Belfast Telegraph

How Twitter is defusing sectarian tension

By Rebecca Black

Social media has been having a surprisingly calming influence on community relations, a new report has found.

Social Media, Parades and Protests - the first major piece of research on the effects of sites such as Twitter on sensitive situations - acknowledged that messaging can be used to spread false information and vilify people, but there was also strong evidence it has helped defuse trouble.

Authored by academics Dr Orna Young and Dr Paul Reilly, the research found that social media gave a voice for the first time to some, allowed false rumours to be quickly quashed and enabled the PSNI to engage with the community more effectively.

The study was carried out between March and September 2014 and involved a series of interviews as well as an analysis of Twitter activity during the Orange Order parades in Northern Ireland during last year's Twelfth.

Dr Reilly said he found that, for the most part, sites such as Twitter made a positive contribution to community harmony. "The findings of this study show how social media sites such as Twitter may be used by citizens to defuse sectarian tensions during the marching season in Northern Ireland," he said.

"That is not to say that these sites are not being used to reinforce divisions between rival communities during contentious parades. Rather, the tweets analysed as part of this study appeared to be influenced by the calls from political representatives from all sides to keep the parades and related protests peaceful."

The study noted that Twitter provided users with an array of information sources from citizen reporters and professional journalists, and that the latter were more influential. It found Twitter was used to refute rumours and expose those responsible for doctoring images, and that most content tweeted about the Twelfth tended to be positive.

The report cited how Twitter helped dismiss two social media falsehoods designed to inflame tensions - the first concerning a claim about a picture of terminally ill child Oscar Knox being placed on a loyalist bonfire and the second about a photograph digitally altered to display anti-Orange Order sentiments.

The report was funded by the Community Relations Council and the organisation's Director of Funding and Development, Paul Jordan, said: "There has been anecdotal feedback from many of the groups that we support highlighting the role that social media plays in community disputes and interface conflicts.

"We hope this research will lead to the provision of practical advice on how community organisations can counteract negative messages as well as creating a positive online presence that encourages good relations."

The findings of the report will be discussed this morning at the annual Live Issues conference for community relations workers organised by the Community Relations Council at the Stormont Hotel in Belfast.

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