Northern Ireland: Old conflict, new tools
In Northern Ireland’s polarised environment, social media is being used to inflame tensions – and to help defuse them.
Belfast, Northern Ireland – A riot captured on YouTube and beamed around the world, a selfie in front of a towering inferno posted to Instagram, insults hurled like bricks from one camp to another on Twitter, calls for a community protest via Facebook – during Northern Ireland’s contentious Twelfth holiday weekend, social media can either help to fuel the region’s existing conflicts, or help defuse them.
Northern Ireland has long had warring factions of those who pledge loyalty to the crown of the United Kingdom – the mostly Protestant “loyalists” – and those who believe Northern Ireland’s six counties should be reunited with the Republic of Ireland – mostly Catholic “republicans” or “nationalists”.
Nearly 20 years after a peace agreement was meant to end the bloody conflict between the two, tensions still simmer – and, occasionally, flare up.
That tension is readily apparent during the country’s Twelfth celebrations, held on July 12 each year. Ulster Protestants celebrate during the Twelfth to commemorate the victory of the Protestant King William of Orange over the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. It is also known as “Orangemen’s Day”. (As July 12 fell on a Sunday this year, festivities were held on Monday, July 13.)
The festivities are marked by parades of marching bands and towering, multi-storey bonfires.
The scale and locations of several events, many sponsored by the Protestant fraternal organisation, the Orange Order, often lead to clashes with Catholic neighbours of celebrants.
Although most Twelfth events occur without incident, several areas remain volatile year after year as images and video of rioting flood social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter – as do calls for violence and pleas for peace.
In 2014, the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council conducted an expansive study to determine how social media was used during the parading season, and its effect on the local communities.
The year 2015 marked the first Twelfth in which law enforcement and local community organisations were armed with the information found in the Council’s report, which included interviews with community workers, marching band members and community organisations on both sides of the conflict.
“The kind of trolling that’s done between the two [loyalists and republicans] is quite horrific, and it’s really damaging because you have to remember that a lot of these accounts, while they might seem anonymous, people know who they are,” said Orna Young, who is the co-author with Paul Reilly of the report: Social Media, Parades and Protests.
“For that reason, these online interactions are really damaging the work that goes on the other 11 months of the year,” Young said.
Social media a ‘safe space’?
However, while a few regular voices and images typically dominate media coverage of Northern Ireland and the Twelfth festivities, the study found that social media provided a “safe space” and distance for many people to express their views and hear alternative views in a manner that offline engagements don’t offer.
“There’s a vicious end to social media in some circles,” Northern Irish political blogger Alan Meban said in an interview with Al Jazeera.
“But then there are just the ordinary people starting to express themselves. The more people on Twitter, the more people on Facebook and eventually there are more people who will eventually raise their head above the fence and say something,” Meban said.
Young and Reilly’s report found that these “ordinary people” include many residents of contested or mixed areas who use social media to quickly quash rumours, expose edited photographs, or provide rapid responses from trusted leaders.
When a young woman was pinned beneath a car after a loyalist driver plowed into a crowd of nationalists in the northern Belfast neighbourhood of Ardoyne, the online vitriol was instantaneous.
Some condemned the accident online and congratulated the crowd who lifted the car off her.
Others placed the blame on the victim and Ardoyne residents.
Twitter users analysed the make and model of the car from photographs posted on Instagram and posted a video on YouTube, and attempted to link the driver, who was arrested at the scene, to other incidents.
And when an officer was hit in the head with a brick during riots in Ardoyne, it was captured via a live stream on YouTube.
Viewers quickly noticed the resemblance of the officer with the bloodied head being dragged from the scene by his colleagues, to Police Service of Northern Ireland’s (PSNI) Chief Constable George Hamilton.
Hamilton himself quickly set the record straight, tweeting: “To all who have expressed concern & those who wished I was harmed – I am safe and well. My thoughts are with officers injured tonight.”
Monitoring social media
Young said that online organising for the sake of criminal activity or even mere mischief isn’t limited solely to Twelfth festivities.
“Young people here … are organising themselves in very clever ways in regards to what we term ‘recreational rioting’,” she said. “They’re doing that all the time.”
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The PSNI regularly monitors social media for such activity, both to stay informed about possible criminal acts and to engage with the community.
According to Robert “Bobby” Singleton, superintendent of service delivery in the Belfast City District, approximately 3,000 officers were deployed throughout Northern Ireland during the Twelfth events, although only a “handful” of officers used the technology themselves while in the field.
“If we heard there was going to be a protest, if we heard people were calling for people to gather in a particular area, the intelligence unit would harvest that from the web and send through a notification to the area command team, and … we would then pass it to our operational planning, and respond and provide police and operation to deal with those issues,” Singleton told Al Jazeera by phone from Belfast.
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“If it was something we thought it was appropriate, we might engage with the organisers at the local level,” Singleton said.
“And if there’s something going on, we might send our own people to get pictures and video, to present people with some images and commentary from our perspective,” Singleton said.
However, Mehan said that despite the surge of social media use, much of the work of organising a protest still happens the old-fashioned way.
“It’s basically people who know each other from the pub, who live on the same street are already in the same band or the same paramilitary organisation,” he said.
“They had existing networks long before social media.”
Follow Molly McCluskey on Twitter: @MollyEMcCluskey