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

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. 

Interviewed about Trump and social media conspiracy theories

Image of protesters at Capitol Building, Washington D.C, 6 January 2021

Yesterday I was interviewed by Stephen Jones (Press Association) about Donald Trump’s role in amplifying disinformation about the 2020 US Presidential Election. We discussed a variety of issues, including the rise of the right-wing information ecosystem in the US, how social media companies like Facebook have responded to disinformation campaigns, and Trump’s use of online platforms to question the credibility of the 2020 US Election result.

Thanks to Stephen for the interview, which can be read in the following publications:

UK politicians warned after Trump ‘incites’ riots at Capitol building, Belfast Telegraph, 7 January 2021. 

UK politicians warned after Trump ‘incites’ riots at Capitol building, Express and Star, 7 January 2021. 

UK politicians warned after Trump ‘incites riots at Capitol building, Oxford Mail, 7 January 2021.

UK politicians warned after Trump ‘incites riots at Capitol building, Salford City News, 7 January 2021.

UK politicians warned after Trump ‘incites riots at Capitol building, The London Economic, 7 January 2021.

UK politicians warned after Trump ‘incites riots at Capitol building, Winsford Guardian, 7 January 2021.

BBC Radio Foyle interview on US legal action against Facebook

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Yesterday I was interviewed by David Hunter on BBC Radio Foyle’s The News at One on the US government antitrust lawsuit against Facebook. We discussed the precedent for this effort to break up Facebook’s control of other social media platforms and services, and the implications for citizens’ rights if this action is successful.

Thanks to David, Dean McLaughlin and BBC Radio Foyle for the invitation. The interview can be heard here

BBC Good Morning Ulster and BBC Radio Foyle media appearances

Stop Hate for Profit 24 hour boycott of Facebook and Instagram

This morning I did a couple of radio interviews about US celebrities joining the Stop Hate for Profit boycott of Facebook and Instagram in order to force them to take stronger action against hate speech and disinformation. On BBC Good Morning Ulster, Naomh McElhatton and I discussed whether these boycotts were an effective way to raise awareness of this issue. The segment can be listened to here

On The Breakfast Show on BBC Radio Foyle, I spoke to Anna Curran about the issues raised by this campaign and how we can better regulate hate speech and disinformation. This interview can be listed to here

Thanks to Anne Jordan and Dean McLaughlin for the invitation.

BBC News Arabic media appearance

Screenshot 2020-06-07 at 16.23.25

Yesterday I was interviewed on the BBC Arabic news channel about the letter written to Facebook by scientists funded by the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiativein protest at the platform’s refusal to remove tweets from US President Donald Trump. Many thanks to George, Marwa and the BBC Arabic team for the invitation. A recording of the interview can be found here

MeCCSA 2020 presentation

I attended the annual MeCCSA conference  at the University of Brighton last week, which brought together a very diverse group of Media, Communication and Cultural Studies researchers to discuss its core theme ‘Media Interactions and Environments.’

My paper, ‘Peace on Facebook? Problematising social media as spaces for intergroup contact in divided societies’, critically evaluated the cyber optimist notion that ICTs might facilitate more associative models of peacebuilding in contemporary societies. Using examples such as Peace on Facebook, I argued that the corporate logic of social media has significant implications for efforts to foster positive intergroup contact in deeply-divided societies. Online platforms are not benign actors and they turbocharge mis-and disinformation that contributes to sectarian violence in countries such as India and Northern Ireland.  The slides can be found below: