When Internet Activism Goes Wrong: The 2012-13 Belfast Flag Protests

For those in Web 2.0 who don’t know what my thesis film is about (sorry fellow Grads for being repetitive), it takes place in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and is an examination of the results of the Belfast Agreement of 1998. I could write for days trying to explain this regions ethno-socio-political conflict, which has been happening since the 1600s. The easiest way to summarize it is this:

Northern Ireland is a small country within the United Kingdom, where one community (primarily Protestants) identify themselves as British- they are called Loyalists/Unionists. The other community (primarily Catholics) identify themselves as Irish- they are called Republicans/Nationalists. There have been sporadic periods of violence associated with this, but most recently, from 1969-1998 was an era known as The Troubles, where the Irish Republican Army (IRA), a Republican/Nationalist paramilitary, waged war against the British government, police, Army, and Loyalist/Unionist paramilitary groups like the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Defense Association (UDA). It was an urban, guerilla-style conflict that had never been seen before, with civilian, military, and economic targets. At the end of the officially recognized timeline (1998), over 3,000 people had been killed from car bombings, hit squads, and ambush attacks. The 1998 Belfast Agreement was, simply put, an agreement to reorganize Northern Irish politics to allow fair and equal representation amongst the different ethnic communities. Essentially, it drew the violence of The Troubles to a close. This all may seem unnecessary, but it is relevant to explaining what my blog post is about.

On December 3rd, 2012, the Belfast City Council voted to only fly the Union Flag above city hall for a set 26 days a year. What’s important to know about this vote is that, previously, it was flown 365- the only place in the UK to do so. Furthermore, the Union Flag is seen by many Republicans/Nationalists as a symbol of the historic (and arguably ongoing) oppression of the Irish people. In response to this vote, many of the extreme Loyalist/Unionist felt that this was an attack on their British identity. As a result, there has been almost daily protesting in the streets of Belfast, and other towns/villages/cities all throughout Northern Ireland. Protests, civil unrest, and political extremism are nothing new to Belfast. However, social media has made it an entirely new and different beast to confront.

The protests being organized by Loyalists/Unionists, as well as Republicans/Nationalists, are almost exclusively through mobile and social media. Texting is nothing new to the UK, and has been influential in anti-social behavior there for over a decade. However, Facebook and Twitter are allowing people who are not necessarily connected to the people organizing anti-social activities to learn about them. The Facebook page Save Our Union Jack is the primary source of information regarding protest organization, opposition news, and related posts. It also connects similar, more local groups. For fairness sake, there are also groups for the opposition to these protests.

    What I’ve found most interesting, though, is that neither side of this very public debate  follow the ideas laid out by the YPP article. It appears that the two sides of this argument, and their representatives online, create a larger echo-chamber than, theoretically, the internet should allow. Exploring the depths of these political pages shows rather venomous rhetoric being passed around continuously by its members. It is yet to be seen if these web calls to action are actually generating full fledged activists, or if they are garnering slacktivism. But, considering that it has been almost daily protesting since December 3rd, costing Northern Ireland millions of Pounds, it would seem to be proof of the web creating deep activism, as YPP argues is does.

    It seems silly, then, that people are willing causing their already economically suffering to spend millions of pounds policing and cleaning up protests about something as trivial as flying a flag. However, when we compare the Belfast Flag Protests to the Kony video and how it went viral, it makes absolute sense that it is still a continuing issue.

1: It tells a story: The story of being betrayed by a government, and having your cultural identity come under attack.

2: It’s about you: The whole debate is about cultural identity.

3: It’s action packed: Calls to action, tribute videos, and event footage of protests and riots are found all throughout the different pages.

4: Famous people told you about it: This is more of a stretch, but recently they have been linking Margaret Thatcher to the pro-British side, almost using her as a martyr/patron saint of the British identity, and what makes Britons great.

5: The story isn’t over: Considering that it has been continuous for almost 5 months, it would seem that this is very true.

How Kony went viral could explain how the Belfast Flag Protests are continuing to this day. It’s being presented as a persisting, threatening event attacking the very identity of people. Personalized threats, approached by social means. It creates a very dangerous combination.
Why do you all think that these particular political viewpoints are not following JPP’s ideas, and are instead isolating themselves and creating echo chambers of viewpoints? Is there a way to counter that movement?

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