By Jamie Bryson
A number of years ago Sinn Fein publicly advertised for “social media activists”. What precisely are these activists deployed to do? The answer of course is obvious; to engage in persistent social media trolling and repetition of Sinn Fein messaging.
There is the ‘Shinnerbot’ social media campaigns; this is largely played out on twitter but also saturates the comment pages of local media outlets.
Firstly ‘problematic’ (from a nationalist viewpoint) voices are identified and the trolls are directed to target such persons with relentless mockery, dehumanisation and negative commentary. This strategy is designed to force the target into silence or self-censoring their views in order to simply be left alone. This is what a real trolling campaign looks like; and believe me I know, I have been on the receiving end for almost a decade. It is not the odd critical comment, it is an orchestrated and relentless campaign with the sole purpose of berating you into silence.
When this is unsuccessful, a more sophisticated strategy is deployed which focuses on targeting any media outlets that provide a platform to the voices the Shinnerbots have unsuccessfully sought to mock and bully into silence. This takes the form of orchestrated complaints, petitions or a collective targeting online of the platform or person responsible for its output.
In the present case it is Stephen Nolan who is the focus of this strategy; if they can put so much pressure on the BBC to force the Nolan Show to shape their output in order to avoid the continuation of pressure, then the campaign succeeds in controlling the public narrative. If this campaign succeeds, then it sets a worrying precedent; it means that a sophisticated and politically driven campaign can control media output.
The other limb of the strategy is to identify ‘acceptable’ unionist voices and use the nationalist machine to amplify these voices. Nationalism’s ‘outreach’ strategy, which is a surrogate for advancing harmonisation (a key staging post in the United Ireland strategy), is reliant upon having unionists who are conducive to giving legitimacy to discussions around a ‘New Ireland’, by virtue of adopting a moderate unionist position, which often is given ‘authenticity’ by criticising traditional unionist ideals. These persons are then identified as ‘helpful’ and as such a very deliberate effort is made to use nationalist lobbying and their own platforms (Shared Ireland Podcast, Feile ect) to enhance such ‘helpful’ unionist voices.
This extends to using political level lobbying- using the Sinn Fein press office or other surrogates- to encourage the BBC and other media outlets to censor ‘unhelpful’ unionist voices, in favor of those nationalism deem ‘helpful’ unionists.
Regardless of how it is dressed up, what it really amounts to is this: ‘we don’t like those hardline unionist voices as they are hostile to our vision of the political process (necessary for the advancement of our political objectives). We want them silenced, and if you do not comply, we will put increasing pressure on your organisation. However, we don’t want to appear sectarian and are pragmatic enough to realise there has to be some unionist voices, so here is a list of those who we have deemed acceptable. Use them and we will leave you alone.’
There are many sections of the media who either knowingly, or unknowingly, take this easy way out, thus effectively surrendering to nationalism control over the mainstream media narrative. This is presented as being ‘good for the peace process’, in order to bestow programs like TalkBack with some form of higher moral authority for their adherence to the understanding that the ‘Shinnerbot’ machine won’t be turned on them so long as they continue to very subtly ensure that nothing is done which would in any way offend the nationalist strategy.
All of these strategies are presented with various moral authorities, all of them equally illogical. We are told it is about targeting sectarianism; what this really means is targeting anyone who disagrees with Sinn Fein. This is notwithstanding the reality that Sinn Fein continue to endorse the IRA’s terrorist campaign which waged a wicked campaign of sectarian ethnic cleansing. This inconvenient fact is simply brushed aside.
We are told, as aforementioned, it is about protecting the peace process. Deconstruct this and what it really means is we can’t have any voices who would criticise the process, especially not unionist voices as it would undermine nationalism’s objective.
This works from the assumption that the process is so sacred that it is beyond criticism. That the media should play their part in advancing a political agreement and policy, otherwise peace would be at risk. Follow the logic of this; the media must support a particular political position, because failure to do so may lead to violence. Is that a free press?
Then we have the allegation that anyone who says anything disagreeable to Sinn Fein is either an ‘extremist’ (yes, a party controlled by a terrorist organisation has the audacity to call anyone extremist) or a ‘voice for loyalist paramilitaries’. The latter line of attack is comical; a party who the security services say is still controlled by a proscribed organisation actually has the brass neck to advance such an argument with a straight face.
Not to mention the multitude of nationalist commentators- some a pillar of the BBC endorsed ‘commentariate’- who refuse to condemn the IRA, and indeed are often surrogates for the republican movement. There are no petitions advanced demanding these persons are deplatformed.
The orchestrated campaign- with its multi-layered elements- is an effort to control public discourse. The means by which this war is waged is sophisticated and subtle, whilst given the appearance of being organic. It is a powerful machine, but sunlight is the best disinfectant. When the strategy is brought into focus, it loses its power.