Examining the Online Trolling and Harassment Directed at Unionists…

I have been contemplating writing an article on Unionist experiences online and how there is a sense that it is disproportionately negative with Unionists plagued by trolling, abuse, and threats. It’s a topic that I have touched on before but it’s regularly dismissed as “self-pity” and at times it has resulted in accentuating the trolling and abusive messages that I have tried to call out and I suspect this article will result in more of the same from the usual suspects. However, on Sunday Joe Brolly tweeted the statement below and it encouraged me to explore in greater detail the issues and experiences of Unionists online, in doing so I decided to reach out to a wide array of Unionists to garner their individual views.

“Why do Ulster Scot Protestants support genocide? The mass murder of men, women, and children? Why do they champion it with such relish – crush, erase, eradicate, destroy? 8,000 murdered already. How many dead kids is enough? 10,000? 100,000? 500,000?”.

It should be noted from the outset that abusive commentary online is widespread and non-discriminatory, women are significantly impacted and there are Unionist accounts that engage in trolling and abuse, and whilst these accounts generally don’t gain significant traction there is an onus on everyone, especially Unionists to address them. It’s also worth noting that most Nationalists are not involved in the abuse but there is at least a perception held by many Unionists that a blind eye is turned to it.

Joe Brolly’s tweet was not a question it was a statement. Brolly wasn’t interested in any responses; it was a soft target that he picked on and it was tweeted safe in the knowledge that such statements would be beyond reproach and that he wouldn’t be held to any level of account. Brolly’s assessment was correct and on Wednesday the Belfast Telegraph platformed him regarding the Palestine and Israel conflict, there wasn’t even a hint of a backtrack in which Brolley would have to utter that some of his best friends are Prods. Few Unionists or indeed Protestants would have been surprised by Brolly’s tweet with numerous unionists over the years voicing concerns regarding his views that regularly seek to target Unionism in a mocking or derisory manner, however, many felt the “support for genocide” comment was dehumanising and sectarian, Joe Brolly risks becoming what he hates about Unionists. Whilst very few Unionists will hold what Joe Brolly has to say in any high regard there is increasing concern at the impunity in which these statements can be issued and indeed the influence they have on others.

Brian Feeney and Chris Donnelly have also come in for criticism for their singular focus on Unionism and many of the negative tropes they use to describe it. Below is a description of Unionists from one of Brian Feeney’s most recent columns for the Irish News:

“It seems they’d rather live in denial of their impermanence, illegitimacy, and insecurity, preferring wishful thinking” 

 UUP member Tom Brown made the following point:

Articles like Brian Feeney’s are prejudiced nonsense, and I find that it’s unhelpful that the Irish News prints these views, as it legitimises them in the eyes of many, as a result, we see this abuse on social media. Similar views written about other groups wouldn’t be printed.

Chris Donnelly frequently refers to Unionist “entitlement” and “supremacy” whilst dismissing genuine Unionist concerns. Whilst Chris Donnelly’s views are legitimate, it is noteworthy when scanning through his social media page that each of his attacks on Unionists results in comments that are blatantly sectarian and generally abusive towards Unionists, none of which Chris ever calls out. A cursory look at a tweet from Chris criticising Edwin Poots and accusing him of failing in leadership resulted in users mocking Edwin Poots’ looks and making other derisory comments. The leadership that Chris seeks to see in others should start with himself by calling this out, especially as he is a commentator who is both respected and influential. Both Brian Feeney and Chris Donnelly amongst others are fully entitled to regurgitate these notions and they do so with increasing regularity, however, it should not be a surprise when the negative tropes they use make it into the lexicon of abuse that Unionists encounter online daily.

The reaction or inaction from Chris Donnelly is not unusual, whilst most Nationalists online don’t engage in abusive commentary towards Unionists, there is a perception within Unionism that most also turn a blind eye to it or worse pretend it isn’t happening. These actions allow the abuse to fester and multiply with words such as “planter”, “supremacist”, “hun”, “bigot”, “colonialist” “Brits out”, “souper” and “West Brit” thrown in at will along with the usual jibes about being uneducated and a plethora of derogatory remarks about how a said Unionist looks.

