Paper presented at PSA Media and Politics Group Annual Conference

PSA MPG Conference 2021, hosted by Canterbury Christ Church University.

I will be presenting a paper at the Political Studies Association Media and Politics Group Annual Conference tomorrow. The conference theme is ‘Communities, Media and Politics’ and more details on the programme can be found here.

The abstract for my paper is below:

Disinformation in a divided society: contextualising the current ‘information crisis’ in Northern Ireland.

In this paper, I argue that the contemporary information crisis in ‘post-conflict’ Northern Ireland is neither new nor a manifestation of the growth of online platforms. I begin by  exploring the disinformation strategies deployed by state and non-state actors during the 30-year conflict known colloquially as ‘the Troubles’. Drawing on secondary data, examples such as the ‘psyops’ strategies deployed by the British Army in the early 1970s to discredit the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) and protect security forces personnel from prosecution for their role in ‘extra-judicial executions’ are explored. The ‘propaganda of peace’, which sought to mobilise citizens in support of a neoliberal agenda conflating economic prosperity with peace, is also elucidated to show how these practices have evolved in the ‘post-conflict’ era. Recent research on the role of Facebook and Twitter in spreading disinformation during contentious parades and related protests is additionally examined in order to explore how Northern Irish citizens respond to false information shared via social media. Finally, public opinion data from organisations like Ofcom is analysed in order to explore the apparent decline in public trust in professional news media and political institutions in the divided society, which are key characteristics of the information crisis facing contemporary societies. My analysis suggests that digital disinformation is likely to persist and possibly thrive in the absence of a political consensus on how to address complex conflict-legacy issues. In this regard, the current information crisis may have much more in common with the ‘propaganda war’ than previously thought.

The slides can be viewed below:

Presentation at 6th International Communication and Media Studies Conference, CRCP, Cyprus

Conference hosted by CRCP, Famagusta, Cyprus, 25-26 November 2021

This morning I (virtually) presented a paper at the 6th International Communication and Media Studies Conference, held at the Centre of Research and Communication for Peace, Eastern Mediterranean University, Famagusta, Cyprus. Many thanks to Hanife and the organising committee for organising such an excellent event.

Panel at 6th International Communication and Media Studies Conference, 26 November 2021

The abstract for my presentation can be found below:

Can machines of hate really facilitate peace? Social media as spaces for intergroup contact in divided societies

As far back as the late sixties, Johann Galtung predicted that the rapid growth of new media technologies would favour associative 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. Despite the pervasiveness of platformed racism and hate speech, companies like Facebook frequently claim they provide space for dialogue between social groups traditionally divided along ethnic or sectarian lines. This paper 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 antagonistic groups can be built in deeply divided societies. 

The analysis presented in this paper suggests that these platforms amplify content that reinforces tribalism and political partisanship, thus making it harder to promote reconciliation in divided societies.  Drawing primarily on the case of Northern Ireland, a society still transitioning out of a thirty-year ethno-nationalist conflict, the paper 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.

The slides for the presentation can be viewed below:

Chapter published in Routledge Handbook for Political Journalism

LSE Blog on Greek photojournalism, 2020

Anastasia Veneti, Darren Lilleker and I have a chapter out today in the Routledge Companion to Political Journalism, edited by James Morrison, Jen Birks and Mike Berry.

This international edited collection brings together the latest research in political journalism, examining the ideological, commercial and technological forces that are transforming the field and its evolving relationship with news audiences. Comprising 40 original chapters written by a mix of leading scholars and early-career researchers from around the world, the book offers topical insights from the disciplines of political science, media, communications and journalism. Drawing on interviews, textual analysis, quantitative statistical methods and a range of other empirical and theoretical approaches, the volume is divided into six parts, each focusing on a major theme in the contemporary study of political journalism. Topics covered include far-right media, populism, local political journalism practices, public engagement, audience participation, agenda setting, and advocacy and activism in journalism, with case studies drawn from the United Kingdom, Hungary, Russia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Sub-Saharan Africa, Italy, Brazil, the United States, Greece and Spain.

More information on the book is available here.

