*Article courtesy of the European Journalism Centre
While an increasing number of studies analyse the role of social media as platforms for contact, cooperation and socialisation, little research has been done on their implications for the specific case of minority groups.
The European Centre for Minority Issues, a research and policy institution based in the town of Flensburg on the German-Danish border, recently welcomed a group of European researchers and web analysts on minority issues from Hungary, Russia, Poland, Romania, Germany, Denmark, Belgium and Serbia to discuss the use of social media networks by ethnic, linguistic, immigrant and sexual minorities.
The workshop entitled Minorities and New Social Media showed that along with the great variety of types of minorities in Europe, there is an even greater variety in the ways these communities are present on the Internet in general and on social media platforms in particular.
Ethnic and language minorities
An ethnic minority living in a given region of Europe may use new media platforms in order to strengthen its identity awareness, language, cultural production and historic heritage. The Kashubian minority living in the area around the Polish town of Gdansk shares original Kashubian literary and academic works as well as translated pieces on the website Skarbnica Kaszubska and uses the social portal Nasze Kaszuby to present Kashubian folklore and promote contemporary Kashubian identity. The portal played a significant role in adding the Kashubian ethnicity in the national census and in establishing the national Kashubian Unity Day.
Ethnic and linguistic minorities living in less populated areas, with a high illiteracy rate among its members and few resources to access the online world, face more challenges in protecting their language and cultural heritage. Some innovative solutions, however, have emerged. The Tuvan Online Talking Dictionary, developed by the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, lists lexical entries with sound files showing how the words would be pronounced by a Tuvan native speaker from the Republic of Tuva in south-central Siberia. The dictionary is also available through an application for iPhone and iPad.
Ethnic minority groups such as the Roma people who are spread over various geographical regions or who suffer from persistent negative stereotypes also feel the need to connect with each other online.
The project “I’m a European Roma Woman” was initiated by an international group of Romani female activists based in Budapest who wanted to challenge dominant media representations of Romani women – which are often discriminatory, both in terms of ethnicity and gender.
They set up a low-budget video campaign, using modern technology and social media – especially YouTube and Facebook – to send their message across. The campaign was met with a variety of responses, ranging from hate speech in You Tube comments to messages from other Romani women saying how empowered they had felt after watching the videos.
Two Roma social networking sites, Zhoriben.net in Hungary and Kaskosan in Romania were created with the aim to bring together people of Roma origin living in different countries of Europe.
The site judapest.org is a Hungarian community blog dedicated to the promotion of Jewish identity and modern Jewish culture at the service of another geographical dispersed group. Its founders describe the initiative as “a wholly home grown and grass roots online and offline community project aiming to uncover the Stimulating, the Relevant and The Cool in the Hungarian Jewish Experience.”
The availability of digital communication tools can have a significant impact on the lives of migrants.
Social networks have given migrants the opportunity, more than ever before, to participate in social and political life both in their countries of origin and their countries of residence. An ethnographic field research presented during the workshop showed that Egyptian and Libyan migrants in Greece say that being abroad has helped them get a clearer view of the political situation in their home countries, and that the exchange of information with friends and families though Facebook and other social media sites has contributed to raise awareness about the need for political change: “After several years living [in Greece] we realised that the elections in Egypt that had given 98 percent of the votes to Mubarak’s party were not described as democratic elections, they were called corruption. We wrote to people at home through Facebook, we alerted people to these things…That’s why the Egyptian people protested peacefully and demanded democracy – they are in the know. We are able to provide that…”
In Russia, websites such as Kginfo.ru, established by several Kyrgyz and Russian non-governmental and educational institutions for the Kyrgyz minority in Russia, or Tajmigrant.com, the website of the Tajik labour migrant organisation run by its leader Karomat Sharipov, provide new migrants with platforms for communication with authorities and citizens in their home countries and help them develop strategies for integration in their new country.
Some ethnic social networks have become so successful that netpreneurs have started targeting ethnic groups as a key element of their e-business plans. The website for Roma people Kaskosan.com offers visitors the possibility to buy ringtones and music, gifts and to send e-cards. Surveys show that e-commerce in Eastern Europe is growing steadily and that the number of internet users and online shoppers continues to increase. Further growth can be expected in this niche market.
The success of social media initiatives however is not always guaranteed. Analysis of the use of Internet among labour migrants in Russia, mainly stemming from rural areas and poor households in Central Asia and the Caucasus, has shown that websites created for these specific communities are seldom visited or only in cases of emergency.
Sexual minorities and nationalistic groups
Despite the beneficial aspects of the Internet and social media networks for communication and transfer of information, the dangers of too uncritical belief in their empowering effect should not be ignored. These may include commercialisation and trivialisation, but also misuse for undemocratic purposes. The latter has been observed in Serbia in the past few years where nationalistic groups have used websites, blogs and Facebook pages as platforms to present and popularise radical views and organise sometimes violent, actions.
Social networks are equally available to nationalistic groups spreading hatred and to minorities who want to expand their visibility in the public sphere.
On the one hand, they can serve as tools for networking, identification, and political and social activism for socially marginalised groups, such as gays and lesbians. On the other hand, they can also function as an additional mechanism responsible for strengthening the marginalisation of these groups, by excluding them from the mainstream media. They run the risk of becoming communicative autistic platforms where like minded people discuss issues relevant to them, without any power to change the predominantly negative stereotypes that circulate about them in conservative Balkan societies.
In conclusion, the goals minorities seek to achieve via social media seem to vary greatly and can sometimes lead to unwonted results. State authorities and civil society can therefore play a crucial role in creating and maintaining an environment protective of minorities. Thousands of Facebook “likes” are not sufficient for that task.
Article originally published by Larisa Rankovic at the European Journalism Centre
Tags: Digital Tools, European Centre for Minority Issues, Hungarian Jewish Community, Kashubian Minority, Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, Media research, Migrants, Minorities, Minority Communities, New Social Media, Roma