The socio-political landscape of Northern Ireland has changed radically and rapidly over the course of the last 15-20 years. This period has seen the emergence and rapid growth of the online social media phenomenon, which has exercised a considerable influence over the politics and wider society of the region.
In 1998 devolved government returned to Northern Ireland in the form of a legislative assembly for the first time in 26 years following a prolonged period of civil unrest during which time direct rule was administered from London.
After an uncertain beginning including two periods of suspension and temporary return to direct rule the assembly was reconvened in 2007, since which time it has functioned continuously with a two-party coalition. The assembly’s existence has coincided roughly with the advent and development of blogging or citizen journalism. Since the birth of the first weblog dedicated specifically to Northern Irish politics “Slugger O’Toole” in 2002 dozens of blogs encompassing a vast spectrum of political views and party affiliations reflecting both the left/right and the unionist/nationalist divide have sprung up. These blogs are written by a wide range of actors including politicians, academics and journalists as well as private individuals and have become a significant addition to the input of the mainstream media. The ownership status of these blogs also varies considerably in that some are fully or partially independent of external influence, while others are linked to broadcasting organisations, newspapers, political parties, lobby groups and think tanks throughout the UK as well as in the Republic of Ireland. The tone of such blogs also varies from serious analysis to whimsical satire. It is also significant to note that not all actors within the Northern Irish blogosphere are physically based within the region. Participants, including authors, commenters and readers form a large online community whose members are based all over the world.
Since the end of the civil conflict of 1969-94 and the gradual normalisation of political life international news coverage of the region has markedly declined. This gap has been filled in part by the advent of the blog and related online media in that bloggers now chart news events on a daily basis, giving rise to extensive debate and commentary.
Although the practice of blogging is often panned by critics as little more than vanity publishing, its influence in forming political thought and provoking debate should not be underestimated. Unlike mainstream media sources blogs are not restricted by editorial control or neutrality policies and can therefore accommodate a vast range of views ranging from the moderate to the extremist ends of the spectrum. Other restrictive factors within conventional journalism such as time, space and money are largely irrelevant within the blogosphere. Similarly, blogs lack the hierarchical and often dictatorial culture often present in the more traditional media. Blogs alongside Freedom of Information legislation can contribute to government transparency and accountability. However one major flaw is the lack of veracity or authority in reporting purported facts, which as well as being ethically questionable can lead to the possibility of legal action. Furthermore the lack of regulation and the free-for-all nature of the medium means that quality can vary immensely. Comment threads can often alternate between mature political debate and abusive exchanges like a virtual wild west or school playground, in which the infamous “Godwin’s Law” is often invoked.
In more recent years the blog has been supplemented by other interactive social media phenomena such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, all of which feature prominently in the socio-political developments within the region and further afield.
The regional Assembly has had to face many challenges during its relatively short existence, such as the impact of the Freedom of Information Act and the financial crisis, the ongoing threat from dissident terrorism, devolution of policing and justice and financial misconduct by members, all of which have been covered extensively within the local blogosphere.
Important events such as elections, budgets, incidents of civil unrest and ministerial resignations can be discussed and debated on an instantaneous basis within these online communities. The blogosphere thus permits interaction on an unprecedented scale which would have been impossible in the pre-internet era.
Although blogging in Northern Ireland, a relatively liberal democratic society does not have the same radical impact as it would in countries with restrictions on democracy or freedom of speech it nevertheless plays a crucial role in the flow of information, the formation of opinions and the empowerment and organisation of political activists. This is aided in part by the small size of the region and its close-knit political community.
This paper examines and sets out to quantify the impact of the blog and related social networks within Northern Ireland’s socio-political landscape through empirical research comparative cases, source material and anecdotal evidence, charting both the negative and positive effects as well as the unintended consequences of the phenomenon.