This weekend, 99 men and women will meet in Dublin Castle to begin their deliberations in the new Citizens’ Assembly. The first item on their agenda will be the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, and whether it should be retained, removed or amended.
The resulting recommendation will be conveyed to the Government and is likely to be the precursor to a referendum.
That process will take months at least. But campaigns to keep or get rid of the amendment are well under way already on the streets, in the Dáil (where six TDs attended wearing “Repeal” slogans) and most consistently and vocally on social media.
If those 99 assembly members are truly representative of the country as a whole, then 64 of them will have Facebook accounts and 26 will be on Twitter. Social media has permeated Irish society to the extent that it forms a natural part of the lives of the majority of people in the country. Three quarters of Facebook account holders use the service every day. The proportion is smaller for Twitter, but that is where the most vocal campaigning is going on right now.
Hashtags are searchable slogans or taglines, often used on social media to encourage sharing, mobilise support and measure sentiment. They’re particularly popular during political campaigns or big live TV events. According to Dublin-based social media analytics company Olytico, the most popular amendment-related hashtag by far on Twitter in 2016 has been #RepealThe8th, which has featured in 336,000 tweets since the start of the year.
In contrast, #RetainThe8th has only appeared in 220 tweets, while #loveboth, a slogan used by pro-amendment campaigners, has appeared 3,451 times.
Usage of #RepealThe8th rose rapidly last month, reaching a crescendo on September 24th, the day of a large pro-choice march in Dublin, when 36,478 tweets containing the phrase were posted.
One of those marching that day was Emma Burns, a member of the anti-amendment group Tipperary ProChoice. Back home in Tipperary a couple of days later, she accidentally started her own social trend. Irritated by a suggestion posted from an anonymous pro-life account that all the marchers had been the "usual suspects . . . liberal students from Dublin universities and Trotskyites", Burns posted: "#KnowYourRepealers 42yo mother of 2 (one with additional needs) from Tipp, nonparty, disability rights advocate, researcher. #repealthe8th".
In the hours and days that followed, the #KnowYourRepealers hastag was picked up and repeated by hundreds of people. There were familiar names already associated with the Repeal campaign, including comedian Tara Flynn, Amnesty Ireland director Colm O'Gorman and Irish Times journalist Róisín Ingle. Fine Gael TD Kate O'Connell's tweet – "36y old Westmeath woman in Dublin. 1 of 6 kids. Mammy of 3. Employer of 25. Employee of 4.7m. Unafraid of slings and arrows" – was picked up by hundreds of other users.
Many others used Twitter’s limited (140 characters) space to post mini-bios of who they were any why they supported repealing the amendment.
In the week that followed, #KnowYourRepealers appeared in more than 8,000 tweets. “It was lovely, so positive,” says Burns. “There was no plan. It was two days after the march. We had made the effort to get up from Tipperary for it, and it’s very frustrating to be lumped in with ‘the usual suspects’. We’re a big diverse group.”
Stephen O’Leary, managing director of Olytico, says the most interesting change so far in October has been an increase in #LoveBoth mentions (albeit from a very small base). “They were particularly active on the day of the Pro Life Campaign Conference on October 8th – with over 600 tweets mentioning the hashtag published,” he says, while noting for context that there were 1,788 #RepealThe8th tweets on the same day.
Do campaigns of this sort make any difference, especially when we’re still so far out from an actual vote?
“What’s happening now is awareness-raising,” says O’Leary. “The real value will be if or when a referendum is called. Not in terms of changing people’s minds, but in terms of mobilisation. The core of getting anyone to act in any way has to start with getting them motivated. The worst thing is apathy. Keeping the conversation going helps to keep it top of mind.”
“My overwhelming feeling about Twitter is it doesn’t lend itself to debate at all. Anyone trying to offer up a pro-life argument is shut down,” says Cora Sherlock of the Pro-Life Campaign. “It’s not a place where debate can happen in a civilised way. It’s very easy to get hashtags trending on Twitter but not so easy to explain why 90 per cent of Down Syndrome children are aborted in England, but not in Ireland because of the eighth amendment.”
Sherlock is critical of what she says is the way in which social media trends are picked up unquestioningly, citing the #twowomentravel hashtag in August, when the Guardian, New York Times and other international media ran stories on the tweets of a woman who was travelling, accompanied by a friend, to the UK for an abortion.
"We saw the Minister for Health jumping in to encourage that, yet ignoring the fact that on the same day Marie Stopes clinics were being closed because of safety fears. There isn't much scrutiny given to pro-choice claims as to pro-life ones. The loser is the public."
The truth, says O’Leary, is that getting something to trend on Twitter in Ireland is incredibly easy. “A hundred tweets will get you trending at off-peak times. However, don’t underestimate the value of trending in getting the attention of people who might be on the network because they’re interested in sport or music. They’re much more likely to become aware of the conversation if it trends.”
Is social media ideologically lopsided? Conservative New York Times columnist Richard Douthat has written of "the rapid colonisation of new cultural territory by an ascendant social liberalism". Twitter, in particular, can be a platform where dissent from accepted beliefs can be shouted down.
But it also allows people to make connections and alliances which would otherwise be very difficult. “I live in a very rural part of Tipperary,” says Burns. “The main reason I got on to Twitter was because I was very isolated with young kids. I try to speak the same way on Twitter that I would to people on the street.
“The network is not the preserve of the right wing or the left wing,” says O’Leary, who believes some campaigns are just able to mobilise more visibly. “I didn’t see anyone wearing Vote No badges, or changing their avatars to No, during the marriage equality campaign.”
Ultimately, he says, Twitter may be the noisiest network, but its dwarfed in scale by Facebook. And that’s likely to be key. “Facebook has an older demographic with a strong female bias. The added layer of privacy, and the ability to comment within closed groups without being subject to outside criticism, will be important.
“In the end, though, these are just social networks,” he says. “You still have to get people out to vote.”
Burns agrees. “This won’t be won on Facebook or Twitter,” she says. “It’ll be won over quiet cups of tea.”