2014 Balkan Floods & Tvitomanija – One Year On
Written by Vanessa Pupavac and Mladen Pupavac for the Disasters and Humanitarian Crises research area.
In May 2014 unprecedented floods hit the Western Balkans. Particularly stricken was the Sava River basin area causing over sixty deaths and large scale destruction in northern Bosnia, eastern Croatia and western Serbia.
Nevertheless, numerous reports speak of local people reacting with fortitude against the destructive floodwaters. The spontaneous hastily organised responses of ordinary citizens, especially among young people, were often more effective than the state institutions, particularly in providing real-time information to flood-affected communities and donors.
Their impressive rapid coordination was helped by people using social media to keep in touch with each other about the latest developments. The growth of mobile phone and social media connectivity is making possible new ways of knowing what is happening and acting in disaster situations. Reference
Reports from the region speak of a million tweets being sent during the flood crisis and potentially over a thousand lives being saved through social media alerts. Reference
At critical moments Twitter – used more by younger people – was decisive in preventing loss of life where rising waters made certain roads dangerous and unpassable, while Facebook was more useful for galvanising community networks among a wider older constituency, and exchanging personal news. Reference
The social media responses built on the existing on-line networks. The most popular on Twitter person in the Balkan region is the tennis player Novak Djokovic whose account @DjokerNole has nearly 4 million followers (tvitni.me). Djokovic helped bring attention to the floods both through Twitter and at the Rome Masters tournament in May 2014 where he dedicated his speech on his win to the flood victims.
Moreover people showed solidarity not just with their immediate neighbours and friends, but with people on the other side of the river across former wartime frontlines. Strikingly assistance was generously offered and unreservedly taken between the former adversaries of the Balkan 1991-1995 war. Stranded people in Obrenovac, one of the worst affected Serbian towns, welcomed Croatian rescue teams consisting of special police forces.
Even the usually vocal nationalists among Belgrade’s Red Star football fans succumbed to this sudden outpouring of interethnic solidarity and applauded their arrival. For a moment, at least, it seemed as though the present and the future were more important than the past.
Again this outpouring of interethnic solidarity was facilitated by social media, which galvanised an interethnic virtual community fostering mutual empathy and support. Already interethnic networks were emerging such as around the website group tvitni.me whose name is a play on ‘tvitni me’ – tweet me, or the network around the Twitter hashtag #tvitomanija which has morphed into #tvitoslavija, playing on the idea of Twitter, former Yugoslav President Tito and Yugoslavia.
These networks define themselves as young, aspirational, dynamic, sociable, socially liberal and ethically concerned. They took to Twitter to raise awareness of the floods and galvanise responses. In fact the #tvitomanija #tvitoslavija network were due to host an event in June 2014, but decided to cancel because many of their network wanted to be involved in flood relief work.
Policy-makers are seeking to learn from the positive flood responses, not only how to improve disaster management, but how to build regional cooperation and resilience. The region has now experienced a quarter of a century of international intervention seeking to build peace and security. Yet the long-term international interventions have failed to achieve either substantial regional post-conflict reconciliation or economic prosperity.
Can the resilience and solidarity shown during the floods be explained and utilised politically to facilitate inter-ethnic and trans-boundary cooperation in the region in the future? Can cooperation in water management in the River Sava basin be extended to regional economic, political and social cooperation? Does Tvitoslavija or other regional social media networks provide enough social capital for building solid bridges between estranged communities?
The growing significance of social media in society means we need to go beyond that the virtual world is not real. An on-line network has its reality. Nevertheless we should not be dazzled by the virtual world and neglect people’s material lives. In a recent paper on ‘Becoming Remote….Living in the Ruins Toward a Critique of Digital Humanitarianism’, Mark Duffield, an experienced humanitarian practitioner and international development scholar, warns against the uncritical optimism and technological determinism sometimes accompanying discussion of social media, which neglect the geopolitical and global economic context of humanitarian disasters. The potential for social media to play a transformative role in disaster or conflict situations must not be exaggerated. Reference
Any evaluation of the potential of the social media inter-ethnic networks galvanised by the May 2014 floods should also consider what impact they may be having off-line in people’s lives facing long-term economic decline and worsening unemployment and indebtedness. The Sava Basin was formally one of the most industrialised and prosperous areas in the region, but now is impoverished.
And precisely those young people active in these virtual inter-ethnic communities appear most frustrated with the political, economic and social circumstances in the region, and most ready to pack their bags and leave for opportunities abroad.
Even the most avid tweeters live in more than the on-line world and have to be sustained by more than a future of virtual exchanges.
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