Good piece from O’Neill at the Open Unionism blog, which questions why there are so few online unionist commentators as opposed to an increasing number of nationalists… This is a question I’ve seen raised elsewhere in recent times, but O’Neill’s blog is the first sustained attempt at an answer that I’ve seen… Here’s an extensive clip from the middle of his blog, where I think he makes his strongest points:
Republicans are born intelligent communicators, Unionists are naturally tongue-tied thickos?
It’s a stereotype (generally promoted by republicans of course!) that we can not compose any kind of coherent argument which could convince a neutral of the benefits of our cause. In contrast everyone else in the world loves the witty patter of Irish Republicans abroad; why, there us even a street named after Bobby Sands in Tehran! (Opposite a McDonalds rather bizarrely). The stereotype is nonsense; outside a very small section of Irish America and hard-left Euro hipstertom, no-one gives a toss anymore about what is happening in Northern Ireland.
But, still, where Republicans have been much more advanced than Unionism is in recognising the importance of selling a narrative, be it through the MSM or online. This occasionally manifests itself in the downright nastiness of sabotaging the Victims of the Kingsmills Massacre Wikipedia page, but more often than not it takes the more innocent and acceptable form of flooding Twitter, Facebook and political websites with their version of the story.
Sinn Fein does have the finance to set up a very effective media policy, but more importantly their typical supporter online tends to hold a more homogeneous set of beliefs and also to be much more unquestioning of party PR and propaganda than the typical Unionist. A united front, all singing from the same hymnbook, may not make for sparkling debate but that is besides the point for the party managers and their unquestioning zealots.
It’s not cool to fight the culture war?
Kind of following on from point 3), it is a definite strand in Sinn Fein and wider Republican strategy to move the constitutional debate away from economics and governance to the more grubby sectarian topics where they genuinely believe that they somehow hold the higher moral ground.
The fact that many if not most of them are fighting this culture war from a nakedly sectarian and ethno-nationalist stance proves the hypocrisy of that belief and I am actually quite proud that mainstream pro-Union folk tend to give the nil-sum debates on Catholic/Protestant demographics, the Orange Order, the GAA, “who threw the first brick” and the like the wide berth.
But, having said that, simultaneously Unionists are also walking away from the more secular sector of the online debate because they believe that it’s impossible to participate even there without being dragged into a sectarian gutter by those with a less honourable agenda.
The only slightly disappointing thing he ends with is the sense that following his admission that Unionism is losing the online game, he finishes with a sense that it’s not a game worth playing anyway… Clearly nationalists feel differently, as does Northern Ireland’s mainstream media which particularly uses Twitter and Facebook to track and take account of shifting opinion…
Some party led efforts can smack of astroturfing. Note the number of commenters on Journal.ie who have established twitter accounts they appear not use, who tend towards a single view on threads that then subsequently diversify… Getting the damaging first word in is a tried and tested technique we’ve seen in evidence here since the start.
Yet there has, in the last year or two, been an emergence of a small group of more independently minded nationalist blogs which provide new spaces for free thinking… For me this is by far the most valuable outcropping of the broader nationalist online lifeforce.
What O’Neill does not reflect upon what is, at times, a concomitant tendency within the mainstream media to give Sinn Fein a bye ball on some of its senior difficulties in government, whilst leaping at almost any chance to get at their partner in OFMdFM…
Although that may also point to the other problem unionism has, in its own profound tendency towards fissuring whilst nationalism has a preference towards consolidation. AKA, the ‘hell slap it into them’ syndrome…
In the latter case, the common line up to now (it was unionism’s fault) has been easier (and more popular) to adopt…
But the truth is that new media is the new networked mainframe… As I wrote of Gerry Adams’ second outing on Twitter in February this year…
…networks are groups of belonging. People who like Gerry and what he has to say will stick around and boost his capacity to amplify.
The question of whether or not it shifts votes is moot. And as I have been saying since our first election nearly ten years it misses the point. People are not dumb, they know what and who they like. Stuff goes viral amongst well stocked networks.
No politics is smarter than its own content, but it is well past time that unionism (and everyone else) began investing in developing their own broad networks of opinion…
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty