About Paul Reilly

Digital politics scholar studying N.Irish online communities, online research ethics, social media and sousveillance. Views are my own.

Essay on role of social media in Northern Ireland riots

Footage of a bus being petrol bombed in West Belfast circulated on social media on 7 April.

I have an essay in Human:Putting the Social into Science on the role of social media in the recent riots in Northern Ireland. It begins by exploring the factors that have underpinned the protests and related violence seen in Northern Ireland over the past two weeks, including the border created down the Irish Sea by the Northern Ireland Protocol and loyalist accusations about ‘two-tier policing’ in the wake of the PPS decision not to not to recommend any prosecutions for republicans who broke COVID rules during the funeral of senior PIRA member Bobby Storey in June 2020. Like the flag protests eight years ago, these street protests have also articulated increasing loyalist dissatisfaction with the Stormont Assembly and the peace process in general.

Drawing on my recently published book Digital Contention in a Divided Society, I argue that there are comparisons to be made in terms of how online platforms were used during the flag protests. Messages calling for loyalists to “shut down Northern Ireland” have reverberated around Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp. Videos recorded on smartphones showing the effects of the violence in interface areas have again become a focal point for the anger of online commentators. Mis-and disinformation is once again spreading via these platforms, as demonstrated by messages emanating from false flag accounts urging loyalist youths to “earn their strips” [sic] by engaging in violence. While social media may not be ‘fuelling’ these protests, the speed with which such information circulates presents a formidable challenge to those seeking to keep these demonstrations peaceful. Ultimately, political leadership is required if Northern Ireland is to avoid a contentious marching season this summer. 

Thanks to Laura Lightfinch and Victoria Wood for their help with this. The piece can be read here

VIEWdigital Review of Digital Contention in a Divided Society

Book review published in View Digital, 12 April 2021

The first review of Digital Contention in a Divided Society has been published in VIEWdigital this week. Some excerpts are below:

“Dr Reilly’s book highlights the need for ongoing discussions on the role of digital media in societies such as Northern Ireland, which face deep divisions. It is a place where contentious policies developed at polished tables of ministers and civil servants can result in a young person throwing a petrol bomb at a so called ‘peace wall’.

“It is an important addition to research on digital disinformation and misinformation in a society were conflict and division remain worryingly close to the surface”.

Digital Contention in a Divided Society, out now

I am very grateful to Una Murphy for this very generous review and to both her and Brian Pelan for publishing this piece.

It can be read here

Digital Contention in a Divided Society is out now and can be purchased in eBook and hardback formats here

MUP book launch video

Digital Contention in a Divided Society was published last month. The official (online) book launch hosted by Manchester University Press was on 29 January, where I was in conversation with John Coster (Doc Media Centre). Thanks to Chris Hart (MUP) for all the support and for making this video available:

Book launch hosted by Manchester University Press, 29 January 2021

Digital Contention can be purchased in hardback and eBook here

Reviews:

‘Much that is written about the politics of Northern Ireland is based on highly selective accounts of the available evidence. Reilly eschews this approach, subjecting the political use of social media to sustained critique in this empirically rich study. In so doing, he makes a very valuable contribution to scholarship.’
Phil Ramsey, Lecturer in the School of Communication and Media, Ulster University

‘A timely historical account cataloguing a rich collection of the author’s empirical research, the book evinces continuity in polarisation among Northern Irish communities online. Showing how the use of social media adds further complexity to community relations, for instance through the pointed concept of ‘silly citizenship’, Reilly meticulously dispels earlier techno-optimism while further contextualising the algorithmic power of social media.’
Dan Mercea, Reader in Media and Communication, City, University of London

