New chapter out in Research Handbook on Visual Politics

Research Handbook on Visual Politics, published January 2023

I have a chapter in the recently published Research Handbook on Visual Politics (Edward Elgar Publishing). Many thanks to the fantastic editors, Professor Darren Lilleker and Dr. Anastasia Veneti (Bournemouth University) for the invitation and for pulling together such an excellent volume.

My chapter is entitled ‘Watching the Watchers: Sousveillance as a political response to surveillance society’.

The Introduction to the chapter can be read below.

Scholars such as Thompson (2018) have argued that the growth of digital technologies have led to a new era of ‘mediated visibility’ in which virtually every bystander has the means to provide audio-visual evidence of what they have witnessed. This raises important questions about whether mediated witnessing has the potential to destablise power relations within contemporary societies given that the ‘field of vision’ is no longer limited to specific locales. Put simply, elites are more likely have their actions scrutinised in media environments where they are no longer able to control the images of them that circulate online (Thompson, 2005). This chapter explores this visibility through the politics of sousveillance, a form of ‘inverse surveillance’ said to empower citizens to “access and collect data about their surveillance” through the use of information and communication technologies (Mann et al, 2003: 333). This is a concept developed by engineer Steve Mann, who encouraged citizens to wear cameras in order to counteract the pervasive organisational surveillance synonymous with contemporary societies. The rationale for this ‘undersight’ was that the data generated by corporate and police surveillance of private citizens lacked integrity and was “less than the full truth” (Mann 2017:3). Reductive analyses of sousveillance as a panacea to surveillance have gradually been replaced by more contextualised studies recognising their coexistence within contemporary societies. Both have been conceptualised as orthogonal vectors in the Veillance Plane, an eight-point compass showing how levels of oversight and undersight can be altered by the number of people recording footage on their smartphones within physical locations. 

The chapter is structured as follows. First, the concept of sousveillance will be introduced and the Veillance Plane defined. Second, prominent examples of sousveillant practices will be discussed in order to explore the motivations underpinning the use of technology to record the actions of authority figures, the type of imagery being shared, and the impact of such activity. These will include the Black Lives Matter campaign to focus attention on violent police attacks on African-Americans since 2014 (Freelon et al, 2016a) and loyalist protesters use of social media to highlight police brutality in Northern Ireland (Reilly, 2020a; 2021). Both constitute contexts in which public confidence in policing is traditionally low and marginalised citizens are motivated to engage in ‘inverse surveillance’ due to their prior negative interactions with individual police officers. The chapter will consider how audience responses to these acts of sousveillance are influenced by news media coverage of these incidents. It concludes by considering whether sousveillant practices facilitated via social media actually constitute a shift in informational power from elites to marginalised groups. A future research agenda for exploring the communicative power of sousveillance is elucidated.

The book can be purchased online and you can read a preprint of my chapter here.

VIEWdigital post on how to better regulate hate speech on social media

I have written a piece for VIEWdigital on the issue of regulating online hate speech. I argue that the publish then filter model of platforms like Facebook and Twitter is partially responsible for the growth in hate speech online. I discuss how national governments and the EU have used fines in an effort to compel these platforms to remove such harmful content. However, if we want to take online harms more seriously we need to treat online platforms like publishers.

Many thanks to Brian Pelan and Una Murphy for the opportunity to write about this issue. The piece can be read here.

Please do consider supporting VIEWdigital (print subscriptions cost as little as £40 per year).Further details on how to subscribe can be found here.

Parallel Lives essay on social media and divisions in Northern Ireland

Last week I spoke to John Coster about the 10th anniversary of the union flag protests. I have written a short essay on this topic for the Parallel Lives Network, which can be read here, and is reproduced with permission below. Many thanks to John for the invitation.

Social media highlights divisions and need for political leadership in Northern Ireland

This week marks ten years since the union flag protests in Northern Ireland. Like many others, my own memories of the protests and related violence were shaped by the tweets, videos and images that circulated online. These were also the first demonstrations of their kind to be contested on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. 

In my book, I argued that this was a watershed moment in contentious politics within the post-conflict society. While these were shared spaces where critics and supporters could express their views on the protests, online exchanges reinforced divisions between loyalist flag protesters and their critics. The negative stereotyping of loyalists as inbred bigots, concerted efforts to inflame tensions through the sharing of disinformation, and the presence of sectarian hate speech contradicted the claims by online platforms that they were a force for global peace.

A decade later, one might be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu. Anti-Protocol demonstrations feature many of the same protagonists from the flag protests, again expressing grievances about what they perceive as an attack on their identity. Activists like Jamie Bryson are once more using online platforms to articulate their opposition to the ‘Irish Sea Border’, and also the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement itself. This has inevitably led to much trolling and abuse being directed towards those behind these demonstrations. Meanwhile, Twitter hashtags such as #brexitriots are used to both dehumanise loyalists and to score political points about the negative consequences of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. 