The abstract for our chapter can be found below:

The importance of space in photojournalist accounts of the anti-austerity protests in Greece

Although it is widely recognised that images play a key role in contentious politics, there remains little research into the spatial factors that shape photojournalist practice during political protests. This paper explores the interactions between photojournalists, police and protesters during public demonstrations, with a specific focus on how space and the (physical) positioning of the former influences their practices. By adopting an interdisciplinary approach drawing on the literature on the social production of space (Lefebvre, 1967), Tilly’s (2003) the spatial perspective on contentious politics, photography (Azoulay, 2012), and photojournalism, our research questions are addressed through an empirical study of photojournalists active in Greece since 2010. The chapter presents the results of a critical thematic analysis of 20 semi-structured interviews conducted with Greek photojournalists between 2015 and 2016. These perspectives are explored in this study due to the frequency with which Greek anti-austerity protests have led to violent confrontations between police and protesters. Our findings show that accessibility to protest spaces, the relationships between professional photographers and other actors involved in protests as well as space affordances constitute vital components of the final visual outcomes that are published and ignite political imaginations about such events.

Many thanks to the fantastic editorial team for their help with the chapter and congratulations on what is a must-read for those interested in political journalism!

If you would like a preprint copy of the paper please feel free to email me.

Review of Digital Contention in a Divided Society published by Hub for Hybrid Communications in Peacebuilding

Digital Contention in a Divided Society, published January 2021

The third review of Digital Contention in a Divided Society has been published by the Hub for Hybrid Communications in Peacebuilding (HCPB). 

Some excerpts are below:

“As Reilly explains, social media can be considered as vital during the mobilisation of social movements. This view can be seen as a critique to clicktivism because even though there are ‘dangers’ that online platforms may increase division and tension between groups, Reilly argues that there is a chance and hope that, by looking at the Northern Irish case, one can argue that there would be more engagement and interactions between opponent groups in the future”

“Reilly’s study is very useful to discuss how politics and digital citizenship take place in contentious times in divided societies. Whether social media are a part of the ‘problem’ or encourage dialogue between opposing groups, he uses mixed research methods to strengthen his study”

“His work is very rich not only in terms of its literature but also its research methods and techniques and the way he elaborates such a complex situation in a clear way without simplifying the issue. Even though the book uses Northern Ireland as a case study, it is very useful for any kind of study that focuses on digital citizenship and activism as well as digital democracy and how divided societies and groups use social media in the age of digital world”. 

I am very grateful to Dr. Hakan Karahasan (ARUCAD) for this very generous review. It can be read below:

Digital Contention review in Journal of Communication

Digital Contention in a Divided Society, out now with Manchester University Press

The second review of Digital Contention in a Divided Society has been published in Journal of Communication (Impact Factor 7.270, rated 6 out of 94 in Communication).

Some excerpts are below:

“Overall this study represents a significant contribution to the discussion about the evolving relationship between social media, contentious politics, and social media movements in post-conflict societies. It is a solid contribution to test the polysemic nature of Twitter hashtags and their capacity to mobilize affective publics in contested and polarized social media environments”

“Reilly’s book is invaluable when it mentions the unprecedented opportunities for citizens to engage in areas such as sousveillance in the face of reporting perceived police violence. Reilly’s work joins the ranks of upcoming scholarly work relevant in the field such as Denisova (2019), Ozduzen (2020), and El Issawi (2021). It is a brilliant example of adding to the author’s previous work (2010) building upon field research and data mining techniques and able to define its own strengths and limitations of the approach”.

“It is a perfect academic study for identifying public engagement in the times of the dysfunctional politics searching for reconciliation through new conceptual tools like silly citizenship in post-Brexit Irish border that will remain disputed in the years to come”.

I am very grateful to Murat Akser (Ulster University) for this very generous review. It can be read below;

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

ECREA presentation exploring #thetroubles on Instagram #ecrea2021

an example of Don McCullin’s iconic photojournalism during the Troubles

Last year I wrote a blogpost on a project exploring how Instagram is used to share photographs of the Northern Irish Troubles. This morning I presented preliminary findings from this work at the 8th European Communication Conference organised by ECREA.

My talk was part of a panel entitled ‘Emotions, rituals and memories’, which should be made available later to watch on the conference platform.

The abstract for the paper is below:

Conflicting Memory and Social Media: Memorialising the Northern Irish Troubles on Instagram