‘While the darkest days of Northern Ireland’s ‘troubles’ are over, the divisions have left lasting scars and in the twenty-first century the competing interpretations of the conflict and the country’s constitutional status remain entrenched. Reilly’s work explores the contribution of digital citizenship to peacebuilding within this complex context. The comprehensive and engaging analysis explores how a society beset with deeply held prejudices form online communities, share content and can be misled by misinformation so contributing to a range of wider debates on the role of digital media. As with many studies Reilly identifies positives, such as Citizen Assemblies and accounts that scrutinize decision making, as well as the acts of ‘silly citizenship’ which satires sectarianism and can exacerbate divide. Reilly’s work is an important contribution to our understanding of digital politics, how platforms can be a force for good or ill depending on the motivations and behaviour of users, and how forms of digital citizenship can support or disrupt societal healing processes. Reilly’s study is a must read for scholars and students seeking to understand the complex roles which digital technologies play in socio-political life as well as for those seeking to understand the dynamics of present day Northern Ireland and how it might face the challenges of a post-Brexit world.’
Darren Lilleker, Professor of Political Communication, Bournemouth University

I have been given a discount code which I can share, so please email me (p.j.reilly@sheffield.ac.uk) if you want to purchase a copy. 

New article on blockchain published in Health and Technology

Sarah Murphy, Teresa Murphy and I have a new paper out in the journal Health and Technology.

Entitled Assessing the potential use of blockchain technology to improve the sharing of public health data in a western Canadian province, the article explores stakeholder perspectives on barriers to the adoption of Blockchain to share public health data within health authorities.

The Abstract is below:

This exploratory, qualitative study set out to identify the encountered and perceived barriers to public health (PH) data sharing in a Canadian province with a view to assessing blockchain technology as a potential solution. A topic guide was developed, based on previous research in the area. This was then utilised for ten in-depth, semi-structured interviews with PH professionals between 27 May and 18 June 2019. Each stage of research was congruent with the philosophical underpinning of Gadamerian hermeneutic phenomenology. The major themes that emerged from the data collected were related to the information systems in use, data quality and ownership, as well as client identity management. The recurring core theme throughout all interviews was related to ineffective leadership and management, contributing to each major theme. Overwhelmingly the results show that the majority of barriers faced in this province are human-related. It is concluded that while blockchain technology shows promise for enhancing data sharing in healthcare, it is still many years away from being implemented in this Canadian province. As the results of this study indicate, there are human related barriers that could be addressed in the meantime, which are outside the scope of a technical solution. Future work should explore the perspectives of other stakeholders, such as the provincial government to fully understand the potential for using blockchain to share PH data in this province.

The paper can be read here

New article on #PorteOuverte published in Social Media + Society

#PorteOuverte Tweet from journalist Sylvain Lapoix, 13 November 2015

Dr. Stefania Vicari and I have a new article out in Social Media + Society today. Entitled Organisational hashtags during times of crisis: Analysing the broadcasting and gatekeeping dynamics of #PorteOuverte during the November 2015 Paris Terror Attacks, the paper presents one of the first empirical studies of the ‘open door’ hashtag. Funded as part of the EU Horizon 2020 project IMPROVER, this social network analysis explores how these dynamics evolved as the attacks unfolded on 13 November 2015.

The abstract is below:

Twitter hashtags allow citizens to share vital information and make sense of acute crisis events such as terrorist attacks. They also enable those watching from afar to express their sympathy and solidarity with the victims. Perhaps the most well-known of these has been #PorteOuverte (translated into English as ‘Open Door’), first used during the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris before re-emerging during subsequent atrocities in Brussels (March 2016) and Nice (July 2016). The hashtag was originally created by journalist Sylvain LaPoix in order to connect those in Paris looking for somewhere to stay with those able to offer them refuge, before reaching an international audience courtesy of its amplication by public figures and citizens based overseas. This paper adds to this emergent literature by analysing the networked gatekeeping dynamics of #PorteOuverte during the Paris terror attacks. It does so by reviewing the literature on Twitter hashtags and acute crisis events, exploring how Twitter was used during the Paris terror attacks, and presenting the results of a Social Network Analysis (SNA) of 399,256 #PorteOuverte tweets posted as the attacks unfolded on 13 November 2015. Results indicate that professional journalists were key broadcasters during four identified peaks within #PorteOuverte, helping to promote the informational hashtag and connect those directly affected. However, citizens and bloggers played an increasingly important gatekeeping function in the aftermath of events such as the Bataclan siege in Paris. 