The most recent Twitter storm has revolved around a video selfie in which a young woman filmed herself with former DUP leader Arlene Foster singing “ooh ah, up the RA”. The subsequent social media pile-on saw many calls for her to be dismissed from her job, with victims groups calling on the woman to apologise for “mainstreaming” IRA violence. A picture in which she was seen holding an AK-47 rifle circulated online and was reproduced in the Sunday Life. This was not the first time that a social media ‘joke’ had caused such controversy. In 2018 Sinn Fein representative Barry McElduff received death threats for a video in which he appeared to mock the anniversary of the 1976 Kingsmill massacre. These incidents show how sites like Twitter provide rich pickings for professional journalists looking for a story.

I have argued previously that social media shouldn’t be held responsible for the sectarianism and sporadic violence that persists in post-conflict Northern Ireland. While it is undeniable that platforms like WhatsApp have made it easier to organise protests (and riots), people still need to be motivated to act on information received via these channels. To paraphrase a colleague, blaming protests and related violence on social media is akin to crediting the fax machine with bringing down the Berlin Wall in 1989. 

The reality is that we often overstate the prevalence of online harms and the influence of online platforms on real world events. Belfast Telegraph journalist Alison Morris recently argued that social media makes it appear as if sectarianism “is far more widespread than it is”, suggesting that much of the social media hate she experienced was generated by a small group of people operating multiple accounts.  People also appear more circumspect in their use of online platforms, and are not as susceptible to false or incendiary content as previously thought. Recent research indicates that only one in four Northern Irish adults use Facebook and YouTube to follow news, and only one in five trust online platforms as an information source. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that citizens would first learn about contentious issues via their social media accounts. Whether directly or indirectly, people growing up in a divided society are quickly made aware of conflict legacy issues and the persistence of sectarian divisions.

Social media undoubtedly amplify sectarian and divisive rhetoric that pollutes public discourse and makes it harder to promote reconciliation in post-conflict societies. However, it would be misleading to suggest that greater platform regulation alone will solve these issues. After all, people typically become aware of social media controversies like the “Up the Ra” video via television and print media rather than via these platforms. Hence, advocates of peace journalism suggest that news media have a responsibility to provide more in-depth analysis of contentious issues rather than concentrate on the Twitter storms such as those discussed above. Too often we focus on how issues are represented in the media rather than those who have the power to deal with them. The persistence of sectarian attitudes is due to the failure of political leaders to address the issues of conflict legacy rather than the moderation policies of big tech companies. It’s time for them to change the conversation, both on and offline. 

Interviewed for Parallel Lives Network 16 Days of Activism

Last week I was interviewed by John Coster (Doc Media Centre) for the Parallel Lives Network’s 16 Days of Activism.

To mark 10 years since the union flag protests in Northern Ireland, we discussed themes from my 2021 book Digital Contention in a Divided Society. I suggested that many of the themes of othering and social media pile-ons remained a key feature of how contentious political issues are framed by online citizens.

We also discussed a wide range of other topics including recent protests in China and Iran, as well as the implications of Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter for how people find out about events like flag protests.

Many thanks to John for the invitation and the engaging chat (as always!). The interview can be viewed below:

Fifth review of Digital Contention published in Information, Communication & Society

The fifth review of Digital Contention in a Divided Society has been published this week in Information, Communication & Society.

Zein Al-Maha Oweis provides a very comprehensive overview of the book’s key themes, from the exploration of how ICTs have transformed contentious politics to the use of affective hashtags to discursively frame hybrid media events. Some quotes from the review are below:

“Reilly’s book focuses on answering the question of how social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are used by citizens to frame contentious issues in post-conflict Northern Ireland and what this tells us about the potential of information and communication technologies to promote positive intergroup contact in a deeply divided society

”The book answers the question of how social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are used by citizens to frame contentious issues in post-conflict Northern Ireland as well as establishing connections between Media and Cultural Policy. This line of research which focuses on social media impact on post-conflict societies is an ever-changing field of research and one that is relevant in this day and age opening new research pathways on the subject in the future”

I am very grateful to Zee for such a thoughtful review of the book, which can be read in full here

New Publication: Introduction to Special Issue in The Communication Review with Virpi Salojärvi

Virpi Salojärvi and I have a new article out in The Communication Review this week.

(De)constructing societal threats during times of deep mediatization provides an introduction to a Special Issue based on research presented in the Crisis, Security and Conflict Communication working group at the conference of International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) in 2021.

We provide an overview of the literature on mediatization of conflict and crises, with a specific focus on how online platforms present both challenges and opportunities to the agenda-setting powers of mainstream media and political institutions.

The introduction can be read here

The list of papers published in our Special Issue are as follows:

Minos-Athanasios Karyotakis (2022) Framing the Macedonian name dispute in Greece: nationalistic journalism and the existential threat, The Communication Review, DOI: 10.1080/10714421.2022.2129125

Zhe Xu & Mengrong Zhang (2022) The “ultimate empathy machine” as technocratic solutionism? Audience reception of the distant refugee crisis through virtual reality, The Communication Review, DOI: 10.1080/10714421.2022.2129118

Olivia Inwood & Michele Zappavigna (2022) A Systemic Functional Linguistics Approach to Analyzing White Supremacist and Conspiratorial Discourse on YouTube, The Communication Review, DOI: 10.1080/10714421.2022.2129122

Gregory Asmolov (2022) Internet regulation and crisis-related resilience: from Covid-19 to existential risks, The Communication Review, DOI: 10.1080/10714421.2022.2129124

We would like to thank all the authors, reviewers and the editorial team at TCR for their help bringing this Special Issue together.

