larger portion of people who regularly use social networks and know anything about crisis PR, crises in communications, is for Vuk Jeremic himself to tune in and begin using social networks.
If he [Vuk Jeremic] can sit and watch Novak Djokovic [at Wimbledon], then he can ask him to explain how to tweet. [Novak Djokovic, currently world no. 1 tennis player, is an avid Twitterer with over 230 thousand followers on his official and personal @DjokerNole account]. Should Nole refuse, he has several political colleagues that are more than solid examples: @jasnamatic [Secretary of Digital Agenda], @gordanacom [Deputy Speaker of the Serbian National Assembly], @cistacica [Oliver Dulic, Serbian Minister] and a few others….
Other social media users and leaders of the local online community have similar things to say, like Zoran Torbica, co-founder and vice president of the Center for Internet Development and a formidable regional Twitter evangelist among politicians, local celebrities and high-level corporate executives, who recently gave a statement to Moja portal [sr], saying:
It [the reaction of the online community] isn’t a war against Jeremic, but simply the fact that he irritated people by the way he requested that the account [@vookjeremic] be shut down…
I don’t deny that they had the right to shut it down, it may have been better if Vuk Jeremic had been taught to run a Twitter account of his own and, in that case, all other accounts that resemble his own wouldn’t be less followed and would close with time.
Another favorite local blogger, the highly opinionated Mahlat, often uses vernacular to depict any situation and puts things into a “people’s” perspective in this case as well [sr]:
Now I wonder, how much of an optimist does a politician in Serbia need to be to think that noone will mock what they say, when they know that they say nothing. We’ve all learned the tune, we’re bored with it. And he [Vuk Jeremic] complains that someone is dragging his image and work through mud. Politician commrades, you can only ask for the respect of your image and work, whatever it is that you do, from your immediate families, those who share a bed and coalition partners with you. Those with whom you have deceived all of us.
You’re just lucky that most Serbs are still offline, were it different you wouldn’t be doing as well… Every love has a price, consider yourselves lucky that you are paying merely with mockery, it could be worse, history has already proven that.
And in regards to that, were it not sad, it might be funny. All that has been written.
Concluding with ‘Vuk Jeremic the Target of Fraud on Twitter’…
It seems that the issue of freedom of speech in the online community will remain a subject of debate in the days and weeks to come in Serbia and the region. What is clear so far is that politics, with disgruntled citizens on the one end and seemingly equally disgruntled politicians on the other, is still a hot issue in the Balkans.
One of the initial reasons that the Internet quickly became popular in the late 1990s in Serbia, was the political state in the country. Rectifying the image the world had of us, getting information out and getting information in, criticizing the regime of the time and having our voices heard outside of the walls of a damaged country and society – those were the driving forces behind the expansion of Internet usage more than a decade ago.
The current regime should know that, as many of its members were actively participating in the online conversations of the time. Many of those in power in Serbia today, employed the Web to their and our collective benefit. It may be high time they learned to cope with Web 2.0.