Thanks to the two reviewers for their thoughtful feedback, as well as Prof. Zizi Papacharissi and the SM+ S team for helping with the publication. The paper is available to read open access here

MeCCSA Policy network report in Three: d newsletter

MeCCSA Policy Network

Dr. Phil Ramsey (Ulster University) and I have published a report on behalf of the MeCCSA Policy Network in the latest edition of Three: d, the newsletter of the Media, Communication & Cultural Studies Association. We summarise some of the key discussion points from our recent event  ‘Platform politics, online harms and future research directions’, which featured invited presentations from Professor Lina Dencik (Cardiff University), Professor Sonia Livingstone (LSE), Alaphia Zoyab (Reset.tech) and Eleonora Mazzoli (LSE).

Article written with Phil Ramsey in latest edition of Three: d, March 2021

Thanks to the Policy Network team Professor Jonathan Hardy (UAL) and Dr. Maria Michalis (Westminster) for their hard work organising this seminar series and their assistance in preparing the report.

The article can be read online here

Invited seminar at University of Westminster, 4 March

Peace on Facebook, University of Westminster seminar, 4 March 2021 (17:00-19:00)

I am giving an invited seminar at the Communication and Media Research Institute at the University of Westminster tomorrow. Full details on the event are below:

Paul Reilly (University of Sheffield) – Problematising Social Media as Spaces for Intergroup Contact in Divided Societies

About this Event

4 March 2021

17:00-19:00

Register here

Peace on Facebook? Problematising Social Media as Spaces for Intergroup Contact in Divided Societies

As far back as the late sixties, renowned peace theorist Johann Galtung (1967) predicted that the rapid growth of new media technologies would favour associative rather than dissociative approaches towards peacebuilding. The assumption was that strategies to keep antagonists apart would likely fail due to the development of more efficient means of communication bringing them closer together. This resonates with the rhetoric employed by Peace on Facebook, a project created by the social media giant in partnership with Stanford University, which claimed that the platform provided space for dialogue between social groups traditionally divided along ethnic or sectarian lines. This contribution critically evaluates these claims by examining the potential contribution of social media platforms to peacebuilding in divided societies. It does so by reviewing the literature on social media peacebuilding initiatives and assessing whether these platforms constitute shared spaces in which positive relationships between members of antagonistic groups can be built in deeply divided societies. 

The analysis presented in this seminar suggests that the prospects for peace and positive intergroup contact in such societies are unlikely to be advanced through unstructured citizen activity on social media. These platforms amplify content that reinforces tribalism and political partisanship, thus making it harder to promote reconciliation between antagonists in divided societies. Drawing primarily on the case of Northern Ireland, a society still transitioning out of a thirty-year ethno-nationalist conflict, Paul Reilly suggests that the negative stereotyping of outgroups on social media militates against one of the key tenets of reconciliation, namely that citizens treat each other as individuals rather than anonymous members of the ‘other’ community. Therefore, ‘supervised’ online contact projects, revolving around the use of non-commercial platforms and culminating in face-to-face communication, are much more effective in building peace than the contact facilitated by online platforms such as Facebook.

Digital Contention in a Divided Society, out now.

I will draw on research conducted for my new book Digital Contention in a Divided Society.

I have been given a discount code which I can share, so please email me (p.j.reilly@sheffield.ac.uk) or DM me on Twitter (@PaulJReilly) if you want to purchase a copy. 

DCU Book talk today and Westminster Seminar 4 March

Digital Contention in a Divided Society, out now

Digital Contention in a Divided Society was published a few weeks ago. I have been given a discount code which I can share, so please email me (p.j.reilly@sheffield.ac.uk) if you want to purchase a copy. 

