This book explores how social media are used by citizens to frame contentious parades and protests in ‘post-conflict’ Northern Ireland. It provides the first in-depth analysis of how Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were used by citizens to contest the 2013 union flag protests and the Ardoyne parade dispute (2014 and 2015). An essential read for researchers interested in digital mis- and disinformation, it will examine how citizens engaged with false information circulating on these platforms that had the potential to inflame sectarian tensions during these contentious episodes. It also considers the implications of this online activity for efforts to build peace in deeply divided societies such as Northern Ireland. The book uses a qualitative thematic approach to analyse Facebook, Twitter and YouTube content generated during the flag protests and Ardoyne parade dispute between 2012 and 2016. It also draws on semi-structured interviews with key stakeholders including bloggers, political commentators and communication officers from the main political parties, as well as the results of a qualitative content analysis of newspaper coverage of these contentious public demonstrations.
The decision by the Northern Ireland Parades Commission in July 2013 to re-route the return leg of an annual Orange Order parade away from the nationalist Ardoyne district in North Belfast sparked four consecutive nights of violent clashes between loyalist rioters and the PSNI. Fears of a repeat of this violence were not realised in July 2014, despite the failure of representatives from both sides to broker a solution to the impasse. July 2015 saw a return to violence as loyalist protesters attacked PSNI officers enforcing the Parades Commission’s determination to prevent the return leg from returning home via its traditional route. Chapter 6 explores what role, if any, tweeters played in escalating and de-escalating tensions surrounding the contentious parade in 2014 and 2015. The lifespan of misinformation and disinformation about the dispute shared on the microblogging site will be examined to assess the reach and potential impact of content that had the potential to generate violence between loyalists and the Ardoyne residents. It will also examine the ways in which tweeters framed the dispute from a rights perspective and whether there was any evidence of Mouffe’s ‘conflictual consensus’ emerging on the platform during this period. A critical thematic analysis of 7,388 #Ardoyne tweets, collected in July 2014 and July 2015, was conducted in order to investigate these issues. These will be contextualised through a content analysis of 44 articles published in Northern Irish and Irish newspapers during the Twelfth week across both years.
The final chapter summarises the main contributions of the book to contemporary debates about the role of social media in contentious politics within divided societies such as Northern Ireland. It considers whether the use of online platforms to spread misinformation and disinformation during contentious public demonstrations is evidence of the information crisis seen in other nation states, or a symptom of the democratic dysfunction in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing institutions. Finally, it explores the implications of citizens’ use of social media during such incidents for promoting peace and reconciliation in the deeply divided society.
Memes and parody accounts are examples of the ‘silly citizenship’ theorised by Hartley (2010) to capture citizens’ ‘playful’ engagement with political issues online. In terms of the latter, these are often deployed to satirise and hold politicians and authority figures to account for their public statements and actions. In the case of Northern Ireland, self-styled non-sectarian ‘parody group’ Loyalists Against Democracy (LAD) emerged as one of the most vocal critics of the flag protests in December 2012. Its supporters argued that the group articulated the views of the ‘silent majority’ by highlighting the bigotry and sectarianism of loyalists on pages such as LPPU. Conversely, critics accused the group of peddling negative stereotypes of working-class loyalists by shaming them for their poor spelling and grammar in their social media comments. Chapter 5 explores the role of LAD in contentious politics in Northern Ireland between December 2012 and November 2013. It presents the results of the first empirical study of content posted on the group’s Facebook and Twitter profiles, with a view to exploring whether such content could persuasively be framed as satire. It will also examine the extent to which loyalists were represented as ‘social abjects’ akin to the ‘chav’ stereotype used to demonise white working-class communities in England (Tyler, 2013). The role of the group in campaigns such as #givepootstheboot will be explored in order to assess its evolving role within the Northern Irish information ecosystem as a focal point for the contestation of contentious political issues.
This chapter contextualises this study of social media and contentious public demonstrations by reviewing the literature on online platforms, peacebuilding and the contact hypothesis. It introduces key ritualised social media practices, such as memes, parody accounts and wordplay that are commonly associated with digital citizenship. It concludes by providing an overview of each chapter and the qualitative research approach adopted in the book.
