Northern Irish parades and protests in the age of social media

Posted by er134 at Mar 18, 2014 12:30 PM |
Dr Paul Reilly is investigating how Northern Irish communities use Facebook and Twitter in relation to controversial events

The advent of social media has provided a new platform for tensions in Northern Ireland to play out.

But while Facebook and Twitter have seen angry confrontations between supporters of rivalling communities, they are also allowing positive progress to be made, according to Dr Paul Reilly (pictured) of our Department of Media and Communication.

Dr Reilly is co-leading a new project which seeks to establish how social media activity surrounding contentious parades and protests has affected community relations in Northern Ireland.

Key examples to be looked at include the role of social media during the Loyalist protests that followed the decision of Belfast City Council to alter its protocol on the flying of the Union Flag over Belfast City Hall in 2012.

The council voted to stop flying the flag all-year round, instead opting to only fly it on designated days – and the decision was greeted by angry protests from Loyalist groups.

While the protests were accompanied by angry confrontations on social media between those who supported and rejected the council’s decision – there was also a lot of positive use of social media, according to Dr Reilly.

One manifestation of this opposition to the protests was the use of Twitter hashtags such as #OperationSitin and #takebackthecity to promote local businesses and encourage others to visit Belfast despite the ongoing demonstrations over the flag issue.

The project aims to gather evidence on how social media is used in these scenarios to help develop ways of improving community relations and peace-building.

The project is being funded with a £12,000 grant from Northern Ireland’s Community Relations Council, and is also being co-led by Belfast-based independent researcher Dr Orna Young.

A number of outputs are planned including a report detailing its key findings and a training programme for community groups involved in the mediation of public demonstrations.

Dr Reilly is well-placed to co-lead the project, having written extensively on how digital media is being used in Northern Ireland - including in his 2011 book, Framing the Troubles Online: Northern Irish political groups and website strategy.

His forthcoming book (Manchester University Press, due 2014) will focus on the role of social media during the Union Flag protests.