Friday, October 18, 2013

New media and new politics in NI? Or complacency after conflict?

This afternoon's Political Studies Association of Ireland conference in Trinity included a panel looking at new media and new politics and their influence on conflict transformation in Northern Ireland. Chaired by Niall Ó Dochartaigh (NUI Galway), the panel spoke in the order:
  • Alex Kane (Journalist)
  • Paul Reilly (Uni. of Leicester)
  • Brian J. Spencer (Political blogger and cartoonist)
  • Alan Meban (Political blogger)
Topics covered included whether NI actually wanted to change, whether anyone could think of an example of social media influencing politics in NI, and looking at groups, parties and campaigns (eg, Platform for Change, Occupy Belfast, NI21, LADFLEG, Hope and History) that have mostly failed to use social media effectively.

You can listen back in three parts.

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My speaking notes from today's panel:

New Media, New Politics: Social Media and Conflict Transformation in NI

Addressing the seminar’s title … New politics has to stand for a lot more than two political parties agreeing to cooperate in private and fall out in public (unless G8 leaders or US business reps are over). In terms of democratic renewal and popular participation, I only see some very limited evidence that any kind of new politics in infiltrating society.

New media. If we think about social media for a minute. Sure Adams, McGuinness and Robinson are all on Twitter. But knowing about Snowy the dog, and laughing at the First Minister falling into his fish pond during an election campaign isn’t going to win many votes.

Neither has social media brought down Adams or Robinson, though it may have swung a presidential election once picked up and repeated by the traditional media.

Parties are getting better at using Twitter for instant rebuttal – faster than a press release, read by more people and trusted by the mainstream media to repeat. Smaller parties are finding Twitter and Facebook good for amplifying their brand and getting a consistent message across. But I conclude that parties have so far hopelessly failed to capitalise on the tools at their fingertips. [As another speaker suggested, Blue State Digital and their digital Obama campaign have a lot to answer for!]

The DUP’s Jim Wells once quipped that the Facebook limit of 5,000 friends equated to a good quota. He saw the potential to connect with people in your distract to constituency, to “groom” them (not the phrase he used!) to turn out and vote. But no evidence that social media in itself encourages people to walk out of their front door and travel to a polling station. Around 50% of the DUP’s constituency work now comes via Facebook.

If Mick was here he might remind us that when Slugger O’Toole was first set up, it provided a space – maybe even a safe space – for the politically active and interested to listen to alternative viewpoints that they’d normally ignore or violently disagree with. Education for mutual understanding without having to be in the same room as each other. (Though we should remember that at times paramilitaries did allegedly sit together in backstreet bars during the Troubles to agree the legitimacy of targets.)

We can read books and papers about revolution outside Northern Ireland and look at the role of new media in organising, reporting and monitoring citizen-led action.

Conflict transformation?

The group Platform for Change describes itself as “a voice for citizens of Northern Ireland who believe that now is the time for a new politics focused on the common good”. Supported by some in UUP, Alliance and SDLP, it’s a slightly left of centre group that have failed to use new media. No blogs. 595 followers on Twitter isn’t going to set anything on fire. A few papers on topics and traditional town hall meetings. Little audible call for change. (To their credit their flags panel was exceptionally inclusive.)

The bloggers around the table should be under no illusion that while we’re obsessing about the political and socioeconomic machinations and whispering in the ears of blog readers, we’re not actively changing much. We’re not “the people”.

Occupy Belfast had a campsite in Writers’ Square opposite St Anne’s Cathedral and later walked into a long-vacated Art Deco bank building. A hotchpotch of socialists who were internally focussed and did little to reach out. Lacked imagination. Ended when “a radio flung from the building at around noon narrowly missed a woman and young child on the pavement below”. The police entered the building and a few hours later ushered out the movement. At one point while one occupier was being interviewed on the Nolan radio show, another phoned in from the same building to contradict him.

Jamie Bryson, Willie Frazer and friends. They represented “the people”. While not always singing from the same hymnsheet and not always sharing objectives, it was obvious that “the people” which seemed to be the “goddess of structurelessness” was actually organised by an “exclusive friendship network”. Pre-existing networks assembled. Appropriate perhaps that Jamie Bryson and Willie Frazer ended up sharing a cell for a few days or weeks.

The “movement” didn’t grow from nothing online out of the #flegs hashtag. They grew out of Orange Halls, bands, loyalist bars. Facebook groups helped the urban protesters organise, and Facebook in general provided a forum for venting their anger and retaliating against anyone who questioned or condemned. And online gave Jamie Bryson a voice, if not a listening audience.

The flag protests were the closest thing Northern Ireland has had to proper flash mobs. And loyalism has been set free to express its anger and identity online.

For me one of the most intriguing innovations to come out of the flags protests was the picture of the collated schedule of protests with times and venues up to a week in advance that was circulated by someone every day. A decentralised secretarial service, and a huge public service for commuters.

Without new media we’d still have had flags protests. The difference would have been longer queues of traffic.

In the Middle East, reporting through traditional media is stymied by blocking satellite uplinks and trying to throwing the switch to darken the internet. The nearest we have in Northern Ireland are the constant attacks on Loyalism Against Democracy’s LADFLEG Facebook accounts.

LADFLEG is a loyalist parody site. At times hilarious caricature and lampooning of utterances and acts carried out in the name of loyalism, and more recently, crossing the difficult to see line into attack and viciousness. I’ve lost count but I think they’re on their sixth Facebook account – once enough people report them, Facebook seem to suspend the account. Not sure Facebook’s Irish presence is taking much notice of the north! Dave Magee @dgmagee has written about it as has Brian. While the jury is out they have successfully opened up further understanding of their community.

When Gerry Kelly took a lift on a PSNI landrover, Sinn Fein had filmed the incident and published it online. They would have wanted to draw attention to the PSNI’s reaction: instead, they also drew attention to Gerry Kelly’s own aggression.

Flags did bring the Harriet Long’s blog to greater attention, well argued opinions and an insight into working class loyalist East Belfast.

So any signs of democratic renewal or popular participation?

NI21 are one to watch. A new pro-Union party set up by Basil McCrea and John McCallister. They’re appealing to the middle class Facebook generation who are disaffected by politics. Their challenge is to convert “online Like” into “real world Vote”. They put out a video about Respect for Flags a couple of weeks ago. It didn’t go viral and they must be disappointed with just 2,202 views [accurate this morning].

With a statement about humility, healing and hope, the Hope and History campaign was set up by a handful of Christians, mostly clerics. It borrowed its name from the words in a poem by the just-deceased Seamus Heaney (The Cure at Troy) and was in response to Richard Haass arriving and an appeal for leaders and communities to seek the common good.
History says, don’t hope // On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime // The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up, // And hope and history rhyme.

A small-scale unsustained flash-in-a-pan campaign which collected 1,500 signatures online in September (and 50 so far in October). Plotting the number of signatures collected each day on a graph, it peaked on day two, rallied after church on the Sunday, and then fell away.

[In the question session afterwards I also highlighted the contributions to QUB’s Compromise After Conflict blog, with recent pieces by Jamie Bryson (a coherent and well argued post) and Martin McGuinness. Though in later discussions while reflecting on Alex Kane’s question of whether Northern Ireland actually wanted change, I wondered whether the blog should have been titled Complacency After Conflict.

Paul Reilly mentioned the Politwoops website which documents tweets deleted by politicians: UK, Ireland, and many others. I think we need a Northern Ireland one!]

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