Book review: Digital Contention in a Divided Society: Social Media, Parades and Protests in Northern Ireland (by Paul Reilly)

Published by: Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2021, £80, 264 pages.
Reviewed by: Hakan Karahasan, Assist. Prof. Dr., Faculty of Communication, Arkin University of Creative Arts and Design (ARUCAD), hakan.karahasan@arucad.edu.tr 

Digital citizenship and activism can be considered as relatively new when one talks about democracy and how citizens engage with digital media in relation to politics. Mostly, those who study the impact of digital media and democracy can be categorised into two main camps, namely optimists and pessimists. Optimists can be considered as those who argue that digital media will democratise societies and pessimists argue that digital media will not bring anything new, since they are big corporations and they only care to maximise their profits, nothing else. Even, it could be considered as an advanced form of exploitation and “false-consciousness” that only divert the attention of individuals to politics. Micah White’s short piece “Clicktivism is ruining leftist activism” can be considered as a significant critique on digital activism because even though individuals think that by clicking or submitting online petitions citizens may think that they are doing the right thing about politics but in reality things may not work in the way they think. Paolo Gerbaudo’s Tweets and the Streets can be considered as one of the first attempts on digital activism by analysing the Arab Spring and belonging to none of the camps, that is, Gerbaudo offers a more balanced view when it comes to digital activism and politics and argues that even though digital activism is useful and help different groups in society to bring them together, when it comes to change in politics streets are still very important. He continues with the same notion in The Mask and the Flag. Another significant contribution to digital media and activism in relation with the Arab Spring is Augusto Valeriani’s Twitter Factor. There, Valeriani talks about how useful digital media are and argues that digital media can be a significant factor in international politics.

Digital activism, citizenship and democracy in glocal contexts are also a significant subject of study. As in Framing the Troubles Online Paul Reilly analyses how different groups used the Internet in relation to peace process in the Northern Ireland, his new publication Digital Contention in a Divided Society analyses the role and use of social media in Northern Ireland, focusing on the 2013 union flag protests.

Even though the book concentrates on the Northern Ireland case and how social media were a part of the flag protests and whether it contributed to a more democratic engagement of citizens or social media helped circulation of fake news, disinformation and did not contribute to an open discussion for citizens or not, it contributes to the existing literature because, by analysing the Northern Irish case, it says a lot about how ordinary citizens use social media as part of their political discussions in divided societies. 

How political activism can take place in a society that is divided like Northern Ireland? Is there any way that social media may contribute to political discussions constructively? How political language and discussions take place in the age of social media? In other words, what the Northern Irish case can tell us about the usage of social media and its relationship with politics?

As Reilly explains, social media can be considered as vital during the mobilisation of social movements. This view can be seen as a critique to clicktivism because even though there are ‘dangers’ that online platforms may increase division and tension between groups, Reilly argues that there is a chance and hope that, by looking at the Northern Irish case, one can argue that there would be more engagement and interactions between opponent groups in the future. This is one of the conclusions of chapter one, where he explores ‘the evolving relationship between social media, contentious politics and social movements’ (p. 18). As he focuses on what is the role of social media during the flag protests in chapter two, he questions whether social media has any use or not in comparison with some newspapers. In “’You can’t eat a flag’: Northern Ireland Twitter responds to the flag protests,” Reilly shows how polysemic the nature of #flegs tweets can show the complexity of the situation when it comes to digital protests. Even though tweets could be (ab)used by different sides and trolls, they are also polysemic by ‘nature’ and interpreted differently than how the general tendency seems like. As the next chapter discusses the role of citizens’ use of social media, sousveillance in particular, and whether it contributed to a democratic exchange between groups, it argues that by looking at sousveillance, it is not easy to come up with generalisations because discussions on those footages were dominated by small number of people and it raises some questions about representation. One can say that this conclusion is not only valid in Northern Ireland but can be considered as a general remark about the subject when one talks about the use of sousveillance and its relation to political protests.

Consequently, Reilly’s study is very useful to discuss how politics and digital citizenship take place in contentious times in divided societies. Whether social media are a part of the ‘problem’ or encourage dialogue between opposing groups, he uses mixed research methods to strengthen his study. He uses text-mining as a way to get a deeper understanding on how Twitter hashtags have used during the protests as well as cross-platform social media analysis because there are examples that one post was shared by another social media platform. This, according to him, can be seen as a good example to see how different groups deal with the same media message. As Reilly analysed how social media were used as a political tool and whether it opened some sites for dialogue or not in Northern Ireland, at the end of the book he says that “the approach taken in this book offers a framework for future research into how social media is used by citizens during contentious episodes in divided societies” (p. 201). As of today, Covid-19 related issues, vaccine and anti-vaccine protests, use of social media by citizens to organise protests as well ‘proving their points’ are all different issues that one can study in the same way that Reilly did in his book. His work is very reach not only in terms of its literature but also its research methods and techniques and the way he elaborates such a complex situation in a clear way without simplifying the issue. Even though the book uses Northern Ireland as a case study, it is very useful for any kind of study that focuses on digital citizenship and activism as well as digital democracy and how divided societies and groups use social media in the age of digital world.

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