by Dr Orna Young (13 May 2021)

Recent events in Northern Ireland have resulted in a renewed focus on the role of online rumours and false information in increasing inter-communal tensions and violence, particularly in interface areas of Belfast and specific areas of L~Derry. In Northern Ireland, where political, social and economic debate is often delineated along lines of perceived communal affiliation, false information and rumours have the potential to increase communal division and alienate communities from political processes and debates.

Rumours and false information are not a new phenomenon in the dynamics of inter-communal tensions in Northern Ireland. Before Facebook or Twitter, it was mobile phones; and before that, it was word of mouth. However, the magnifying effect of social media platforms means that false information and rumours, and their impact, have become central in the currency of our debates and discussions. Add a global pandemic and political uncertainty (i.e. Brexit) to this issue, and the quality of information we are all accessing, and sharing, has possibly never been more important.

We founded FactCheckNI in 2015 as a direct response to the issue of the impact of false information and rumours online in Northern Ireland. I undertook research (funded by the Community Relations Council) in 2013 exploring the impact of social media on young people in interface areas, and found rumours and false information were having a detrimental effect on communities in these areas. As one interviewee stated at the time:

Rumours on social media are the biggest issue for conflict at interfaces…. [P]ower is the cause of the conflict. People will come in and try to motivate people and direct them in a negative way.

The research found that rumours and false information generated and sustained through online networks were viewed as serving the needs of those who sought to assert their roles and to underpin the need for their existence (such as paramilitaries), by tapping into that innate fear of “the other” community by emphasising threats in the most accessible manner for young people (i.e., online). Subsequent research has detailed how these dynamics were also at play during the protests in the wake of the decision by Belfast City Council in December 2012 to alter the protocol on the number of days the Union Flag flies at Belfast City Hall, and a very recent report has highlighted the role of false social media in luring young people to interface areas, in relation to protests about the Brexit protocol.

What can we do about it? 

While fact checking can increase the availability of good information and aims to improve the accuracy of what you are reading online, the speed and immediacy of rumours and false information requires more targeted action than fact checkers — and indeed — the media, more generally, can feasibly address. There are also important — and ongoing — debates on the role of social media platforms in ensuring that this type of information is being hosted on their sites. In the meantime, there needs to be a focussed, and more immediate, conversation about how we as individuals respond to online information (or what we receive in a WhatsApp group). This is particularly important when we consider the impact this type of information — and the fear it creates — can have on communities and areas of Northern Ireland, presently.

Since its foundation in 2015, FactCheckNI has had a different approach to the majority of fact checking organisations/initiatives globally, as we emphasise media literacy and a focus on developing critical thinking skills, with our work being divided between fact checking output and training provision. We want people to actively engage with the fact checking process. We believe that in empowering people in Northern Ireland to be their own fact checkers, we can all ensure that the information we are engaging with and sharing is more accurate, that the social, political and economic debates are rooted in good information, and that individuals can more readily detect and filter out false or misleading information sources. We are committed to supporting individuals to engage in public discourse that is based on accurate information, in tandem with emphasising the need for individual engagement and participation in political, social and economic debates.

We believe this tailored approach as a fact checking organisation is necessary in a region where both the lived and transgenerational experience of conflict informs so many aspects of individual and communal responses to information and how it is framed.

Some tips

At FactCheckNI we believe that by asking yourself the following three questions, we can all reduce the likelihood of being misled by false information or unfounded rumours.

  • Where’s it from?

If you see a post on Facebook, a tweet by an account you don’t recognise, or have a WhatsApp message beginning with “my friend says…”, take a moment. Check who the author is. Question the source. Does the “friend” have a name? Ask yourself why someone has shared the information? A simple check — or a reverse image search — on where something is from can often reveal inconsistencies in the story, or indeed reveal a particular intention or agenda for that piece of (mis)information.

  • What’s missing?

At FactCheckNI, we alway emphasise the power of “the extra click” — as it can help spot false information. Open another browser tab. Read around a story or piece of information, and make sure you have the whole story. False information and rumours are often crafted in such a way to provide an incomplete picture of a particular situation or issue, and serve a particular narrative. Ask yourself: what are other people saying? Is there more to it?

  • How does it make you feel? 

The third question, in my view, is potentially the most important. People who create false information or rumours are trying to manipulate your feelings. They know if you’re angry or upset you’re more likely to share it, or act on it. In periods of uncertainty (such as with regard to protests), false information and rumours thrive on the oxygen of fear. If it’s winding you up, or upsetting you, take the time to check the information.

Image: Photo Read between the Lies Concept on Typewriter by Ivelinr used by license