By Jamie Bryson
In Northern Ireland social media is saturated and completely dominated by so-called progressives and pro-EU activists. Given nationalism has hitched its wagon to social causes which identify with that broadly progressive/liberal movement and the attempts to stop Brexit, this gives as a social media sphere largely dominated by progressives and nationalists. It is a cold house for unionists, Brexiteers and social conservatives.
This election is a warning for unionism. Social media is growing in influence, especially in terms of young voters, and unionism is not even in the game. It is a hostile environment for any pro-Brexit and/or socially conservative unionist given that if you express such viewpoints you are immediately set upon by a legion of liberals, lead often by high-profile figures. This nasty and sneering bullying is usually enough for most people to decide it is better to keep their views to themselves rather than be subjected to a modern version of Orwell’s two minutes of hate. Who really wants to be bothered being the subject of intense abuse and ridicule, regardless of the validity of your arguments, it is much easier to just cower away in silence, or adopt the old adage ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’,
Figures like Naomi Long and others use social media to whip up their own virtual mob; a mass movement of nasty, radical progressives ready to pounce on anyone that articulates viewpoints deemed different to their own. I will never forget how the Alliance leader qualified her condemnation of my son being called a “bastard” by stating that it was somewhat understandable given I do not support same-sex marriage. In other words, you are fair game until such times as you bow the knee and agree. Have a look for yourself; I regularly debate Naomi Long online. We could both tweet exactly the same thing (highly unlikely admittedly) and hundreds would instantly pounce on me with ridicule and a relentless stream of abuse trying to bully me into silence, whilst the same people would fawn over Naomi and fellow progressives by tweeting their approval and announcing that basically anything a progressive has said, ‘burned’ their ideological counterpart. The cycle of validation continues as the progressive ‘leaders’ signal their approval to their legion of trolls, and so in turn the trolls are themselves validated by their ‘leader’.
This kind of validation of what, and who, is acceptable or unacceptable then influences the mainstream media; it trades up the chain. If you look at the majority of BBC (I exclude the Nolan show which tries to provide a voice to all) and UTV political output, the contributors are often heavily imbalanced in favour of progressives and those approved by the Twitteratti- I call them the liberal elite. A selective group of social media approved commentators continually used by an inherently imbalanced media establishment in Northern Ireland. Think about it; if you are a mainstream outlet in Northern Ireland or a journalist, how do you receive validation in the increasingly influential world of social media? The answer is simple; you shape you views and, in regards media outlets, your contributors, to meet the approval of the progressive social media majority.
Such contributors, with status or expertise no greater than unionist counterparts, are lauded as a ‘good’ voice on the airwaves or TV screens whereas any pro Brexit and/or socially conservative unionist voices on the mainstream media are by default ‘bad’ and such contributions is met with a maelstrom of rage with almost instantly organic social media campaigns to have such people banned from the media. That is the real ‘tolerance’ that underpins our progressive movement in Northern Ireland.
If you are an extremely liberal pro union voice then you are likely to find yourself on the approved list and even promoted and encouraged by the legion of liberals dominating our social media landscape who are keen to promote what they see as ‘acceptable’ unionists; in other words we will tolerate them because they project the kind of political views broadly acceptable to us.
This should alert unionism to a problem, the world of social media in Northern Ireland is a cold house for those with socially conservative and pro-Brexit views. It is likely to continue to be a cold house because anyone that tries to express such views will without doubt be subjected to a campaign of hate and trolling designed to ensure they never dare raise their voice in the virtual kingdom of the liberal elite ever again.
We, as unionists, need to change this. The objective must be to energise and empower a new generation of confident activists that are prepared to go on social media and spread the message, and who will be prepared to take the hits and see the online abuse for what it is; weak bullies trying to shut down alternative viewpoints by trolling in packs. These bullies believe if you mock, ridicule and target a person of an alternative viewpoint enough that they will eventually buckle and surrender to your will. We need unionists to stand up to this and break through the liberal ‘noise’ of Northern Ireland social media.
Things are different in England; you only have to look at the roaring success of Nigel Farage and the Brexit party. Pro-Brexit voices in England are so successful that the liberal elite have to mount campaigns to seek the assistance of big business to have them banned from technological platforms. We need to build a pro-Brexit and pro-Union social media movement in Northern Ireland
This change needs to start in the real world; young working class unionists are not politically engaged or energised. The difference in terms of young working class nationalists could not be clearer; a whole community of energised and committed activists, the same goes for the broad ‘progressive’ movement.
As unionists, look around you own football team or local social club; how many of your unionist friends are politically energised or engaged politically on social media? Compare this with any GAA team or nationalist social club, I guarantee you at least 80 percent of nationalists will be politically engaged.
This election was influenced by social media, and social media- in Northern Ireland terms- is not a happy hunting ground for pro-Brexit and/or socially conservative unionists. I do not believe that mass amounts of long time UUP voters shifted to Alliance; I believe unionists stayed at home in shameful numbers whilst Alliance capitalised on an energised social media generation, many of whom were first time voters.
That should sound an alarm bell. If the battle of ideas is on social media, then unionists need to get on to that battlefield. Why should the sneering liberal elite and their progressive hoards be allowed to dominate social media? When you stand up to them, when their abuse bounces off you and you keep going, eventually you realise that the emperor has no clothes. All the abuse in the world shouldn’t change your viewpoint or beliefs if they are genuinely held, so it is about time unionists joined the fight.