Yesterday I was interviewed by Elise Evans on BBC Radio WM Breakfast about social media and ‘fake news’ during the Ukrainian conflict. This was in response to a report that footage from a disaster movie filmed in Birmingham had been used on social media to suggest the war was a hoax.
We discussed what online platforms are doing to deal with ‘fake news’ and how we can identify false images and videos circulating online.
Thanks to Elise, Louise, Megan and the BBC Radio WM team for the interview.
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 was titled “the control of online communication: a threat to media pluralism, freedom of information and human dignity”
In my contribution to the hearing, I drew on my research on the role of online platforms in amplifying hate speech. My recommendations included a call for policymakers to lobby online platforms to issue warning messages to those using hate speech on their sites, a recognition that content removal might displace the problem to less popular platforms, and for counter-speech interventions to be promoted as a more effective way to address these behaviours.
Many thanks to Eugen Cibotaru for the invitation and his help with the logistics.
Pleased to report that our article in Information, Communication & Society will be available open access until 31 March 2022. Entitled ‘Easy data, same old platforms? A systematic review of digital activism methodologies’, this paper draws on the results of a review of 315 articles published between 1994 and 2018.
The abstract can be read below:
Burgess and Bruns (2015) have linked the computational turn in social media research to an increase in the number of studies focussing exclusively on ‘easy data’, such as the ‘low hanging fruit’ provided by Twitter hashtags. This paper explores whether there is a preponderance of such easy data in digital activism research through a systematic review of relevant journal articles published between 2011 and 2018 (N = 315). Specifically, it examines whether computational digital methods have become increasingly prominent in digital activism research during this period. A key focus of the paper is the extent to which digital activism research focused on easily accessible Twitter data, and whether these were obtained via standard API services. Results indicate that (1) traditional research methodologies were more commonly deployed in these articles than digital methods, but (2) Twitter was the most researched platform in the corpus, and (3) single-platform hashtag studies were an archetype of digital activism research alongside single-platform Facebook studies and holistic approaches (hybrid, multi-method & multi-sited, e.g., ethnography). The paper concludes by advocating for greater diversity in terms of the methodological approaches adopted in digital activism research.
Many thanks to the editors, reviewers, and the iCS team for their help in getting this out. And of course to Suay and Jenny, for their collaboration on this. Hopefully the first of many!
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 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:
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.
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.
“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:
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;
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.
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
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):
Thanks to Virpi for putting this panel together and please do email me if you want more details about our paper.