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. 

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

Fourth review of Digital Contention in a Divided Society published in the Peace Journalist Magazine

Peace Journalist Magazine, April 2022

The fourth review of Digital Contention in a Divided Society has been published this week in the Peace Journalist Magazine.

Kathryn Johnston reflects on how online platforms provide spaces for alternative narratives and more disbursing trends such as the threats against women journalists in Northern Ireland. Some quotes from the review are below:

“This is no arid academic text. Reilly quotes extensively from many of those engaging in debate, referring to them both by their actual names, where appropriate, and their  social media identities. That is immensely helpful; and certainly, drawing attention to these narratives and explorations of contested spaces is a rich and profitable seam for  all of us to mine”

“Paul Reilly’s book makes an invaluable contribution to the debate on the potential of citizen activity on online platforms to contribute to peacebuilding in Northern Ireland. It deserves attention”  

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

Review of Digital Contention written by Kathryn Johnston

Digital Contention in a Divided Society can be purchased here.

Cited in Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe resolution on the role of media in time of crisis

Photo by Jem Stone/ CC BY

In May 2021, 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 written evidence 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.

PACE adopted a resolution based on this session this week, which referenced my testimony and several of my publications from CascEff and IMPROVER. It also included my recommendations to protect public service media and compel online platforms to take stronger action on misinformation and disinformation.

Many thanks to Eugen Cibotaru for the invitation to contribute to this resolution. I look forward to giving expert testimony to a PACE hearing on ‘the control of online communication’ next month.

Interview to mark one year since publication of Digital Contention

This week marks one year since the publication of my second book Digital Contention in a Divided Society (Manchester University Press). I sat down (virtually) with John Coster, Director of the Documentary Media Centre, to reflect on this. Our conversation touched on a wide variety of topics including the April 2011 ‘Brexit riots‘, the abuse directed at DUP MLA Diane Dodds on Twitter, and how social media bring us together (and tear us apart).

Big thanks to John for the chat. We hope to do this on a regular basis moving forward.

Interviewed by John Coster to mark one year since Digital Contention published

You can still view the video of the book launch below:

Video of ARUCAD seminar now available online

Webinar at ARUCAD, 2 November 2021.

Last week I spoke to Dr. Hakan Karahasan, Head of the Department of Advertising Design and Communication as part of the seminar series at the Arkin University of Creative Arts and Design (ARUCAD). Many thanks to Hakan and his colleagues for hosting this talk.

The video can be watched below:

Invited book talk at Arkin University of Creative Arts and Design

Book talk, Arkin University, 2 November 2021

This afternoon I will be delivering a Webinar at Arkın University of Creative Arts and Design. Hosted by Dr. Hakan Karashan, I will be discussing some of the key findings from my recently published book Digital Contention in a Divided Society.

The Webinar will be streamed live on the ARUCAD Facebook and YouTube channels from 12pm UK time (2pm Cyprus time).

Many thanks to Hakan for the invitation and I look forward to our conversation on digital citizenship, activism and politics later.

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

Video of PSA MPG ‘in conversation’ now available

Digital Contention in a Divided Society, MUP 2021.

Last week I spoke to Dr Emily Harmer (University of Liverpool) about my new book, Digital contention in a divided society – Social media, parades and protests in Northern Ireland, as part of the Political Studies Association Media and Politics Group Seminar Series.

The video can be watched below:

Video of PSA MPG event

Many thanks to Emily and James Dennis (University of Portsmouth) for organising the event- I really enjoyed it!

The Conversation article on social media and NI protests published

Paul Faith/PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

The Conversation UK have published an essay of mine on how to follow Northern Irish protests on social media. Drawing on my research on the union flag protests, Ardoyne parade dispute and my recently published book, I argue that we should all be careful about what we share on sites like Facebook and Twitter during the marching season. Key tips such as ‘Check before you share’, ‘know who to follow’ and ‘play the ball, not the person’ are shared in the piece. I also recommend following journalists and factchecking organisations such as FactCheckNI in order to counter the spread of misinformation and disinformation.

Many thanks to Victoria Wood for helping with the pitch and Avery Anapol for providing feedback on the final version. The post can be viewed here