Sheffield University have recently published a piece highlighting some of the book’s key findings here

I will be doing a book talk today (25 February), as part of the Interdisciplinary Digital Research Group‘s seminar series at Dublin City University. Many thanks to Tanya Lokot for the invitation and organising the talk. Full details are provided below:

Speaker: Dr Paul Reilly (University of Sheffield)

Book talk: Digital Contention in a divided society: social media, parades and protests in Northern Ireland (Manchester University Press, 2021)

Date/time: 25 February, 2021, 4:00-5:00pm GMT

How are platforms such as Facebook and Twitter used by citizens to frame contentious parades and protests in ‘post-conflict’ Northern Ireland? What do these contentious episodes tell us about the potential of information and communication technologies to promote positive intergroup contact in the deeply divided society?

Register to attend this event (via Zoom) here 

I am also giving an invited seminar at the Communication and Media Research Institute at the University of Westminster next week. Full details on the event are below:

Paul Reilly (University of Sheffield) – Problematising Social Media as Spaces for Intergroup Contact in Divided Societies

About this Event

4 March 2021

17:00-19:00

Register here

Peace on Facebook? Problematising Social Media as Spaces for Intergroup Contact in Divided Societies

As far back as the late sixties, renowned peace theorist Johann Galtung (1967) predicted that the rapid growth of new media technologies would favour associative rather than dissociative approaches towards peacebuilding. The assumption was that strategies to keep antagonists apart would likely fail due to the development of more efficient means of communication bringing them closer together. This resonates with the rhetoric employed by Peace on Facebook, a project created by the social media giant in partnership with Stanford University, which claimed that the platform provided space for dialogue between social groups traditionally divided along ethnic or sectarian lines. This contribution critically evaluates these claims by examining the potential contribution of social media platforms to peacebuilding in divided societies. It does so by reviewing the literature on social media peacebuilding initiatives and assessing whether these platforms constitute shared spaces in which positive relationships between members of antagonistic groups can be built in deeply divided societies. 

The analysis presented in this seminar suggests that the prospects for peace and positive intergroup contact in such societies are unlikely to be advanced through unstructured citizen activity on social media. These platforms amplify content that reinforces tribalism and political partisanship, thus making it harder to promote reconciliation between antagonists in divided societies. Drawing primarily on the case of Northern Ireland, a society still transitioning out of a thirty-year ethno-nationalist conflict, Paul Reilly suggests that the negative stereotyping of outgroups on social media militates against one of the key tenets of reconciliation, namely that citizens treat each other as individuals rather than anonymous members of the ‘other’ community. Therefore, ‘supervised’ online contact projects, revolving around the use of non-commercial platforms and culminating in face-to-face communication, are much more effective in building peace than the contact facilitated by online platforms such as Facebook.

Press release and Dublin City University book talk

Digital Contention in a Divided Society was published on 19 January 2021.

Digital Contention in a Divided Society was published a few weeks ago. I have been given a discount code which I can share, so please email me (p.j.reilly@sheffield.ac.uk) if you want to purchase a copy.

Sheffield University have recently published a piece highlighting some of the book’s key findings here

I will be doing a book talk on 25 February, as part of the Interdisciplinary Digital Research Group‘s seminar series at Dublin City University. Many thanks to Tanya Lokot for the invitation and organising the talk. Full details are provided below:

Speaker: Dr Paul Reilly (University of Sheffield)

Book talk: Digital Contention in a divided society: social media, parades and protests in Northern Ireland (Manchester University Press, 2021)

Date/time: 25 February, 2021, 4:00-5:00pm GMT

How are platforms such as Facebook and Twitter used by citizens to frame contentious parades and protests in ‘post-conflict’ Northern Ireland? What do these contentious episodes tell us about the potential of information and communication technologies to promote positive intergroup contact in the deeply divided society?

Register to attend this event (via Zoom) here 

Essay on social media and intergroup contact in divided societies published in Cypriot magazine Gaile

“Hands Across the Divide” sculpture in Derry, from Wikimedia Commons

My essay ‘Peace on Facebook? Online Platforms in post-conflict societies‘ has been published in Turkish by the Cypriot magazine Gaile. In this piece I evaluate the role of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter in facilitating intergroup contact in divided societies such as Northern Ireland. I also draw on some of the findings from my new book Digital Contention in a Divided Society, which was published last week.

The Turkish language version of my article can be read here