A recent BBC tweet on the Unionist Youth Network (UYN) presented a stark microcosm of this issue. The UYN is a group of young Unionists from various backgrounds who have been connecting with a wide array of people and creating conversations around Unionism. Members of the group who were included in the BBC article were bombarded with online abuse ranging from racism to sectarianism, sexualised comments from older men, and body shaming, almost none of the comments addressed the issues they were discussing. Jay Basra the chairman of UYN who suffered some of the worst abuse made contact with me to make the following comments:

“I do think on account of me not fitting the narrative that unionism is pale and stale is why I’ve garnered quite a bit of abuse. Some of them tried to run down my family as nothing but members of the British Raj who killed their own. Others tried to tell me my family wasn’t Sikh enough. A lot of the abuse is aimed at my physical appearance, when I first joined Twitter, I often got comments like he doesn’t look 18 he’s had a troubled childhood, stuff like that, and obvious jabs about my weight. Furthermore, the constant mentioning of virginity and sexual innuendo arises time and time again. The abuse knows no bounds.”

Matthew Shanks another member of the group added:

“Given the seeming numerical superiority and the confidence given to individuals through the safety of anonymity and a screen, Unionists will be on the receiving end of attacks from certain people that are often coordinated, with the intention being to bully them into submission and silence. The very fact that Mary Lou McDonald had to publicly ask supporters to stop trolling shows that there is a clear imbalance in the amount of online abuse Unionists receive. I don’t expect to receive zero criticism for what I say, or for no questions to be asked, but anonymity has granted people the ability to attack their opponents in the most vitriolic and personal fashion, which can sometimes hit the hardest. At this stage, it does roll off my back and I appreciate the necessity to be thick-skinned in politics, but when other young unionists see what is being said it can produce quite a challenge in encouraging them to keep going.”

An abundance of sectarian accounts created to dehumanise and abuse Unionists were flagged by several people I spoke with including “Loyalist Lloyd” and “Ian Painsley”. The “Loyalist Lloyd” account started as a run-of-the-mill sectarian troll account that in its primitive days mocked victims of the troubles and presented itself as a semi-literate Loyalist. As the account has evolved it has gained significant traction with a huge following and many of its tweets have gained significant likes. While the account has tidied up some of its presentation it still denigrates Unionists by playing up negative stereotypes whilst engaging in low-level sectarianism.

The ”Ian Painsley” account which uses a picture of Ian Paisley is more openly abusive and sectarian towards Unionists and many female Unionists have reported the account for threatening and misogynistic behaviour. Both this account and the “Loyalist Lloyd” account have huge followings and garner significant traffic daily. Unionists have complained that despite the content that spews from both accounts and many others, none are taken to task by non-Unionists and instead many support the accounts with likes/follows. Matthew Shanks of UYN made the following observation on these troll accounts:

“They’re immensely problematic as their content feeds into harmful stereotypes that will only reinforce division. Their popularity is a testament to the numerical imbalance between Nationalists and Unionists on Twitter/X given that their Unionist counterparts, which are certainly out there, are much less notable.”

One of the most notorious troll accounts on Twitter/X went by the name of “Paul” which hounded Unionists regularly and had again gathered up a significant following. Whilst many Unionists flagged examples of threatening behaviour and sectarianism from the account nothing was done about it and in general Unionists were met with silence or accused of indulging in “mopery”. However, on one occasion the account mocked Diane Dodds from the DUP on the death of her son, this resulted in DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson openly condemning the account and reporting it to the police, condemnation then flowed in from across Twitter and the account was eventually removed. An attempt by some was made to accuse Unionists of running the account until the police revealed that the user had been tracked down and was based in the Republic of Ireland. A notable outworking from this was that most DUP members now close their tweets from comments, a tactic that many Unionists have expressed support for.

