Studying the Unionist gatherings in Northern Ireland, two researchers have concluded that social networks may help to reduce inter-communal tensions and defuse conflicts by scotching rumours and correcting false information.

Can Twitter help to defuse conflict in Northern Ireland?

Might Twitter help to soothe some of the tensions which have been rife in Northern Ireland for centuries? Two researchers, Paul Reilly and Orna Young, focused on ‘Orangemen's Day’ (an Ulster Protestant celebration held on 12 July each year to celebrate the victory of Protestant King William of Orange over England’s Catholic king James II in 1690) to help study the influence of tweets during parades and demonstrations. During the day in 2014, a photo of a little girl went viral on social networks. The five-year-old had the initials KAT painted on her face, signifying ‘Kill All Taigs’, an anti-Irish Catholic slur. One potential consequence of the viral sharing of the photo was that what should have been a peaceful event during which the little girl was photographed might then have been regarded as an extremist demonstration.

During the same period of time, a message in the form of a joke from comedian and actor Tim McGarry was retweeted over 146 times, masking the image of the young girl.

A post from a BBC journalist, Kevin Sharkey, making ironic remarks about the non-violence of these sorts of gatherings, was also retweeted a number of times. It seems that the social network was instrumental in pacifying tensions between the Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland by hiding the controversial photo.

Rumours immediately

Cited in the researchers’ report, entitled ‘Social Media, Parades and Protests’, this example demonstrates the extent to which Twitter self-regulates through the sheer power of its users. In the end, journalists and the general public remembered ‘The Twelfth’ last year as especially ‘peaceful’ and ‘non-violent’. “The findings of this study show how social media sites such as Twitter may be used by citizens to defuse sectarian tensions during the marching season in Northern Ireland,” argues Dr Reilly.

Often thought of as a rumour amplifier, Twitter may in fact be precisely the opposite, the report suggests. Having analysed how long false information circulated on Twitter, Dr Reilly from the University of Leicester and Belfast-based independent researcher Dr Orna Young drew an unequivocal conclusion: lies tend to be quickly flushed out by users of the microblogging network. For instance, a photo of an Irish republican sympathiser brandishing a hate poster against those parading on Orangemen's Day was immediately unmasked as a montage put together by tweeters. Instead of a hate slogan, the man in question was actually carrying a poster with the words ‘Love thy neighbour’ written on it. In the same way, other false information that appeared met the same fate: it was refuted within a few minutes and then disappeared from circulation so quickly that it was not relayed by the general news media.

Are the research findings reliable?                                              

Nevertheless, the researchers raise a number of points which call their own findings into question. Firstly, the sample tweets they analysed might have been unrepresentative of the overall conversations as many users tend to delete their most violent tweets very quickly. In such cases, the researchers would not have been able to study the messages most likely to exacerbate tensions. Secondly, a recent report from the Pew Research Center in Washington draws attention to what it calls the ‘spiral of silence’. The Pew experts’ research found that people were less willing to share their views via their tweets if they thought their audience would not agree with their opinion. This syndrome would prevent Twitter being fully representative of people’s true opinions. These are the kinds of problems that are inherent in the very nature of social networks, as an article from McGill University in Montreal pointed out several months ago.

By Guillaume Scifo