Metamorphosis Foundation for Internet and Society, Global Voices author and blogger
Filip Stojanovski holds a BSc Degree in Computer Science from Graceland University (USA) and Masters in e-business management from Université Paris 1 - Panthéon Sorbonne (France).
Since 1995 he has been active in the Macedonian civil society through volunteer projects in the area of consumer protection and e-publishing, and through professional involvement as an IT expert. He is also a contributor on information society topics to the traditional and new media in Macedonia.
His responsibilities within Metamorphosis Foundation include project coordination, research and PR. In 2005 served as a member of the Task Force for National Strategy for Information Society Development.
In web development since 1995, blogging since 2003 in English and Macedonian, contributing reports about Macedonian blogosphere for Global Voices and serving as volonteer translatior for GV in Macedonian since 2008. @razvigor on Twitter.
CIVIL: The new era of media has begun. Despite skepticism, new media are replacing the traditional news production and are becoming a relevant news source for hundreds of millions of people. Various possibilities for interaction provided by new media directly or indirectly encourage civic involvement that is a precondition for empowerment of citizens. How high is internet literacy in Macedonia in this context?
FILIP STOJANOVSKI: Even though majority of Macedonian population is online, and uses various forms of new media on daily basis, there is still room for improvement of digital literacy. This type of skills do not only refer to abilities to use programs/applications via computers or mobile devices to communicate over the internet, but also to knowledge related to privacy, protection of basic human rights online, copyright, media literacy, ability to distinguish credibility of sources, deal with propaganda, and number of other “non-technical” issues.
Most of Macedonian Internet users focus on use of these media for personal communication with acquaintances, or in business setting, or as form of entertainment. Relatively small part is also active in civic sense. With over 890.000 alleged Facebook users in Macedonia (according to their advertising department), the number of shares of socially relevant articles does not exceed few thousand. For instance, the PlusInfo.mk article which produced real impact—stopping unjust bureaucratic decision after an intervention by MP alerted via Facebook—got 1560 shares and 18 thousand “reads” (r.ping.mk/2smb, r.ping.mk/3lw3). Another example is very popular gallery of photos from the Bosnian war (r.ping.mk/3lpb) on Off.net.mk, which got got 2214 shares. Top politicians, who are also top local celebrities, get up to several tens of thousands of likes on their pages (the PM nas 65 thousands) which when compared to number of users is not proportional with the support at the elections, and is also more passive form of expression. So people who produce or distribute content probably constitute few percents of the people online.
CIVIL: Can we speak of high technical literacy, but poor political culture?
CIVIL: Arab spring, Occupy Wall Street movement and others owe their visibility and success (whatever the term success means) to new media. Where is Macedonia in that context?
FILIP STOJANOVSKI: There are few examples of initiatives using social media which achieved some of their goals, like the outing of the murder of Martin Neshkovski which would have been hushed up unless the citizens did not initiate genuine grassroots protests via Twitter and then Facebook. At times, journalists used citizen-generated content, especially blog posts, as excuse to publish quotes about some taboo topics, and then follow up with news based on responses from official sources, which have previously refused to cooperate. In the last few years, the vector to spread information leading to action by online activists almost always included subsequent involvement of traditional media. Social media still have not proven up to the task of serving the role of replacement of the destroyed or diminished independent media.
It is hard to compare Macedonia with Arab countries; first because we have much less people in general, then the percentage of young people is much smaller, so the critical mass to “translate” the social media activism onto the streets is much smaller. Also, we have far more older people who will remain offline, and serve as anchor for social change, especially because the return of some authoritarian tendencies they've experienced during communist rule might actually make them feel “at home.
” And of course, many young people have channeled their desperation related to lack of perspectives through conformism, accepting that they need to become “soldiers” of political parties as a way to ensure survival-level income. The political parties use new media as just another top-down-PR-tool, a cosmetics front, not as a vehicle for democratic reform. And because they control the majority of state and other resources, this reflects on the whole society.
CIVIL: New media provide mechanisms for interaction, participation and mobilization. They empower any citizen from any place to take active part in societal movements for democracy and human rights. But, new media can be a mobilization tool for the far-right ideologies or for a manipulative and nondemocratic government. How disorientating can be new media in this context? What would you recommend to a human rights organization? What is your recommendation to the readers/users in this context?
FILIP STOJANOVSKI: In terms of content and effect, the new media can be like the old media – without standards and self-regulation, and population trained to think critically, they can well serve as dark propaganda tool for the political and corporate centers of power. The dissenting voices might not be completely shut in this environment, but the real impact is related to a lot more than having some info published, because it often remains within one's circle of friends or followers. And one might not be aware, and might not even like to spend time in peeking into what people they disagree with are doing. Personalization technologies allow us to form comfortable “filter bubbles,” and through not “Liking” we might drift away from the rest of the population, especially the youth.
