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Published on September 16th, 2014 | by EJC

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#Balkanfloods Online: The Impact Of Social Media On Recent Reporting

This article was written by Lana Pasic and originally published on Balkanalysis.com on 28 May, 2014. Republished with permission.

Editor’s note: The recent flooding in Serbia and Bosnia, which caused massive economic and infrastructure damage and unfortunate loss of life, was revealing in many ways. Initial grassroots reactions from local peoples indicated solidarity and generosity for the affected countries, which contradicted the theme of chronic adversity and enmity that the foreign media still tends to espouse.

Also highly significant was the role played by social media (including our own @balkanalysis Twitter account), a phenomenon which government officials noted had saved lives and helped initial rescue and fundraising efforts; on the other hand, the foreign media reacted tepidly and late to the unfolding disaster. Reporting from Sarajevo, Lana Pasic experienced the recent flooding and the public and media reaction to it; she discusses here the developing importance of social media, as indicated by these recent events.

Three days of constant rainfall in the third week of May caused unprecedented floods in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia. More than 30 people died, and hundreds of thousands were displaced from their homes. Over a million people have been affected by the disaster and its consequences. The flooding caused human, emotional, economic and financial trauma and losses. During and after the crisis, the responses (or the lack thereof), of the governments, NGOs, media, and individuals have been debated.

Social Media and Facilitation of Information and Assistance

Social media, on the other hand, proved to be one of the most reliable sources of information during this time.Through social media, people could share up-to-the-minute information on the specific areas in need, get organized, actually see who is doing what, follow the work of the organizations entrusted with taxpayer and donor money, and react quickly to abuses and mismanagement. Websites were immediately launched in the region to share information on the floods and aftermaths, such as landslides, and the assistance needed, and to serve as platform for all the relevant information.

Facebook came through as one of the most useful platforms, as it provided a continuous stream of information on affected areas. It was used to share information on where the help was needed, which items were the most necessary, the location of collection points for assistance, how persons affected could seek help. Facebook users also noted ways to fight the instances of corruption and mismanagement of aid, which sadly have occurred in some places. By using this platform, public response was more direct and better organized than it could have ever been by relying on more traditional methods of communication.

Since mid-May, Facebook was, and still remains, a forum through which self-organized volunteers and a number of NGOs could come together and show citizens the work they were doing, and thus stay accountable and relevant- which is more than what established organizations have been able to do for decades.The images sent by those who were in Maglaj, Doboj, Zavidovici, Bijeljina or Obrenovac those who went to help evacuate, distribute food, water and medicine, and later help with the clean-up, provided first-hand evidence of what was taking place throughout the region.

Social media was also used to respond to displacement. Through Facebook, every day I read tens of messages from people offering accommodation to the elderly, to families with children, and indeed to anyone who needed it after the crisis. Just days later, online booking service Airbnb advertised free accommodation and waived all fees for those affected by disasters.

The internet in general also became one of the main ways for people to make donations, especially for those from abroad. In future, organizations may also learn from this experience by using Paypal, or other electronic methods of payment- even the Balkan governments have caught up with the trend. Indeed, Serbia opened the account the very next day, and eventually Bosnia joined in too.

Failure of Traditional Media

The floods also indicated the failure of traditional media to respond adequately to the disaster through their coverage. Local media covered the events, but just as with the Bosnian protests in February, it was clear that television channels failed to get up-to-date information– online portals fared much better in this regard.

In comparison to shortcomings from traditional media on the local and regional level, foreign media failed completely- only days later did they report on the extent of the disaster. In fact, the coverage was so poor that viewers felt a need to start a petition to get CNN to report on the floods, and urged the British government to recognize the disaster.

In this case, it was also of great interest to note that Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic, then on his way to winning the Rome Masters, took it upon himself to criticize CNN and the BBC for failing to cover the floods. His remarks were reported in traditional general media such as The Guardian, but also in specialized traditional media like Sports Illustrated. There is no doubt that the ‘cross-over appeal’ of a major sports star and celebrity meant that the news of the floods would mean the story would reach a wider range of people than it otherwise might have. However, a serious question does remain: that is, to what extent did the subsequent increase in foreign media coverage indicate a serious interest in the floods as a story, rather than a primary interest in reporting the words of a celebrity? While the end result may have been the same, it is interesting to consider what this could mean for editorial decision-making in general in the foreign media.

Some Negative Effects of Social Media

While social media did play an important and largely positive role during the floods, there were also some drawbacks to the new platforms. During the floods, false information also spread through social media. The images of floods from around the world have emerged on Twitter and Facebook as “faces of Balkan floods”. This is one of the main disadvantages of a world run by the internet- misinformation spreads quickly and is difficult to verify. As social media becomes a tool of socio-economic and political activism, we need to keep in mind this drawback.

However, with the future of all news media seeming to be digital, people should be prepared to maximize the positive aspects and find ways to minimize or confront irresponsible and negative usages especially in times of crisis and disasters. Although the older segments of the population, particularly in the Balkans, still only follow television news reports, or radio, new online platforms now play a much bigger part. Facebook is no longer just a fun way of social interactions, or sharing photos of parties or travels – during the floods, it became, in the Balkans, a widespread platform for information-sharing, social activism, voluntary work, and even a watchdog mechanism.

About the Author:

Lana_photo
Lana Pasic is an independent writer and Development Consultant from Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. She holds MPhil degree in Development Studies from the University of Oxford. Lana has worked in research and development, and consulted with Oxfam, Save the Children, Institute for Minority Rights at the European Academy (EURAC) in Bolzano, Italy and Community Development Foundation Mozaik in Sarajevo. She is a regular contributor to Balkanalysis and Al Jazeera English Opinion Section. You can follow her on Twitter @Lana_Pasic

Photo: Ian Bancroft

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