Last week I was interviewed by John Coster (Doc Media Centre) for the Parallel Lives Network’s 16 Days of Activism.
To mark 10 years since the union flag protests in Northern Ireland, we discussed themes from my 2021 book Digital Contention in a Divided Society. I suggested that many of the themes of othering and social media pile-ons remained a key feature of how contentious political issues are framed by online citizens.
We also discussed a wide range of other topics including recent protests in China and Iran, as well as the implications of Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter for how people find out about events like flag protests.
Many thanks to John for the invitation and the engaging chat (as always!). The interview can be viewed below:
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
I have a new journal article out this month in the European Journal of Communication. Entitled ‘Can social media help end the harm? Public information campaigns, online platforms, and paramilitary-style attacks in a deeply divided society’, the paper explores how social media was used to promote the Ending the Harm campaign in Northern Ireland. This built on research conducted with Dr. Faith Gordon (ANU) in 2019.
The abstract can be read below:
Online platforms can help public information campaigns reach target audiences who are unlikely to engage with content distributed via traditional media. This paper adds to this emergent literature, as the first study of the Ending the Harm campaign, which is designed to change public discourse about paramilitary-style attacks in Northern Ireland. Campaign effects were explored through interviews (N = 7) conducted with key stakeholders, as well as the results of a quantitative survey of residents (N = 805) in areas most affected by these attacks. Results indicate that exposure to the ETH advertisements correlated with a belief that PSAs were unjustified. Platforms like Snapchat helped the campaign reach younger demographics (16–34 years old). Nevertheless, it was unclear whether self-reported changes in attitude toward PSAs would lead to sustained behavioral changes.
The paper is published Open Access and can be read and downloaded (for free) here
Many thanks to EJC, the anonymous reviewers, the interviewees, Damian Boylan (NI Executive Programme for Tackling Paramilitarism, Criminality & Organised Crime), and Faith for their input. I will hopefully have an update on this work later in the summer.
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:
Digital Contention in a Divided Society can be purchased here.
We discussed how the type of photographs being shared on Instagram, how people respond to these in the comments section, and the broader implications of social media for remembering conflict (we even touched on how the Holocaust has been commemorated in Germany too). Many thanks to John for the opportunity and I look forward to sharing the final results of the project in the next few months.
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.
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.
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:
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.