Greece in Crisis: the Effects of Social Media

— The extensive use of social media in Greece coincided with the greek crisis. But not only the financial crisis. On the 6th of December 2008, a 16-year old pupil, Alexis Grigoropoulos, was shot by a policeman in the district of Exarchia. The following days, the centre of Athens was in flames - there was extensive damage to traditional and government buildings, arson and even looting in some cases. The rage in the internet was apparent - and twitter (together with mobile phones’ SMS) helped spread the word. The police remained inactive, following orders, in order to avoid a second death. The same was repeated - not to that extent though - the following years, on December 6th.

— Before that, the first “publishers” in the greek internet were the bloggers (largely on Google and much less on Wordpress, reserved for the more sophisticated) and the YouTube users. Then, Facebook became extremely popular. And in the following years, more and more internet users became familiar with Twitter. Nowadays, there are almost 4 million Facebook users, 36% of the population - but actually more than half of the active/voting population. Twitter seems to be slower - only 467 thousand. The rest (Instagram, LinkedIn etc have a more “specialised” popularity in young or professional users). The most popular twitter accounts (except former Finance Minister Yannis Varoufakis’ who is the first with 600 thousand, but obviously not only greek followers) are singers and tv entertainment personalities (especially female and pretty), traditional media, some journalists - and of course trolls.

— Facebook use is divided between social (non political) use and political commentary. A lot of people just share music, pictures and everyday activities. But for a lot of others, Facebook is the substitute for alternative info or the “kafeneion”, the traditional cafe talks - usually not that deep. It seems that the traditional media, such as TV are not the sole substitutes for the “agora”, the ancient assembly of the municipality, the “demos” - that gave us “democracy”. Actually, the traditional media have a great handicap: They are not (really) interactive, although some talk-shows give a little time to the questions of the public - usually through twitter, which is faster and more political.

— Facebook is much more personal, than Twitter: You can have of course a pseudonym, but mostly users are posting with their name and picture. To our dismay though, there is a large number of eponymous users that use extremely foul language against what they think are their “enemies”: For example, greek users attacked with vulgarity and sexism, when Sofia Vergara, the famous actress and model, dared to support the national team of Colombia, in the 2014 Mundial game between the two countries. Nationalist and populist Greeks, called the “ellinares” (i.e. “greek in the superlative”) have the same attitude against any historian, scientist or politician that dares to question the national myths, which are taught in history classes at school. Recently, in a not-so-surprising exhibit of our national introvert ignorance, at a TV game that asks people ’s point of view, out of a 100, the 57 answered that “the most civilised people in Europe are Greeks”.

— Please note that very few modern Greeks have the habit of reading books or writing their views in letters and articles. Actually, we do not have the tradition of expressing our views or sentiments in writing. The greek financial crisis, which is still NOT decoded by the majority of the greek people (i.e. they have not attributed the causes of our crisis but to the vile and hostile “foreigners”), gave the opportunity to a vast minority to express their blind anger in the most foul manner - and to behave like a hooligan, with a new “toy”: The written form of the gutter talk with a new “audience”.

— But this minority does not need our support: It needs to be condemned, as all extremes. I am not very sure they understand the “weight” of the written (and simultaneously public) speech. They are just happy that the “filters” of the traditional media do not exist any more for them. Many of them think of themselves as “indignados”. The reality is that the greek crisis has brought out the worst characteristics of a nation that does not know how to discuss or conduct a public debate, except for shouting at each other and cursing.

— When the centre-left government of PASOK started to imply the first memorandum in 2010 (but never in full actually, except the horizontal cuts in salaries and pensions), the greek society was divided, with the great help of the left (SYRIZA) and the right (New Democracy) opposition, into “anti-memorandum” and “pro-memorandum” fans. Actually, the former named the latter in this way, because it was convenient for their cause. Very few people liked the memorandum and were openly for it. But many were recognising the need for an agreement with the troika, in order to get a loan with cheap interest, when the markets were reluctant to lend us any money, with interest less than 6 or 10%. The division has remained and it evolved into a “anti-european” and “pro-european” battle. The underlying layer for a part of the left is the denial of the middle-class civilisation and the values of the western way of life. But for most people it was the desperate attempt to hold on to the “benefits” of the bubble economy that Greece had up to 2009.

— The division, that poses a threat to the european course of the country and all its achievements in the past 40 years, after the fall of the military junta in 1974, found its ideal battlefield in the social media. The “anti-memorandum” side, with the support of the present government coalition parties SYRIZA & ANEL (extreme right-wing Independent Greeks, a party that relied a lot in the social media, since it was almost “founded” in Facebook) saw the opportunity: There was a battlefield they could not miss - and they conducted a passionate open or undercover campaign, even with fake accounts and (presumed) “commandos” on the payroll. Most of them were trolls - or supported by trolls. The fanatic attacks on the different opinion were extremely violent in certain cases, with “lynching” characteristics. The monster of populism was fed in every opportunity…

— The targets were usually journalists, intellectuals and opinion makers, that were thought to belong to the “system” - or just any moderate voice. University of Athens professor and writer Lena Divani was violently attacked verbally, when she expressed a different opinion about an incident with a young passenger who could not (or would not) pay the ticket in public transportation, because she used a word that implied that he “repeatedly avoided his obligations”. In some cases, it was impossible to conduct a “conversation” in the social media: You had to spend countless hours explaining or just block the malefic attackers. In Facebook, most of the people meant well, but were extremely shallow or bitter. In Twitter, you could often see the “professionalism” of the orchestrated attacks. The blocking habit could also be found with the populist opinion leaders: They, too, blocked a lot of users, but mostly when they were receiving well-documented questions, they could not answer…

— The immaturity and the shallowness of the greek public debate, combined with the anonymity, gave an unexpected boost to the hate speech, in the past 6 or 7 years of the Greek cultural, political and financial crisis. After the January 2015 elections, when the two main “anti-memorandum” parties came into power, the hate died out, gave way to disappointment or turned mostly towards the government. With a small interval in July, when the referendum gave more than 60% to the “No” (and was immediately turned into a “Yes” to the third memorandum by the Tsipras government), the fanatic accounts have been mostly mute or short-circuited by their own rhetoric. But there is still a negative legacy - and of course trolls and flamers.

— Concluding: Most of the greek public discovered the social media, amidst its greater crisis of the last half of the century. They were ideal for the desperate attempt to express the agonies and the fears that the traditional media could not (or would not) channel properly. But they were also fruitless in the attempt to promote the idea of a useful public debate, unless it was for endless sarcasm, negativity and humour of the bitterest kind.

— Are we fair, if we are that pessimist? No. The social media, with all the difficulties and drawbacks, gave voice to the different - even if the different were just the moderate. They gave way to alternative information, that helped also the professional journalists and modified the traditional media. They have helped communicate concrete views of the politicians, swiftly and directly to the public - and constantly remind us of the controversies and the unashamed lies, especially of the populist. They have been crucial in spreading the opinions and the knowledge, in a globalised world, we very often choose to ignore - not to our benefit: And the public knowledge gives strength mostly to the weak, whether they belong to a minority or not.

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