It's been 20 years since the start of Bosnian war, and 10 years since the end of last armed conflict in the Balkans. People from the region who are now 18-20 years old have spent their formative years without direct experience, and probably without real serious reflection about consequences of war. Instead, they have been relentlessly subjected to various forms of nationalist propaganda through mainstream media, and also online, through forums, and then social media. This has not been countered at the level of the states or educational systems.
The civil sector, the processes of EU integration, and the miniscule percentage of independent media have been the only factors countering the advent of right-wing manipulations, with much less resources at their disposal. New media can play a role in addressing this issue, but they cannot be taken for granted, because it is hard to remove the people who have been conditioned to one form of content “diet” out of their comfort zone. Sometimes, it takes radical situations to make people think, or voice their hidden thoughts. Such as the immediacy of death.
Media manipulations in our region have been focused on keeping the temperature high enough to keep people distracted, while the elites hoard their money. As in Egypt, social media in Macedonia have been used by the regime and its cronies to spread vicious rumors. This can only be countered by involving the people in a new culture based on the values of the scientific method, which involves training for critical thinking, and awareness that the new role of the citizens is to question the authorities who represent them, not to obey.
Some technical aspects of the new media allow implementation of these values (for example, giving credit to the source by linking to it), but for the masses of recent social media users they do not come prepackaged with a new ethos, which was characteristic for the early adopters – who came from western academia or hacker culture, both based on empirical, scientific thinking.
CIVIL: A protest or unrest in a ghetto grows into a national movement. Even if it doesn’t grow bigger than the ghetto, the world learns about it in a matter of seconds via text, image and video. It becomes a real big story, updated every second. The world is reading, listening and watching revolutions. The international community gets mobilized in a matter of hours, international organizations and political structures are reacting in a matter of days. It used to be completely different, international (even domestic) public learning about movements (if ever) after they are brutally shut down, international community reacting too late or never, organizations turn a blind eye because of lack of information. Can new media serve as a tool for legitimizing mass democracy?
FILIP STOJANOVSKI: Getting the word out to the world is essential for any movement for social change. Such exposure provides a new level of legitimacy, can garner various kinds of support – from human rights NGOs, and after somewhat longer process, from governments and international bodies. This provides a special form of feedback that can induce a sense of solidarity from/with the outside world, shatter various forms of isolation and motivate more people on the ground to take a stand. In this sense, new media can aid activists in using the positive aspects of the globalization for positive local change, and possibly reach the effectiveness of worldwide movements of the past, without resorting to support from state sponsors.
However, according to Ethan Zuckerman, co-founder of Global Voices (www.globalvoicesonline.org), the mainstream media coverage can be correlated with the flow of capital. So, poorer regions with less geopolitical clout tend to get less attention from international media. Therefore, not too many permanent or visiting foreign correspondents in the Balkans, and especially in Macedonia. The same is true elsewhere – Al Jazeera gained influence due to their high standards of quality, but also due to lack of competition from other sources from the areas they cover. This gap provides opportunities for activists using new media, especially through multilingual or English-language blogs which form a lasting public record, as opposed to fleeting social media content which is very hard to locate by outsiders and very easy to disappear for various reasons.
CIVIL: Traditional media transform towards new media. They make a full use of social networks, looking quite fancy and competing non-professional newsmakers. Could we expect that traditional media, supported by big businesses and/or governments may take over the democratizing dimension of new media?
FILIP STOJANOVSKI: The issue of media independence goes far beyond the democratizing dimension of new media. In Macedonia, traditional media largely ignored the blogosphere, and those more forward-looking viewed it primarily as a resource for harvesting new talent, turning bloggers into columnists, or harvesting ideas for articles, often without giving credit to bloggers. When they go online, traditional media like the potential to attract more visitors to their websites through promotion via social media, but very few of them consider setting up systems for user engagement, which means treating readers as equal partners in conversations.
For instance, the minority of online news outlets that allow basic interaction do it through pre-moderation, by employing administrators to filter comments before publishing them, putting themselves on top of hierarchical, feudalistic structure expected to function in the environment of the Internet which is inherently anti-hierarchical. At this time, commercial media can definitely use their resources in money and manpower to saturate online spaces with trivial or propagandist content, but it seems they seem cautious to thread these new grounds. Therein lays the power potential for activists – in the fact that in its purest forms, online influence is based on reputation within communities of people built on mutual cooperation and trust, not on advertising or other forms of “brute force.” Possibly the generational shift will accelerate this trend, and therein lies the fear for those who would like to conserve the media situation to the level of late 20th century.