Troll accounts are not the only issue Unionists flagged as problematic. Several contributors stated that people implicitly involved in local media and journalism were complicit in the abuse by participating in it or amplifying the trolling. One prominent Unionist who wished to remain anonymous due to the levels of abuse they received recounted:

“I think the difference between the abuse of unionists online and nationalists is the level at which the abuse takes place. What I mean by level is the people who are doing it. A local newspaper journalist was appallingly offensive to me. Mocking my voice and appearance as much as my contribution. I can’t imagine a local editor of a paper in a unionist area getting away with that. The abuse got to such a level that I blocked them. When I did and they pointed out I’d blocked them, people sent me direct messages from their accounts. Some of the people were other nationalist members of the press who thought it was amusing! I had to point out I had blocked the journalist in question for a reason and didn’t find it funny and didn’t want to see it.” 

There have been widespread complaints about topics on social media either focused on Unionism or involving Unionists being deliberately bastardised so that the topic loses any meaning or relevance and that Unionists are dissuaded from participating. Lee Reynolds a former special advisor for the DUP feels these actions are orchestrated:

“There is no doubt that Unionists and Unionist topics being targeted by trolls on social media is both deliberate and orchestrated, however, there is a clear positive to be taken from this being that those involved do not have a strong positive message of their own and therefore have to engage in tactics focused on trolling and disruption”. 

Social media is not the only platform where these tactics play out. Having written articles for Slugger for several years, I have noticed that increasingly topics are saturated by posters whose only intent is to thwart topics by making posts that are both irrelevant to the topic and just abusive towards Unionists in general. Ian Clarke a fellow Unionist who also writes articles for Slugger made the following points:

“A small number of people on platforms like Slugger go out of their way to prevent serious engagement by unionists and in so doing make the platforms repetitive and pointless. For example, the constant need to hark back to the pre-1969 situation here as if those of us who weren’t alive then are somehow expected to accept blame and make atonement for that era.”

The tactic has been effective as virtually no Unionist now makes submissions within the comments section on Slugger and every topic regardless of what is being discussed has the same comments upvoted to the top with Unionist-themed topics regularly closed down prematurely due to trolling. The Slugger team which are generally fantastic and very encouraging, in particular, Brian O’Neill who I have dealt with mostly have recognised that there is a problem on this subject. There also has to be frustration for Nationalist commentators who are making serious and informed comments that these are generally drowned out and lost due to the incessant trolling.

A key theme concerning some of the feedback from Unionists was that when they strayed onto Unionist topics they were pounced on, one Unionist who didn’t want to be identified noted the following:

“I am from a unionist family but I have been questioning my allegiances publicly and some members from or at least linked to Ireland’s Future flirted with me. I would have been critical of the dup and even unionism and this got a good response online. I was sent a few tweets to like/share by members of IF that were critical of unionism, I am not sure if this was orchestrated or if members were acting on their own but I foolishly engaged. Then one day I criticised IRA chanting and a local “journalist” stated – “doesn’t take much for the unionist bigot to appear”. I was shocked, I haven’t considered myself a unionist for years much less a bigot and I was hoping for some support online.

It didn’t come and then I noticed one of the Ireland Future members liked the post from the journalist. I realised then that they only wanted me as a Prod for window dressing, I am most angry with the fellow protestants in Ireland’s Future who looked the other way, so much for the radical Presbyterians, they must have been waiting for approval on what to do. I deleted my post and have since gone off Twitter. I observe a lot now and I noticed a tweet by Robbie Butler in which he commemorated a conservative MP who was murdered recently and was met with abuse by a member of Ireland’s Future so I know it wasn’t an isolated event with me. I am glad to be mostly away from social media now, I do see abuse on both sides if I am honest but it’s unionists who bear the overwhelming brunt of it”.

When exploring the issues of online abuse directed towards Unionism it was clear from everyone that I spoke with that it was both widespread and constant but two groups were frequently singled out for the most venomous abuse, younger Unionists and women. One name that continued to crop up more than most was that of Stacey Graham. When I contacted Stacey, it was evident that it was an issue that had taken its toll and below were some of her thoughts on the subject:

“I have been subjected to an alarming level of abusive behaviour, encompassing sectarian, sexual, and misogynistic harassment. This scale of abuse is unprecedented in my experience and is notably absent outside the loyalist context. Unfortunately, such behaviour has become disturbingly normalised and often disregarded by those not associated with loyalism. One cannot help but notice a stark contrast in how loyalists are treated compared to Republicans in both social media and the mainstream media. This disparity can be attributed to various factors, including media bias, historical narratives, and political dynamics. In some cases, the media may exhibit a bias against loyalists, portraying them in a negative light while being more lenient towards Republicans. It is distressing to observe that no other section of society would be degraded in such a manner, and it raises the question of why those outside of loyalism often dismiss and ignore this problem. This situation, on such a scale, would surely outrage all human rights activists if it were the LGBT or BME communities on the receiving end of such hate.  

