Thanks to Newton Emerson for this article in the Sunday Times yesterday.

Respect are culture? Not on the internet

By Newton Emerson

It is hardly as serious as the Arab Spring but the chaos of the past year in Northern Ireland has also been an internet phenomenon. The first flag protests last December were organised online, without involvement from political parties or paramilitaries, and brought thousands out onto the streets. Some of those early organisers have since faced charges for incitement. Others are now forging careers in what passes for loyalist politics.
While the police and the authorities dithered, the first reaction against the protests also coalesced online. A Twitter hashtag, #flegs, appeared almost at once, it's misspelling a mockery of the protestors' accents and education. Commuters, business owners and ordinary members of the public used Twitter to pour out their frustration at the road blocking mobs.

By early January, the social-media network was being used to organise a more positive fightback. The hashtags #backinbelfast and #takebackthecity were created by Belfast residents and adopted by Belfast city council in a campaign to support shops, restaurants and bars. The hashtags were emblazoned across official leaflets and television ads and were printed on the back of bar-staff uniforms.

Ultimately it was a courageous but shallow gesture. Attempts to organise counter-demonstrations via the hashtags received huge media coverage but attracted only miniscule crowds, revealing the internet's tendency to group people into echo chambers. In this case, Belfast's journalists did not realise that they had been over-connected to a small group of liberals like themselves.

The same cannot be said for the real online wonder of the year. Loyalists Against Democracy (LAD), a satirical Facebook page, took it's name from a loyalist banner at the first flag protest which read: "Democracy doesn't work".

Few internet users in Northern Ireland, whatever social media chamber they are boxed into, can have escaped LAD's output. Scarcely a week passes without something from the site going viral. One of LAD's spoof music videos was viewed 100,000 times within days, which is remarkable in a region of 1.8m people. Visual jokes are routinely shared thousands of times, to hundreds of people each time, on Facebook alone.
The mainstay of the site, giving all its jokes their jag, is surveillance and ridicule of loyalist online activity. Bigoted, inane and illiterate loyalist rantings are dredged up and dissected. The emerging loyalist victim mentality is forensically debunked, with stories on loyalist websites shown to be false or deliberately faked. LAD's parody of the loyalist writing style is now a running joke across the web, with "respect are culture" a particularly cutting example.

There is evidence that loyalists are stung as a result. Journalists have begun to notice loyalist leaders complaining bitterly about the laughter they and "their people" are enduring. The journalists themselves might reasonably ask if Northern Ireland's real public discourse is passing them by.

LAD is difficult to convey in print, as it would be on radio or television. It is real time, multimedia, interactive and uniquely adapted to this internet era. Producing it requires a core team of six, plus hundreds of more supplying jokes and Photoshopped pictures, or just surfing in search of egregious loyalist postings. None of these people are paid, and the site could never earn it's creators an income. Under a barrage of loyalist complaints, Facebook occasionally takes the page down, only for it to reappear under another "respect are culture" misspelling, such as Loyalists Against Demacracy, and return to it's original popularity. So even the mighty new-media corporation of Facebook has lost it's gatekeeper function.

How can other media cover this, let alone complement it? And that is only the technical barrier. LAD poses an editorial challenge to the mainstream media that goes beyond its post-watershed humour or the tricky implication that one side in Northern Ireland is worse than the other. LAD pillories loyalists for their stupidity, drunkenness, appearance and general underclass lifestyles in a way that is considered socially unacceptable. LAD makes this charicature all the more problematic by proving it to be true and of fundamental importance. It matters that those causing disorder over "culture" are totally uncultured, reflexively violent and seething with gormless hatred. However, to say so commits the terrible crime of snobbery which, ever since the Good Friday Agreement, seems to be the only crime you can commit in Northern Ireland.

There is a centre-left abhorrence in the media against anything that smacks of laughing at the poor, although it takes a special kind of middle-class idiot to equate flag protestors with everyone on less than the living wage. Before LAD, only broadcaster Stephen Nolan had put its targets before a general audience, but he has always been careful to accord them balance and respect. What if they plainly deserve neither?

Ironically, this centre-left squeamishness can best be seen in nationalism's response to what is, by default, a nationalist-leaning website. There is a perceptible nationalist unease about LAD, or at least a guilt about enjoying it, and this runs deeper than the fear of being seen as a snob.

Nationalism subscribes to a trite class analysis of loyalism epitomised by the late David Ervine, leader of the UVF-linked Progressive Unionist Party. His tale of working-class Protestants exploited by unionist grandees and British securocrats  got loyalists off the hook by flattering the nationalist narrative. Holding loyalists responsible for their own words and deeds blows this cosy convenience out of the water. Far from being fellow victims across the divide, loyalists stand exposed as vicious instigators of mayhem from the grassroots up, leading unionism and the authorities by the nose. 

LAD is pro-police, and PSNI officers of my acquaintance are greatly amused by it, which speaks volumes about how perceptions of authority in Northern Ireland are shifting. That shift is confounding unionist "leaders" as they play the old game of tagging spinelessly along behind the angriest elements in their community.

In previous years, the bulk of the unionist electorate would not have seen this game so clearly. It was obscured by media limitations and the great Troubles cult of respectability, which left unionists struggling to picture their leaders rolling around in the gutter.

This year, a new awareness of what loyalism is has seeped into public consciousness, just as unionist politicians line up behind it. To the extent that LAD can claim credit, it is the most intriguing use of satire in Northern Ireland's history.

Sunday Times 1st September 2013