Participant in BBC Radio Ulster Talkback debate on the future of Twitter

Photo by Brett Jordan on Pexels.com

Yesterday I participated in a segment on BBC Radio Ulster Talkback about the future of Twitter under Elon Musk. Presented by William Crawley, I joined Brenda Gough and Andrew Pierce to discuss the future of microblogging site in the wake of users leaving for sites like Mastodon. We also how the moderation rules on non-profit sites compare to Twitter.

You can listen to the segment here (it begins at 38:29 and finishes at 56:51).

Many thanks to William, Claire and the Talkback team for the invitation to participate.

Interviewed for Bored Panda article on people sharing instant reactions on social media

Bored Panda interview about how people share content on social media

I was interviewed by Ieva Gailiūtė for Lithuanian publication Bored Panda this week. We discussed why people share things on social media without checking their accuracy, and the negative impacts of people being shamed for historic posts. 

Some quotes from the interview are below:

When asked why social media users often share their thoughts without thinking twice, Dr. Reilly explained the design of online platforms encourages instant responses and reactions. “The stories, images and posts that feature prominently in our social media timelines are often the most likely to elicit emotional responses from us.”

“The ‘publish then filter’ model of these sites also means our opinions are published immediately with no cooling off period for us to consider whether we want to post them or not,” he added.

When asked whether our online contributions always become permanent, Dr. Reilly told us, “Yes and No. It’s true that social media posts are no longer your property when you share them publicly, or even privately given that they can be shared by others. Even on encrypted apps like WhatsApp and Snapchat, people can take screenshots of content deleted by others and share them later.”

“However, there needs to be a motivation for someone to do this,” he continued. “This is why we see so many politicians being shamed for historic (and often deleted) social media posts. The consequences can be severe, ranging from embarrassment, reputational harm, people losing jobs and even worse.” Especially because sometimes, digital content can be made permanent in ways we never imagined. The posts can be changed, modified, or altered into something completely different from what they originally intended to be.

“People should ideally verify the information before they share it, but many don’t,” he said. “However, it should also be noted that people are better at detecting ‘fake news’ and disinformation than they are often given credit for.”

So even when we can essentially say whatever we want online — whether it’s objectively true or not — and not really have very serious consequences for it, we should all strive to make social media a better place. “Read the story before you share it. Satisfy yourself that it is based on an authoritative source. If it makes you feel an extreme emotion then be wary — this is often a sign that it is disinformation designed to polarize audiences,” Dr. Reilly concluded.

Many thanks to Ieva for the invitation. The article can be read here

Interview for Irish Times Podcast on the role of social media during Twelfth

In the News, Irish Times podcast

I was interviewed yesterday by Sorcha Pollak of the Irish Times for the In the News podcast. We discussed the role of social media during the Twelfth of July parades in Northern Ireland. In a wide-ranging conversation, we explored how sectarian discourses circulate via online platforms during the Twelfth. While humorous content, such as the Steeple Defenders band wearing alien outfits, might have raised a smile among social media watchers, images of effigies being burnt on bonfires drew much criticism. There was also much online discussion about a video showing a man throwing a bin at a group of marchers, and the subsequent altercation which saw several bandsmen smash the windows of his house.

Drawing on the findings from my book on social media, parades and protest in Northern Ireland, I suggested that these platforms could also be used to moderate tensions and expose people to the views of people they ordinarily wouldn’t mix with offline. However, the emotive content amplified by these sites tends to reinforce views on contentious issues such as parading. People don’t tend to change their minds as a result of watching these events unfold in real-time on sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Digital Contention in a Divided Society, paperback due out in 2023.

Many thanks to Aideen, Sorcha and the team for the invitation to discuss my research. The podcast can be accessed here (my contribution begins at approximately 12:00).

Bored Panda interview on hate watching and social media

Bored Panda magazine, Lithuania

I was interviewed by Ieva Gailiūtė for Lithuanian publication Bored Panda this week. We discussed why people like to engage with things they hate on social media.

Some quotes from the interview are below:

“A minority of people do appear to take pleasure from the act of commenting on things they hate,” Dr. Reilly added. “I think this speaks to the affective dimensions of these platforms.”

“Even those users who express a desire for greater civility on social media take the opportunity to express negative opinions. However, I don’t think hate-watching is as widespread as it is often claimed in the media.”

“We turn to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube not only for entertainment but also for release. There’s often nothing more satisfying than venting anger, letting off steam and interacting with those with whom we disagree.”

Many thanks to Ieva for the invitation. The article can be read here