In Chapter 1, the evolving relationship between social media, contentious politics and social movements is explored. The role of digital media in social movements since 2011 is analysed, using exemplars such as Occupy Wall Street and the popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa later labelled the ‘Arab Spring’. The chapter moves on to explore the evolving role of digital media in contentious politics in Northern Ireland. Data from organisations such as OfCom are used to empirically investigate the news consumption practices of citizens and the levels of public trust in professional news media and political institutions in the social media era. Finally, the results of interviews conducted with key stakeholders (N=14) between October 2009 and September 2013 are elaborated, in order to critically evaluate the impact of Web 2.0 on political participation in the deeply divided society prior to the flag protests.
Chapter 2 focuses specifically on the role of social media in the flag protests between December 2012 and March 2013. Speaking at an event on social media and Northern Irish politics held at the University of Ulster in December 2013, loyalist activist Jamie Bryson would claim that social media “hadn’t helped us [the flag protesters] in the slightest”. This chapter empirically investigates this claim by providing the first qualitative study of Loyalist Peaceful Protest Updater (LPPU). This public Facebook page was used by loyalists to coordinate the protests and was suspended in January 2013 after an emergency injunction filed on behalf of an unidentified Catholic man who had been threatened on the page. The results of a thematic analysis of 24,244 comments posted on LPPU and its backup page during January 2013 are presented in order to assess the type of mobilising information provided on the page, and whether there was much evidence of ‘trolling’ by critics of the protests. The chapter contextualises these results through a content analysis of coverage of the flag protests in the three most widely read newspapers in the region, the Belfast Telegraph, the Irish News, and the News Letter between 3rd December 2012 and 28 February 2013 (N=347).
Northern Ireland Twitter responds to the flag protests
The polysemic nature of Twitter hashtags and their capacity to mobilise ‘affective publics’ connected via affectively charged expression (Papacharissi, 2014) is examined in Chapter 3. The loyalist action dubbed ‘Operation Standstill’, announced in the first week of January 2013, was a ‘lightning rod’ for Northern Irish tweeters, who were angered by the economic and reputational harm being caused by the flag protests. Hashtags such as #backinbelfast and #takebackthecity served as conversation markers for those who wished to express opposition to the demonstrations and encourage people to support those bars, restaurants and businesses negatively impacted. Twitter also provided communicative spaces for citizens to criticise protest provocateurs such as Jamie Bryson and Willie Frazer, with some shaming loyalists for hate speech posted on pages such as LPPU and mocking their poor spelling and grammar. This chapter empirically explores the discursive affordances of Twitter during hybrid media events through a thematic analysis of 4,479 tweets hashtagged with #flegs, a supposedly comical reference to how ‘flag’ is pronounced in a working-class Belfast accent. The key influencers, type of information shared and characterisation of loyalist flag protesters in this hashtag will be analysed. Finally, it will examine the extent to which public expression on the hashtag was irreverent and innocuous, or whether such activity perpetuated negative stereotypes of loyalists as ‘uneducated bigots’.
YouTube, sousveillance and the policing of the flag protests
In Chapter 4, the focus switches to citizens’ use of social media to document the actions of the PSNI during these demonstrations. The ubiquity of smartphones has provided unprecedented opportunities for citizens to engage in ‘sousveillance’, defined broadly as the “use of technology to access and collect data about their surveillance” (Mann et al., 2003: 333). During the flag protests, loyalists accused the PSNI of engaging in ‘political policing’ and used social media to share evidence corroborating their claims that they had been ‘heavy-handed’ towards the protesters. This chapter presents the first in-depth qualitative analysis of this footage, much of which was uploaded by witnesses to YouTube, presumably with the intention of highlighting the alleged police brutality. It does so by presenting the results of a thematic analysis of 1,586 comments posted in response to 36 videos uploaded to the video-sharing site by loyalists between December 2012 and March 2013. It will explore the extent to which such ‘sousveillance’ footage elicited sympathy for loyalist claims that the PSNI had been heavy-handed, and how the views expressed in these comments sections compared with mainstream media representations of both the protesters and the policing operation.