Social media remains a double-edged sword for loyalists in Northern Ireland

by Dr Paul Reilly, Senior Lecturer in Social Media & Digital Society

Anti Irish Sea border banner. Sandy Row March 2021, by Whiteabbey

Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Assistant Chief Constable Jonathan Roberts characterised the disorder in Northern Ireland over the past few weeks as being ‘at a scale not seen for years’.

Police sources have ruled out the involvement of loyalist paramilitaries in orchestrating the violence, despite earlier analyses to the contrary. The demonstrations were nominally a manifestation of loyalist anger at the Northern Ireland Protocol, which created a border down the Irish Sea.

However, like the flag protests eight years ago, these street protests have articulated increasing loyalist dissatisfaction with the Stormont Assembly and the police. Low levels of confidence in the PSNI within these communities have been exacerbated by the decision by the Public Prosecution Service not to recommend any prosecutions for republicans who broke COVID rules during the funeral of senior PIRA member Bobby Storey in June 2020.

The parallels with the flag protests don’t end there. Messages calling for loyalists to ‘shut down Northern Ireland’ have reverberated around Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp, similar to those seen in December 2012. Videos recorded by eyewitnesses on smartphones, including footage of a bus being petrol bombed close to the Lanark Way interface in West Belfast, have provided a focal point for the anger of online commentators.

There have also been similarities in terms of the key broadcasting and gatekeeping roles played by professional journalists on Twitter, with many providing real-time commentary on the violence seen in areas such as the Springfield Road/Lanark Way interface in West Belfast. Footage captured by eyewitnesses has nevertheless been shared to show the work being undertaken on the ground to prevent the violence perpetrated by predominantly teenage rioters.

Take, for instance, the positive responses to a video shared on Twitter showing nationalist residents and community workers intervening to stop youths throwing petrol bombs across the ‘peace line’. However, it was perhaps no surprise that some loyalist tweeters chose to frame this as evidence of an ‘Irish Republican feud’ rather than local representatives trying to keep the peace.

As I argue in Digital Contention in a Divided Society, social media has the potential to both help and hinder efforts to moderate sectarian tensions surrounding contentious public demonstrations in divided societies such as Northern Ireland.

Clearly, online platforms function as communicative spaces where loyalists can not only articulate their opposition to the Protocol and ‘political policing’, but also highlight their dissatisfaction with the peace process itself.

However, loyalist activist Jamie Bryson argued that social media hadn’t ‘helped the flag protesters in the slightest’ due to the trolling, mis-and disinformation spread online. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube laid bare the incoherence of the protest movement, with disagreements over tactics playing out on these public spaces against a backdrop of trolling from critics and media scrutiny of these sites.

I concluded that the most significant contribution of these platforms to peacebuilding lay in their use by citizens to correct misinformation being spread online with a view to inciting violence.

A similar story can be seen during the current protests and related violence. Sky News Senior Ireland Correspondent, David Blevins, highlighted the role of online disinformation spread by ‘criminal cartels’ in encouraging youths to riot, stating that “putting out the fire on the street will be difficult while someone, somewhere is pouring petrol from a keyboard”.

Indeed, false flag social media accounts, some created as recently as a few weeks ago, were specifically blamed for the rioting at Lanark Way. Messages entitled ‘Calling of Arms’, urging loyalist youths to “earn their strips” [sic], were shared on Facebook and WhatsApp in the wake of the Sandy Row violence; these were condemned by Bryson as “malicious and false”, with republicans said to be responsible for these anonymous accounts.

The Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), an umbrella group for loyalist paramilitaries, has sought to distance itself from the violence in a statement warning unionists and loyalists ‘to remain vigilant to the dangers of fake and anonymous social media accounts, and we urge our people not to get drawn into violent confrontations.’

Whether social media is ‘fuelling’ these protests remains to be seen. However, it is clear that the speed with which information circulates online presents a formidable challenge to those seeking to keep these demonstrations peaceful.

As I have argued elsewhere, unstructured intergroup contact via these platforms is unlikely to address the issues which continue to polarise opinion in divided societies. It will require greater political leadership and generosity if Northern Ireland is to avoid a contentious marching season this summer.

Find out more about Dr Reilly’s research

Human: putting the social in science

Putting the social in science at The University of Sheffield.

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