Northern Ireland: The role of social media in stirring up unrest

·4-min read

Nearly every night for almost two weeks, there's been rioting in Northern Ireland. The police describe it as the worst unrest there in recent years.

Analysts point to dissatisfaction with the Brexit agreement and deteriorating relations between Unionist and Nationalist parties as two reasons for the disorder.

But these tensions are not just playing out on the streets.

Analysis of social media paints an even more complex picture of other factors which could be driving the violence.

This is a screenshot of a message that one Twitter user posted, saying it had been circulating on the encrypted messaging app WhatsApp. We've redacted the specific location and time it references.

With the title “Calling of Arms”, it tells young people in Bangor to “earn your stripes” and “prepare to defend North Down” in a show of defiance against what they call the “Irish Protocol”.

That’s the clause of the Brexit deal that keeps Northern Ireland in a single market with the EU. It’s been fiercely opposed by loyalists and is one of the reasons that they have taken to the streets in protest.

The message is directed at all young people “regardless of [your] supporting organisation”. In this context, that’s code for paramilitary group.

But the message, which is really a screenshot of some text written on another app, has no name attached to it. Its circulation on WhatsApp means it’s difficult to trace where the message originated from.

And users have shared other messages like it.

This screenshot of a message which had reportedly been shared on WhatsApp was shared on Twitter yesterday.

With the headline “Time to Act,” it calls on the youths of East Belfast to “defend” their area.

It uses the same language we see in the first message.

According to Sky News’ Senior Ireland correspondent David Blevins, it’s probable that some of these messages are coming from “criminal cartels, using loyalism as a cover, who are inciting youths to riot".

He says the spread of disinformation has been a major factor in provoking the violence.

Another WhatsApp message warning of an imminent UVF attack in an area of Belfast called Short Strand was circulated on Thursday.

It prompted a branch of the ACT Initiative, a unionist community group, to release a statement on Thursday debunking the claims in the message.

“We have engaged with mediators and can make categorically clear the claims within the apparent message - which appears totally fabricated - are completely false and malicious.”

“The media should take care not to give wind to the increasing number of ‘false flag’ claims being made and apparent ‘calls to arms’,” the group said.

These messages, it added, are “the work of faceless agitators who wish to divert from the cause of legitimate protest by drawing young people into violence".

A statement released on Friday by the Loyalist Communities Council, an organisation which includes representatives from various loyalist paramilitary groups, echoed this sentiment.

It said: “The Loyalist Communities Council can confirm that none of their associated groups have been involved either directly or indirectly in the violence witnessed in recent days.

“In the coming days we urge all Unionists and Loyalists to remain vigilant to the dangers of fake and anonymous social media accounts, and we urge our people not to get drawn into violent confrontations."

The impact that this messaging has had in fuelling the violence in recent days is not known, but the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has said it was aware of messages circulating.

"Police are aware of posts on social media referring to potential planned protests and events.

"Police are carrying out enquiries to identify organisers where possible with a view to engaging with them," they said in a statement to Sky News.

Analysis: When once-whispered conversations move online
By David Blevins, Senior Northern Ireland correspondent

'Whatever you say, say nothing' was the title of a Seamus Heaney poem about the troubles in Northern Ireland.

Outlawed terror groups on both sides have long demanded that their members keep schtum, be careful with their words.

But times have dramatically changed and conversations once whispered in the dark alleyways are taking place under cover online.

"We're not just playing by new rules," one former Loyalist paramilitary chief told me, "we're playing a different game."

Mainstream Loyalist groups - those who declared the 1994 ceasefire - say they do not know the source of the disinformation.

They even suspect Republicans could be circulating the fake "call to war" to stir trouble between Loyalists and police.

It is more likely to be criminal cartels, using Loyalism as a cover, who are inciting youths to riot.

Either way, the speed and spread of the disinformation has been a significant factor in the upsurge of violence.

I have seen health trusts, businesses and churches issuing guidance this week, based on fake posts circulating online.

Putting out the fire on the street will be difficult while someone, somewhere is pouring petrol from a keyboard.

The Data and Forensics team is a multi-skilled unit dedicated to providing transparent journalism from Sky News.

We combine traditional reporting skills with advanced digital analysis of data sets, satellite images, social media posts and other open source information.

Through multimedia storytelling we aim to better explain the world while also showing how our journalism is done.