“When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to Fly by those nets.” 
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Northern Irish comedy can do better than poverty porn

Northern Irish comedy can do better than poverty porn

If you live in Northern Ireland or have a Facebook friend who does, chances are the algorithm has decided that you want to see some local viral content.

There is some really innovative local comedy being produced online, but when anyone can publish whatever they want, with little to no consequence, the results may vary.

What can go viral in Northern Ireland can range from usual memes that are ultimately harmless to videos and personal profile screenshots that are bordering on exploitative.

The worst of which could be described as ‘poverty porn.’

Online media pages share these posts indiscriminately to a large audience spanning people living in the North and beyond, but only after adding in their own watermarks and captions laden with monkey emojis.

When they go viral, it makes pseudo-celebrities of local people with us laughing at their expense.

Poverty porn is not an entirely new concept by any means. It was initially attributed to the ways in which charities and fundraising organisations presented poverty, conflict, and social injustices in order to garner sympathy and raise their donations.

But the title of poverty porn can most certainly be applied to the type of voyeuristic content that doesn’t seek to help the lives of those featured but rather to lampoon them.

Shows like Benefits Street, The Scheme, and The Big Benefits Handout have heavily focussed on the lives of people in the UK, mainly England, who are dependent on welfare, perpetuating myths of people living in deprivation as slobbish and uncultured.

Much has been written criticising these shows, but these critiques noticeably disregard online content and ignore the regional contexts.

This online genre of poverty porn is on the rise as these videos are accessible at any time, easily shared, and even more easily manipulated in order to present working class people negatively.

As these videos are localised in Northern Ireland, it leaves England behind and places the viewer in a more recognisable setting ten minutes down the road.

At the centre of some of these posts is a woman from West Belfast. You probably won’t recognise her by name, but if you’ve ever heard someone screaming “UP THE MONA-BY-FUCKING-PASS” in a nightclub or elsewhere, you’ve unconsciously experienced this exact phenomenon.

Similarly, see Jordan McKeag, star of the “You Owe me A Tenner Dickhead” viral video which was taken from an older documentary about the Shankill area’s loyalist flute bands. He went on to stand at the 2017 Assembly election on a “comedy protest” platform, with the joke being that he was the kid in that video.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone who has been at the center of one of these posts has had much agency in their sudden infamy. At least McKeag went on to be in on the joke.

Both of those examples come from a lower socioeconomic background but other recent viral posts specifically exploit mental health issues and substance abuse.

With such a large movement throughout Northern Ireland to decrease the stigma of depression and other mental health issues, it is hard to understand why so many people engage with this content without considering its potential consequences.

It is incredibly jarring to see influential online media outlets promoting a better understanding of depression and suicide through schemes like the Be Strong Speak Out campaign, then continue exploiting those affected for a few likes and shares.

Pages like Belfast GIRLS exist to present a light-hearted parody of the everyday lives of working-class people in the city but they do so in a way that does not implicate any real at-risk person.

Whereas posts that compare violent and abusive relationships to Jeremy Kyle plotlines suggest that the suffering of working-class people is for our entertainment and our consumption.

 This is still up on a Facebook page with over 18,000 followers. The names and faces were not blocked out on the original post.

This is still up on a Facebook page with over 18,000 followers. The names and faces were not blocked out on the original post.

These posts are especially startling given the lasting impact of austerity on some of Northern Ireland’s communities.

In the Northern Ireland deprivation statistics on small areas published by NISRA in 2018, areas like Ardoyne and the Shankill in the North and West of Belfast respectively topped the tables for multiple types of deprivation, including employment, living environment, and income.

These areas have been among some of the most heavily affected by suicide in the entire United Kingdom throughout the past decade, with limited resources for dealing with the worsening mental health of those living within them stretched even thinner in recent years.

On paper, suggesting that people laugh at those struggling within these communities would be met with rightful horror; but frame this as harmless jest, throw in a catchphrase or two, and you’re on your way to a surefire viral sensation.

If people want to get serious about ending the stigmatisation of the lives of those affected by poverty, substance abuse, and mental health issues - they need to stop contributing to their commodification.

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