Photosharing app Instagram provides unprecedented opportunities for distributing photographs challenging the ‘official memory’ of conflict. The ‘connective turn’ not only renders conflict photography searchable, but aggregates the memories of  traumatised communities. This paper adds to the nascent literature in this area by exploring how Instagram is used to share photographs of the Northern Irish ‘Troubles,’ a low-intensity conflict that resulted in 3,600 fatalities and left many more bereaved, injured and traumatized. Twenty years after the Agreement, Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society in which competing narratives over the conflict and its constitutional status remain deeply entrenched. This study explored the visual representation of these narratives on Instagram, with a specific focus on the type of images shared and the comments they generated from other Instagrammers. A content and visual framing analysis of 100 historical images tagged #thetroubleswas conducted between August and December 2019 in order to explore these issues. Results indicate that images of everyday life during the conflict, such as children playing in desolate urban landscapes, and British soldiers, typically depicted holding weapons against a backdrop of civil unrest, were the most prominent visual representations under this hashtag. Those shared by British army veterans depicting their experiences typically sparked a polarised debate between pro-British and pro-republican commenters on the origins of the conflict. While the affordances of Instagram broaden participation in processes of memorialization, they also lay bare the absence of a shared narrative on the violent past in ‘post-conflict’ societies such as Northern Ireland.

The slides can be viewed below:

Video: IAMCR panel on communication and peacebuilding

I was delighted to participate in a panel organised by the Hub for Hybrid Communications in Peacebuilding and the Crisis, Security and Conflict Communication Working Group as part of the International Association for Media and Communication Researchers annual conference last month.

Entitled ‘The fundamental importance of communication in peacebuliding‘, the panel brought together colleagues from Durham, Manchester, Oxford and Sheffield to explore the communicative aspects of peacebuilding.

Poster advertising IAMCR panel

Diana Dajer (University of Oxford) and I delivered a paper comparing social media and intergroup contact during contentious episodes in Columbia and Northern Ireland. The abstract for our paper is below:

Social media and intergroup contact during contentious episodes in divided societies: Comparative perspectives from Colombia and Northern Ireland

Diana Dajer, University of Oxford

Paul Reilly, University of Sheffield

Abstract

This paper adds to the emergent literature on social media and intergroup contact in post-conflict societies through a comparative study of contentious episodes in Colombia and Northern Ireland. A qualitative case study approach is used to explore how online social media platforms act as ‘connectors’ and ‘dividers’ in these two societies, both of which remain deeply-divided along sectarian lines despite peace settlements being in place. Using case studies such as the UK EU Referendum and the plebiscite on the Colombian peace agreement (both held in 2016), the paper examines whether there is any evidence of the ‘agonistic pluralism’ envisaged by Mouffe (2013), where former enemies are recast as ‘adversaries’ who respectfully disagree about contentious issues. The cases show that unstructured online contact during contentious episodes was invariably antagonistic, rather than agonistic. Despite initiatives to foster intercommunity dialogue online, pre-existing ‘offline’ polarisation was mirrored and intensified by the affective publics mobilised on social media, with online disinformation and misinformation exacerbating tensions between sectarian communities.

The online conference paper can be found here (please note you will need to registered for the conference to access this).

The panel was recorded and edited by our chair Virpi Salojärvi (University of Vaasa), and can be viewed below (from now until 11 September):

IAMCR panel on communication and peacebuilding

Thanks to Virpi for putting this panel together and please do email me if you want more details about our paper.

Expert testimony at Council of Europe Parliamentary Committee hearing on role of media in crises

Photo by Jem Stone/ CC BY

Last Friday I provided expert testimony to a hearing organised by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly Committee on Culture, Science, Education and Media. The session organised by Rapporteur Annicka Engblom (EPP/CD) focused on the role of the media in times of crises. The agenda can be found here.

In my contribution to the hearing, I drew on my research on social media, parades and protests in Northern Ireland and the #PorteOuverte hashtag during the 2015 November Paris Terror Attacks, as well as the findings from my two EC funded projects CascEff and IMPROVER. My recommendations included a call for greater funding for hyperlocal media and for social media companies to face harsher penalties for failing to remove misinformation and disinformation during crises.

Many thanks to Eugen Cibotaru for the invitation and his help with the logistics.

Contribution to VIEWdigital submission to APG on Press Freedom and Sustainability

VIEWdigital submission to APG on Press Freedom and Sustainability

I was happy to play a role in helping Una Murphy with VIEWdigital’s submission to the Stormont All-Party Group on Media Sustainability and Press Freedom. Key points included:

  • Local independent news outlets have provided a vital service to communities during the COVID-19 pandemic by producing local public interest news stories.
  • New approaches to restore trust in media, as well as new ways to raise revenue need to be found, to ensure media sustainability post pandemic
  • There remains a need for the News Recovery Plan put forward by the National Union of Journalists, which called for strategic investments in the hyperlocal sector and for tax credits and interest free loans to be made available to support our journalism, both during and after the pandemic.

Thanks to Una and Brian for the opportunity to contribute.

If you would like to contribute your views on this issue, please email unamurphy@viewdigital.org

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.