Facebook didn’t start the flag riots

Flagging up problems with the peace process on Facebook?

Facebook flag protest pages provide valuable insight into increasing Loyalist dissatisfaction with the peace process and should not be removed.

On December 3 2012, Belfast City Council voted to fly the union flag above City Hall on a number of designated days each year. This change to the previous policy of flying the flag 365 days a year prompted angry exchanges in the Council between representatives of the two main unionist parties, the Democratic Unionist Party and Ulster Unionist Party, and Sinn Fein. The moderate pro-union Alliance Party was the subject of a controversial leafleting campaign in nearby East Belfast, which suggested that they were responsible for the removal of the flag and urged Loyalists to protest against the decision. The party had in fact been responsible for tabling designated days as an amendment to the original recommendation by the Equality Commission to permanently remove the union flag from Belfast City Hall. Nonetheless, the perception that the Alliance Party had sided with Sinn Fein during the controversial council vote led to Loyalist protests outside the offices of their councilors, and a series of death threats being issued to representatives such as MP for East Belfast, Naomi Long. The Ulster People’s Forum, led by North Down activist Jamie Bryson and the South Armagh victims’ campaigner Willie Frazer has been linked to the ongoing flag protests that have disrupted rush hour traffic for short periods in towns and cities across Northern Ireland. While the majority of these protests has passed off without incident, the first few weeks of 2013 saw the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) come under sustained attack from rioters in the Short Strand/Lower Newtownards Road area of East Belfast on a nightly basis.

The spotlight has fallen on social media as the mainstream media and politicians attempt to explain the ‘viral’ nature of the flag protests. Facebook pages such as Save Our Union Flag have functioned as spaces in which members of the Protestant Unionist Loyalist (PUL) tradition not only share information on upcoming demonstrations but also discuss related issues such as allegations of police heavy-handedness in policing protests in East Belfast. As per my previous study, community workers from both sides continue to view social media as an ‘accelerant’ rather than the cause of the street riots seen in East Belfast. Nevertheless, a cross-party consensus involving members of the Alliance Party, DUP, SDLP, and Sinn Fein has emerged in favour of greater regulation of content posted on social media sites. Hence, Justice Minister David Ford stressed the importance of monitoring certain sites to gather information about those who post “messages on social media which amount to incitement to hatred, incitement to commit criminal offences.” The recent Northern Ireland Assembly Debate on Internet Safety also revealed that many MLAs have been subjected to online abuse and wanted more police resources to be devoted to be the issue. This resonates with the findings from the 2010 Ofcom Media Literacy Audit that suggested Northern Irish adults were the most cautious in the United Kingdom when it came to monitoring the social media activities of their children.

Like in the aftermath of the 2011 English riots, there has been much debate in Northern Ireland about how social media data should be used in criminal prosecutions. There have been calls for Barra McGrory, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) in Northern Ireland, to provide clearer guidance to both the PSNI and general public on this issue. The interim guidelines on social media provided by the DPP in England and Wales, Keir Starmer QC, make clear that harassment and ‘credible threats’ on these sites should be treated as grounds for criminal prosecution. However, the criteria by which a threat may be considered ‘credible’ or online speech may be considered ‘offensive’ remain somewhat ambiguous in this document. Keir Starmers suggests that there must be a ‘public interest’ justification for these prosecutions and they should not be sought if offensive content is quickly removed. While not on the scale of the level of prosecutions relating to social media abuse seen in England and Wales over the past two years, there have been some signs of a similar trend developing in Northern Ireland. A landmark case in April 2012 saw Daryl O’Donnell, a chef from Derry-Londonderry, receive a five month suspended jail sentence for threatening East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell on Facebook. More recently, an emergency injunction filed in a Belfast court on January 28 saw two Facebook flag protest pages removed due to a threat that had been issued against a Catholic man. It is conceivable that this may result in the individual(s) responsible being prosecuted.

There are three points that need to be considered in relation to the use of Facebook by Loyalist flag protesters. First, it may be impractical to prosecute all those who leave comments on these pages that could be deemed offensive by others. Brian Spencer refers to ‘sectarianism growing legs’ on sites such as Facebook. There were many sectarian remarks made about the Catholic residents of Short Strand in the wake of the violence seen in East Belfast in January. Many of these were reported to Facebook and the page administrators were forced to remind users that offensive remarks would be deleted. This policy of vetting comments has often meant that dissenting views from both PUL and nationalist/republican communities have been removed from these pages. With over 17,000 comments posted on one of these pages in January, it may be increasingly difficult for administrators to ensure that all sectarian and offensive content is removed quickly from their pages. That is not to mention the problematic nature of defining comments as ‘grossly offensive’ in line with the Keir Starmer’s guidelines.

Second, it may be impossible to achieve the permanent removal of Loyalist flag protest pages on Facebook. The injunction in January 2013 that resulted in two sites being removed due to a threat against an unidentified Catholic man man did not prevent one of the administrators from setting up a new page. The Loyalist Peaceful Protesters Backup page was available within a few hours of the original site being shutdown by Facebook. It is also conceivable that the administrators could decide to move to another social media site should further legal proceedings be brought against Facebook in the future. Clearly the cost of permanently removing offensive content may prove prohibitive if it involves legal action in multiple jurisdictions. In the context of ongoing protests, police resources are arguably better deployed on the ground rather than scanning social media sites for incriminating evidence.

Finally, there are the implications for how political leaders re-engage with those members of the PUL tradition who have grown increasingly disillusioned with the peace process. These sites have provided a platform for dissenting voices within the PUL communities, and, in particular, those dissatisfied with the Democratic Unionist Party’s decision to partner with Sinn Fein in the Northern Ireland Executive. The comments posted reveal a ‘dislocation’ from the devolved political institutions and the persistence of a zero-sum perception of politics that links equality to a loss of identity. While some form of trolling is perhaps inevitable on open Facebook pages, they nevertheless function as a space in which moderates on both sides of the sectarian divide can challenge these views. The statements in relation to the flag protests issued by the PSNI, political leaders, and the Ulster People’s Forum are vociferously debated on Facebook in a way that illustrates some of the broader issues of conflict transformation that have yet to be tackled by the Executive. The study of these Facebook pages is therefore essential in order to understand the motivations that lie behind the flag protests and the broader issues surrounding conflict transformation as experienced by these groups. Shutting down these pages may only succeed in driving them further underground, creating a bigger gap between political institutions and disaffected unionist and loyalists.

By Dr. Paul Reilly, Lecturer in Media & Communication, University of Leicester.

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