Expect to “have your collar felt” if you break the law – by Brian John Spencer

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Social media needs no explanation.

Its pervasiveness has liberated and empowered people to do things and communicate in ways that, until recently, were unimaginable. Social media has also liberated the forces for evil.  A towering Niagra of abuse, intolerance and hatred, a vehicle for misogynists, masochists and the worst in society to amplify what they do. Just look to the Caroline Criado-Perez affair.

Northern Ireland, as much as anywhere else in the world, has it. Suddenly an enormous reservoir of hatred and sectarianism has revealed itself.

This is where we come to the case of Ruth Patterson.

Her communications regarding a Republican commemoration march in Castlederg in County Tyrone gave offence and are now a matter for the courts.

Not wishing to prejudice in anyway the outcome of the Patterson court case, suffice to say the Facebook comments in Patterson’s name illustrate how easily one can end up the subject of a police investigation with court proceedings following.

We are not talking about London, San Francisco or New York – wrong is happening on social media sites right here in Northern Ireland.

Facebook and Twitter can be the new outlet and community-interface for the most extreme in our society.

Sectarianism has grown a new and ugly head.

The problem has been around for several years but recent times have seen a spike and ratcheting up in the volume and levels of misuse and abuse.

The upward swing has gone from 73 incidents reported to the PSNI in 2010 to  2,887 incidents reported in 2012.

The decision to limit the flying of the union flag on Belfast City Hall on December 3 2012 resulted in a proliferation of Facebook pages and personal accounts with a cascade of  pernicious and promiscuous sectarianism.

According to figures recently obtained from the PSNI: in the first five and half months of this year, 2,111 social media incidents were reported to the PSNI (read full response here).

Information from earlier in the year (here) revealed that January and the first half of February 2013 saw 229 social media incidents reported to the PSNI. This suggests that the upward trend isn’t solely the doing of flag protesters.

If events continue at this rate, the PSNI could finish 2013 with nearly 5,000 social media-related incidents on the book.

2010 – 73

2011 – 1541

2012 – 2887

2013 – 2111 (for the period January 1 2013 to June 14 2013)

These figures were presented to Dr Paul Reilly (@PaulJReilly) who has written extensively on the matter and who actively monitors events on the Northern Ireland social-sphere.

Asked to give an initial response to the new figures, Dr Paul Reilly had this to say:

“Presumably some of these incidents were recorded during the surge in online activity that surrounded the union flag protests in January 2013.  A number of cases, including the enforced removal of two Facebook pages after the posting of threats against an unidentified Catholic man, led Justice Minister David Ford to call on the PSNI to gather information about those who posted ‘hate speech’ or incited others to committing criminal offences.  The absence of information about the proportion of these cases that were successfully prosecuted makes it hard to judge whether this was an appropriate response.”


Ruth Patterson pictured leaving Belfast’s Laganside Court with the DUP’s Joanthan Bell(left) and Edwin Poots(right)


On the Ruth Patterson Facebook scandal, Paul J Reilly said:

“Ruth Patterson is certainly not the first politician to be held to account for posting comments on social media that presumably were not intended for wider distribution (see here for the UKIP councillor Eric Kitson who was questioned by police for posting alleged racist cartoons). Nor is it likely that she will be the last.

“I would expect individual politicians from all Northern Irish parties to ‘think before they tweet’ in light of the intervention of the law in the Patterson case. How can Public representatives not know that their comments are ‘on the record’ and are being monitored?

“Whether the parties themselves can act to prevent these sorts of incidents occurring remains to be seen. They can vet candidates but the strict monitoring of all their social media content may not be feasible in an era of social media saturation.”

“The Public Prosecution Service announced in June 2013 that it would publish interim social media prosecution guidelines specific to Northern Ireland by the end of summer 2013. The interim guidelines have still yet to be published, but asked how we can expect the prosecution guidelines to be drafted specific to Northern Ireland Dr Reilly said:

“The challenge for the PPS will be to balance the right to freedom of expression on social media sites against the need to protect those who are subject to messages that could be construed as ‘hate speech,’ intimidation, or incitement to violence. This has been highlighted by the controversy over how the police should respond to rape threats made on Twitter against feminist activist Caroline Criado-Perez. What is clear is that any interim guidelines are unlikely to address the root causes of the ‘hate speech’ or threats that were seen on Facebook during the flag protests at the turn of the year.”


The DUP’s Sammy Wilson, Edwin Poots and Christopher Stalford pictured entering Belfast’s Laganside Court.


Social media users need to understand that while Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms may have made publication vastly easier, they have not made it responsibility free.

As David Aaronovitch said, “Twitter is inherently dangerous.” And so as Carson McDowell solicitor, Olivia O’Kane said, “anyone who uses Facebook does so at his or her peril.”


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About Author

Brian is a writer, artist and law graduate.

1 Comment

  1. Ciaran McNally on

    Great area to have an academic interest in John. I’m very curious about whether social media act as a pressure valve for sectarian tension here, have no effect, or make things worse. There are great opportunities to see the humanity and likeability of people on the “other side” via twitter, and unfortunately there is also a lot of mindless “themmuns” type posting of perceived grievances. Then there is the abusive trolling although that might reflect the nature of the medium as much as the particular community having the conversation. It’s certainly fascinating.

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