Social Media and Youth Participation in Western Balkans

As soon as citizens started to gather at the streets of Skopje during an anti-government uprising that started in early May, young Macedonians became tremendously active on their Facebook and Twitter accounts. Youth across Macedonia started sharing posts, photos and videos of the protests. While hashtag #doluvlada (“down with the government”) soon became the most popular label in Macedonian virtual public domain, a civic movement fighting against corruption in the country found computers and mobile phones to be their best allies.

After the fall of communism, youth participation in political life was quite limited despite the lacking accountability of governments in the countries of Western Balkans. Some studies have indicated that general apathy and underdeveloped culture of citizen participation cause low number of politically active young people and increase of the voting absence.

But, regardless of negative social factors that tend to de-stimulate their participation in decision making in a traditional sense, young people from Western Balkans more and more rely on Internet to influence policies in their countries and beyond.

Transgressing from the offline world into online communities, youth today get political information from social media rather than traditional ones. The two most popular social media outlets, Facebook and Twitter, provide vast amounts of political information, from news on politics to political campaigns, and young people, as heavy social media users, are the most exposed to this information. The information given via social media is more interactive, user-centered, briefer, easier to process and visually attractive. 

Having in mind that social media is suitable to spread knowledge among youth and implicitly increase their political interest, Bosnian activists started the so called “baby revolution” in spring of 2013 using social media to mobilize support and increase public pressure. 

Demanding from parliamentarians to adopt the new law for newborns to have national identity numbers, groups of young people across the country initiated discussions, shared news and opinions and organized logistical support for protesters via Facebook and Twitter. Due to their peaceful methods and civic orientation, “Bebolucija” protests represent some the largest and most significant example of social mobilization in Bosnian post-war history.

Even though cyber skeptics suggest that online platforms are lacking political potency, young people more frequently use the online sphere to start civic initiatives for social change. With the growth of number of Internet users in Western Balkans, the opportunities for activist engagement in online sphere are only getting bigger.

The 2012 uprisings in Slovenia began as a protest against corrupt local authorities in the second largest Slovenian city Maribor. Following their peers from other countries, young Slovenians organized themselves through Facebook and started protesting in front of the city hall demanding the mayor resign. After the second uprising in Maribor with around 10,000 people, the mayor resigned and the slogan “He is finished!” was later used in other uprisings that followed.

Croatian high school students used the same digital tools to win their own cause. In early 2008, a group of third-graders joined together via social media and organized protests against the improvised national graduation exam. Using Facebook, young activists successfully used Internet to spread information or invite members to events. The protests were successful as the Minister of Science and Education postponed the examination for another year. Since then, a number of different digital activities of civil engagement have been organized in Croatia, but the success of the first one has yet to be repeated. 

From intensive political engagement to the simple act of voting, traditional participation of youth in political matters has declined for decades. Since new technologies lower barriers to participation and foster political ties beyond the traditional barriers of time and place, Internet opens new possibilities for collective political actions of young people. But it is necessary to remember that along with possibilities coming responsibilities.

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