'˜Shinnerbots' winning internet war of words with loyalists: academic
Sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland are being reinforced by social media trolls and their 'relentless focus' on political differences, an Ulster-born academic has said.
Dr Paddy Hoey has also analysed the rise of the so-called ‘Shinnerbots,’ and the lack of “measured public voices” among the unionist/loyalist community as the online war of words continues to rage.
A lecturer in media at Edge Hill University in Lancashire, Dr Hoey is an expert in activist media who has published a number of articles on both Irish republican and loyalist activism.
In his new book – Shinners, Dissos and Dissenters: Irish republican media activism since the Good Friday Agreement – the former journalist from Craigavon examines how, traditionally, republicans have been more adept at utilising the written word to advance their cause, and how a lack of David Ervine-style leadership has led to an online culture of loyalists being denouncing as “brainless eejits”.
Dr Hoey said: “I think the relentless focus on the polarities does little to help Northern Ireland’s political life. Although I have lived in England since 1995, the polarised vision of the country presented by some republicans, and the political media, does not represent my family and friends in Northern Ireland who are spread across the political spectrum and complain about this themselves.
“In the early period before the development of Twitter and social media, republicans didn’t see the worth of it, they say that they didn’t see any votes in it. But since 2012/13, there has been a rise in the so-called ‘Shinnerbots’; the highly organised republicans who ‘police’ social media.
“I have an example of it in the first chapter of my book where they ultimately forced the BBC to apologise to John O’Dowd for something written on a camera when Question Time was shot in Belfast in 2013.”
The incident referred to was a cameraman who had a clearly visible reminder sheet which had Mr O’Dowd listed as ‘SF IRA.’
Dr Hoey said: “Sinn Féin has sought in recent weeks to address the online abuse of some DUP representatives in the same way as other Northern Irish political parties have also had to confront this problem among their social media followers.
“But is it too late and has that culture become ingrained in Northern Irish partisans online? If so, it’s a great tragedy that the promise of online media has simply become a shouting match among people who have no interest in listening to one another.”
The author said republicans honed their writing skills during the Troubles, at a time when loyalists were largely content that the case for the major issues – the maintenance of the Union and the primacy of British sovereignty – was being made by the Official Unionists and latterly by the DUP.
“The Linen Hall Library political archive is full of free sheets and magazines from republican groups across Northern Ireland dating back to the earliest years of the Troubles – there are many fewer loyalist examples.
“Fast forward to the birth of internet culture, and consequently that culture of writing led to many more republicans writing online than there were unionists or loyalists.
“For every unionist blogger like Owen Polley and his ‘3,000 versts’ [blog], or Newton Emerson, [in the early to mid-2000s] there might have 25 or 30 more nationalists. There were very few blogs coming from a unionist point of view.”
Dr Hoey said “If there had been leaders like Billy Mitchell or David Ervine during the flag protests of 2012/2013, measured public voices who were also articulate and committed writers, we might have seen a more sympathetic portrayal of the sense of helplessness and fear in the loyalist community. The lack of a culture of activist writing and dealing with the media, that republicans had been forced into creating during the broadcasting bans, meant that those legitimately held fears were not articulated and the culture of denouncing loyalists as brainless eejits took hold online and on social media.
“That’s a tragedy for everyone in Northern Ireland, not least for the loyalist communities that still need a strong voice.
“Within the context of the peace process and my belief in the necessity to acknowledge the very many points of view present in Northern Ireland, I see the provocative nature of some republicans online now as being unhelpful – in the same way as I see the often deliberately sensationalist and provocative nature of Stephen Nolan’s shows on BBC TV and radio.”
Dr Hoey said the ability of the republican movement to gets its message across, despite broadcasting bans and being shunned by almost every mainstream media outlet, was remarkable.
“They were involved in a deeply unpopular armed campaign for which there was little widespread support even within the wider nationalist community, but in the face of all that marginalisation they still kept producing these newspapers.
“Senior republicans told me that they took their inspiration for production of sometimes desperately unpopular newspapers and media materials from diverse political influences, from anti-colonialist Algerian rebels in their battle against the
French in the 1950s-1960s, and from revolutionary African American groups like the Black Panthers.
“Gerry Adams’ ‘Brownie’ columns written while interned in the mid-1970s still read like a Black Power manifesto for Northern Ireland. Of course, since the peace process, the Belfast Agreement and the compromises made to (intermittently) sitting in the Stormont Assembly, these columns seem naïve, antiquated and out of time.”
Commenting on the current state of politics, Dr Hoey said: “The key performance indicators of what are now the two largest parties in Northern Ireland are a sectarianised approach to politics which manifests itself online.
“The roots of it are in the off-line world, but when it gets into the online world it becomes much more amplified. I don’t think that’s particularly healthy.
“Facebook has become increasingly important for the republican movement to the point where they no longer need [the An Phoblacht print version] newspaper.”
• ‘Shinners, Dissos and Dissenters: Irish republican media activism since the Good Friday Agreement’ is published by Manchester University Press priced £75.