I finally listened back to the discussion after December’s Transformative Networks – Social Media, Politics and Protests panel event at UU’s Belfast campus.
The audio recording wasn’t particularly clear – a large room with everyone sitting around the edges – so at the time I didn’t upload the entire Q&A session. But some snippets are worth sharing for posterity.
I write a blog which is kind of like essays or a magazine-on-a-website type thing. A man said to me “oh, blogs are so five years ago” and therefore it’s not important. And I think, actually maybe if we need to bring that back and stop people only relying on 140 characters on Twitter we could say a lot more about ourselves and learn a lot more about other people.
I responded – with a huge generalisation – saying that it was a masculine thing to be a bit shouty and to use short sentences. 140 characters is just enough to get your opinion across to say “You. Are. An. Idiot.” or “Best thing ever, I really agree with you”. I went on to light-heartedly suggest a swap-with-your-partner week in which the predominantly male leadership in Northern Ireland would send their partners to do their job for a week and vice versa to turn Northern Ireland on its head and listen to different voices for a change.
Dave Magee was not optimistic about social media getting to the root of everyday problems. It is “not effective and needs to be coupled with a deep commitment that goes offline”.
Barton Creeth noted how some politicians and parties use social media in an anti-social way (linking to press releases with no attempt at engagement, and the no no of tweeting in the third person [Ed – #TweetLikeAnMLA?] though I can’t find his specific example involving Tom Elliott) and groups’ twitter accounts losing their organisational voice and launching into personal attacks. He asked whether we need social norms for social media … and training?
Asked in what way social media transformed anything in Northern Ireland over the last twelve months, would anything have been different if we hadn’t had Twitter or Facebook, Jamie Bryson spoke up from the back of the room and said:
As somebody who was involved in the organisation of the flag [indistinct] protests, if people gave me one choice to say there was one thing you could have done without, it would have been social media … People didn’t understand the flag protests and a lot of people believed that it came down to people organising on social media. That was actually a smoke screen for what was actually going on. Social media wasn’t what everybody believed it was … it was more of a tactic of organised chaos which everybody could have done without.
In terms of the state and the police who obviously would have an interest in squashing protests and other things it would be ludicrous to suggest that the state didn’t in some way have people in some way in and around those protests to discredit … and social media was a very easy way of them to do that, to spread misinformation about people, to change things.
Social media is a time of instant opinions. So if you’re trying to move a protest movement in one direction … there was one whenever I made the decision to call off the protest and move from blocking streets to white line protests, the first 24 hours of that was chaos because everyone had an instant emotional opinion as in “we’re selling out, we’re not doing this” and that instant opinion went inside 72 hours when people had time to think and you talk to people one on one the whole thing changed around.
So the impact of social media had in instant opinions and emotional reactions was you don’t have time to think.
Last night was a perfect example. The Orange Order called a parade off and without people looking into the benefits of that straight away “sold out”, starting tweeting, it’s going mad all over the place in instant opinion.
As silly as this may sound, if you ask me one thing I could have done without last twelve months, it’s social media. It didn’t help us in the slightest. We could have done far more.
Look what Paisley done without social media and that’s because of being able to go talking to the people, and in those days you’d have one person in a local community who’d be a voice that local people would listen to, and if you had an avenue into them people, then you could effectively control that whole community.
In today’s society it’s very difficult to control any sort of mass movements. I’ll never be able to put 10,000 people on the street like Paisley did, but saying that I could probably reach 10,000 people with a tweet. But I’ll never be able to do that because of instant opinion, so many people can have so many different opinions it all gets messed up so it ends up a bag of marbles.
It has its benefits, but if you ask me, I could have done without it … it wasn’t beneficial to me.
Paul Reilly reminded the audience that there were mass demonstrations and protests across the globe before we had mobile phones, and he recalled a sarcastic tweet mentioning that “fax machines didn’t cause the end of the Cold War”.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.