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Serbia: Government Officials and Social Networks (Interview)

No sooner had the original satirical Twitter account @vookjeremic mocking Serbian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vuk Jeremic, been shut down by Twitter administrators at the behest of Serbian authorities, than more fake accounts bearing the Minister’s name and those of other Serbian government officials, began popping up and spreading through the microblogging site like wildfire.

New phenomenon

The online edition of Serbian daily newspaper Blic has covered this new phenomenon [sr] and sparked comments from influential members of the online community, as well as politicians active in social media, most of whom have similar advice to offer those like Minister Jeremic.

Nebojša Radović, an Internet marketing consultant and probably one of the most popular regional Twitter users in general, explained that there are ways to verify and label an account instead of shutting down fake accounts and was quoted as saying:

… This freedom is precisely the beauty of the Internet, the censorship of which represents the carrying of habits of other media [into this medium] and a particular kind of inquisition toward all those who disagree with the system. Thus, the criticism directed at the Counter-Organized Crime Service (SBPOK) and the general disatisfaction of the local Twitter community isn’t surprising. – Radović explains and adds that criticism is a good thing and that politicians should be listening, instead of censoring.

Oliver Dulic, Serbian minister of Spatial Planning and Environment, who is as of recently another avid user of the social network, gave an interview on this subject to the popular Trojka portal, titled ‘All Significant Politicians on Twitter Soon‘ [sr], in which he says:

I believe that since I’ve been using Twitter I am much better informed as to what is happening in society. Instead of opening Internet sites I now have all this information in one place. Aside from that, it’s a pleasure to be able to communicate directly with people, even those that have an issue with my work.

Minister Dulic experienced his own fair share of online criticism and uproar when news leaked several months ago, that the site for one of his Ministry’s campaigns had cost around 26,000 euros, or the equivalent of some 75 average Serbian monthly salaries.

Criticism on the matter was continued recently on Twitter and Minister Dulic not only engaged in conversation with other Twitter users, but accepted the idea of publishing the details and specification for said site [sr], which he then proceeded to do on the Ministry’s official site www.ekoplan.gov.rs and published to Twitter, saying [sr] “I am at your disposal for more information…”.

Interview with Serbian Minister of Telecommunications, Jasna Matic

Among the first Serbian government representatives to be highly active on social networks were two women – Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, Gordana Comic, and then Minister of Telecommunications and Internet Society, Jasna Matic.

While Ms. Comic is a regular at community conferences and events, Ms. Matic was even the organizer of the first tweet-ups sponsored by a Serbian ministry last year. Matic is on a first-name basis with many members of the community and, when asked to give a statement to Global Voices, she offered instead to meet for coffee and give a face-to-face exclusive interview.

Jasna Matic talking to Serbian high school girls interested in pursuing careers in ICT.

Jasna Matic talking to Serbian high school girls interested in pursuing careers in ICT.

Global Voices (GV): By taking a look at your tweets from just the past month or so, I can learn that you like Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Alicia Keys and Jay-Z, you seem to spend most of your days working or traveling for government related matters, the airline you flew to New York and back with lost your luggage twice and you enjoy being around people. That’s quite an open profile for an active politician and member of government. Today I’d like to talk about the matter of satirical, or “fake”, Twitter accounts of politicians and other public figures. Global Voices, as have many others, has covered the story of the fake Vuk Jeremić account that the Minister requested be shut down. We couldn’t help but notice that you, knowing this was a fake account, exchanged a tweet with said account saying: “@vookjeremic Because @jasnamatic doesn’t feel the need to blend in. And because the point is to be cool in the summer and hot in the winter :)”. It would seem you feel this was all in jest and were having fun with it, like others on the network?

Jasna Matic (JM): I didn’t really know that there was a Twitter account with that name and at first I was upset with his tweet to me, then looked at it and realized it wasn’t a real account and thought “Why not? Let’s have fun with it.” Clearly, to some extent I can sympathize with Vuk Jeremic and you can’t always react the way you otherwise would when you’re a public figure.

GV: In a very recent interview on this matter with the online edition of the Serbian daily Blic, you were quoted as saying: “I am of the opinion that the Internet allows us to return to direct democracy, such as existed in ancient Greece, where all citizens participated and voted on what was to be done. The advantages of this should be exploited.” Isn’t that a rather idealistic way of looking at both the image of democracy in ancient Greece, which wasn’t always so pretty, and an idealistic way of looking at use of the Internet that many believe does need laws and regulation?

JM: That is clearly not, as they say in courtrooms, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but it is what the Internet brings. It does bring a voice to everyone and that is how I think it should be used.

GV: There are currently two Twitter accounts other than your own bearing your name, but both are inactive and we can’t tell whether they were meant to impersonate you in any way. Other than that, the local online community seems to be satisfied communicating with you directly, or not, rather than mocking you and you have several tweets to this effect: “I thought it might be a good thing when people can approach politicians and talk to them. Or, if they choose, ignore them. I could be wrong…” Why do you think that is, that the vast majority of your online audience is willing to talk instead of mock?

JM: I generally think, and it might be inappropriate for me to quote Obama and his team on this, but I do believe that when you treat people as adults, they behave as adults. That has been my experience and I try to do that. If anything, I think that applies to the online community. I’ve been in government for over ten years and have communicated with thousands of people. This [open communication] applies especially to the online community which is often more passionate, rational, opinionated and open. Whatever you give them, they will give twice as much back.

GV: We also ran into this tweet of yours: “So different than my everyday life: I do different things,talk to different people,think different thoughts, I feel like it's a different me.” Was it in reference to social media and being a part of the local online community?

JM: [smiling] No, it was in reference to me being somewhere else where nobody knows me and being in a situation where I wasn’t being viewed, analyzed and criticized. For three weeks I was able to enjoy the freedom and anonymity that it allowed. I decided to share that with my Twitter followers because it felt so good.

GV: And finally, how do you see the role of social media and the Internet in the economic, political and cultural development of Serbia and the region? What would your advice regarding that be to your peers, both in politics and business?

JM: I think it’s like any new technology. It provides a lot of opportunity, but you need to invest in it. I think it’s more difficult here than in other countries because we don’t have the habit of being that socially active. There is a very small percentage of people that enjoy being that active online. The Digital Agenda is working on that, trying to make the Internet more popular and more beneficial to everyone.

I think we all want to reach out to the people we serve (and I actually do believe in that – we serve) and this is a good platform to use for that. I use it with joy and satisfaction. There are good points and advice to be heard from various people that I otherwise never would have had the opportunity to interact with.

We thank Ms. Matic for giving her time for this interview.

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