On social media platforms, loyalists experience a disproportionate amount of abuse and ridicule. It is crucial to note that women, in particular, bear the brunt of these vile acts. There are hundreds of examples in my own experiences alone.

To give you an example of the severity of this issue, I posted a picture of my family attending a christening. Instead of receiving wholesome responses, my children were insulted. A threat was once made to contact social services with false allegations of child abuse simply because my son was participating in a Flute Band. Furthermore, I have endured threats of physical harm, sexual assault, disparaging comments about my appearance, and weight-related insults. Some of my posts have attracted over 600 comments filled with vitriol and abuse, despite my intent to merely promote the positive aspects of loyalist culture.

The profound impact of these relentless attacks on both me and my family is challenging to articulate and can be difficult for my husband to see. It has even impacted his job when someone shared information about where he works. He was forced to leave his job due to safety concerns. It is evident that there exists a coordinated effort to suppress loyalist voices, a troubling trend that must be unequivocally denounced and opposed by all who value women’s safety, and rights and uphold the principles of democracy.”

Robbie Butler from the UUP has been a mentor to numerous young Unionists, when I spoke with Robbie he recognised that there was an extreme issue concerning online abuse directed at young Unionists:

“I and many like me have been assisting and promoting young Unionists to be more confident in their identity, to value their person and values, and to be courageous in sharing and convincing others of the vision and future for Northern Irish Unionism. However, the evident assault particularly by troll accounts, on social media, on young people and young Unionists in particular, is something which cannot be ignored nor allowed to develop.”

 There can be a debate about whether the abuse directed towards Unionists is orchestrated or opportunistic, however, there can be no debate on the sheer scale of it and that it is impacting most Unionists online continuously and systematically. Whilst the online world is not the real world, increasingly conversations online are making their way into the mainstream even if they are not reflective of mainstream opinion, Unionism being deliberately banished from the online discussion distorts what feeds through to the mainstream. Much of the abuse which is almost accepted as the norm should result in criminal action including racism, threats, sectarianism, sexualised comments, and generally menacing behaviour.

No Unionist expects on should expect their views or positions to go unchallenged in an online environment but it’s clear that most Unionists are not so much being challenged on their views but are instead facing a disproportional number of threats and abuse. It seems rather odd to want to seek Unionists to join “the conversation” about constitutional change “in a safe environment” when currently there is evidence that **some** calling for Unionists to join this conversation are continuously seeking to denigrate, humiliate, and even remove them from online conversations. Furthermore, there is evidence that some Unionists are having mental health issues as a result of the online trolling and abuse not to mention the fact that it is putting Unionists, particularly young Unionists off getting involved in politics.

I recognise that a topic like this could potentially act as a lightning rod for further abuse and indeed there will be those who seek to dismiss the issue completely or will engage in whataboutery, and if that’s you, perhaps you are part of the problem?

For this article I ascertained a large number of testimonies from Unionists on their experiences online, all of these testimonies will be included in my next article.

Discover more from Slugger O'Toole

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

We are reader supported. Donate to keep Slugger lit!

For over 20 years, Slugger has been an independent place for debate and new ideas. We have published over 40,000 posts and over one and a half million comments on the site. Each month we have over 70,000 readers. All this we have accomplished with only volunteers we have never had any paid staff.

Slugger does not receive any funding, and we respect our readers, so we will never run intrusive ads or sponsored posts. Instead, we are reader-supported. Help us keep Slugger independent by becoming a friend of Slugger. While we run a tight ship and no one gets paid to write, we need money to help us cover our costs.

If you like what we do, we are asking you to consider giving a monthly donation of any amount, or you can give a one-off donation. Any amount is appreciated.