CIVIL: It is old news: neo-fascists, right-wing nationalist groups and other haters use freedom of speech to promote their ideologies. New media are their tool, as well. They are often financially strong and get support from known and unknown political power and business structures. How to combat extremism on the Net?
FILIP STOJANOVSKI: Neo-fascist and related extremism on the Net can be combated the only way people were combating crime since forever: by standing up to them – and the first and fundamental form of resistance is speaking the truth. On the schoolyard, bullies are intimidated and often avoid kids that resist them, even when they are able to beat them up due to difference in size or numbers. It is not accidental that right-wing nationalists use cyber-bullying, trolling and parroting of top-down propaganda as main tools. They avoid dialogue, a “fair fight” of arguments and opinions, so getting them out in the open and exposing their statements can be very effective in shutting them up, and making them start to reassess the consequences of their words and actions. If we are to save those who succumb to such influences, we must also be aware of the psychological, emotional attachments the adherents form through the process of conversion onto neo-fascists. There is no easy way to fix this, but like the sciences or any other any great thing that improved the life of whole humanity, it would need persistent effort of many individual men and women dedicated to bettering the present and the future. Social media provide them with new set of tools to coordinate and share knowledge, and they still stand a fighting chance.
CIVIL: Can new media in Macedonia replace mainstream media that are under governmental control? How?
FILIP STOJANOVSKI: For many people, new media have already replaced the traditional media as a whole. A lot of people do not read newspapers, listen to radio, or watch TV, but satisfy all their needs for information from online sources, very often based on what their friends recommended via social media. There are rumors that some political parties recommend their members or public employees who need to show their loyalty to “un-friend” ideologically unsuitable/undesirable Facebook friends. If these rumors are true, the motive behind such actions is preemptive limiting the influence of the new media over the people within their sphere of influence, in order to strengthen the cohesion of “the flock” they need most to control. This would be consistent with the way the political campaigns have been run online so far, mostly by “preaching to the choir”, intended to bolster the self-confidence of the supporters, not reaching out towards opponents (except to intimidate) or the large portion of “undecided” or disappointed voters who refuse to vote.
So sure, there is potential for replacement, especially in the lives of youth. But in this case, the content is important. And the essential form of content in this regard remain the products of journalism done by adhering to the basic and unsurpassed professional standards - even though it can be done by amateurs, citizen-reporters. Some independent media professionals moved online, creating web-based news outlets, quickly re/gaining audiences. However, they struggle with other aspects of running news organizations, such as funding, which in the market economies is available through commercial advertising free of governmental pressure. On the other hand, it would be harder to replace the role TV plays in the lives of more senior citizens, who are also more diligent voters and often technophobic. But, possibly “nature will find a way”, through the ongoing process of digitization of TV and merging of various kinds of media. In perspective, we could expect very different kind of media landscape in 10-20 years, which would also affect the balance of power in various other segments of society.
CIVIL: Copyright issues, protection of minors, many other regulations, justified and crooked motives drive governments and some international organizations to put an end of the chaotic and unregulated space of the Internet. Do we need control? Is it possible to put Internet under control? How? What could preserve Internet freedoms from regulations and control under the disguise of protection and copyrights?
FILIP STOJANOVSKI: The Internet, and the communities built upon the infrastructure it provide, already provides a level of control, inherent in the way the network of networks is set up, in its code, as Lawrence Lessig would say. This level of control concerns protocols of communication, rules set up through process of dispute and agreement, grounded in empirical research based on the scientific method. Above that level, we have self-regulation mechanisms created by various communities. And we have the layer of laws – in essence, what goes on online is subject to the same laws governing the offline world. In this sense, the Internet is extension and integral part of reality. At individual level, the best way to deal with this reality, including protection of human rights, is to gain knowledge and apply it consistently.
However, to many people it is clear that the digital environment provides new kinds of opportunities and in some cases existing laws, made to service life under completely different circumstances, have become obsolete and need revision and change. The process has been started in the democratic societies, for instance, the Free Culture movement, encompassing Free and Open Source Software, Creative Commons, Public Domain initiatives and other initiatives, works within the existing Copyright system and strives to change it for the better. Then, we have governments (or parts of governments) which seek to impose control (as opposed to self-regulation) over their “subjects” by isolating their parts of the Internet through blocking, filtering and enacting oppressive legislation. On a long term, this is suicidal, because free flow of information cannot be limited, since it's essential for functioning within the current global economy.
Interview by the Civil Team