Rewriting the Narrative: Examining how Irish Traveller creators represent their community through TikTok

  • Shauna Cronin (Dublin City University)


This study explores how Irish Traveller content creators represent their community through content-production on TikTok. Irish Travellers, an ethnic minority, have a history of marginalisation and exclusion from Irish and UK society, which has been fuelled by discrimination and stereotypes. Many commonly-held stereotypes about the Travelling Community have been further emphasised by years of biased portrayals of the community in the mainstream media. Social media platforms such as TikTok have brought many opportunities for minority groups to represent themselves as individuals on the app, from sharing educational information, to challenging discriminatory comments. The aim of this study was to explore this subject, through a theoretical framework which relies heavily on Habermas’s theory of the public sphere, and Siapera’s regimes of self-representation. Results found that content posted by Travellers on the app fitted under the ‘alternative regime’ of self-representation, which operates through a commitment to openness in discussion surrounding issues of cultural difference. A mixed method approach was taken to conduct this study whereby a traditional-style quantitative analysis was used to analyse and identify recurring themes present throughout 47 relevant TikTok videos. However, the approach taken to identify themes, and the discussion of some of the video examples, also displays a qualitative style of research. A qualitative survey, with a combination of open and close-ended questions, was also conducted to generate further results and aid discussion.

Keywords: Irish travelling community, discrimination, self-representation, diversity, TikTok

Published on
06 Sep 2023
Peer Reviewed

1. Introduction

The Irish Travelling Community is an ethnic minority group indigenous to Ireland. They are a “distinctive indigenous nomadic minority living and working alongside the majority settled population” (Bhreatnach, 2003, p.3), who also live across the UK and Europe. The last census from 2016 showed that there were 30,987 Irish Travellers in Ireland, which represented 0.7 per cent of the general population (Central Statistics Office, 2016). Travellers' customs and habits differ significantly from those of the settled population (McElwee, 2003, p.105), and McElwee argues that these distinctions have “frequently been intentionally misunderstood by the settled community, resulting in Travellers being pushed to the margins of society” (McElwee, 2003, p.105). While the term ‘Traveller’ suggests someone who wanders around and has no fixed home, this is not entirely true in the case of Irish Travellers. While the community is largely characterised by nomadism many Travellers are settled in houses, as opposed to living in campsites or on halting sites which is typical for members of this community (ibid). The group is often compared to and associated with the Roma-gypsy community, due to their similarities in cultural values, heritage and nomadic background.

As of March 2017, Irish Travellers were officially recognised as an ethnic group by the Irish state. From this point, Travellers were to be included in the full range of anti-discrimination and intercultural measures, as well as being listed as a protected group in Irish equality legislation (Daly, 2017, p.1). This was an important marking point for Irish Travellers, as due to their difference in culture and history of exclusion from society, the community have often been subject to discrimination from the settled community. This issue of discrimination was highlighted in the results of a recent study conducted in 2020 by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA). The statistics showed that 68% of Traveller men and 62% of Traveller women had experienced discrimination throughout their lives. It also found that 46% of settled people said they would feel “uncomfortable with having Travellers as neighbours” (The Irish Journal, 2020). These statistics really reflect the relevance of the issue of discrimination that exists in the context of current Irish society.

Bhreathnach (1998, p.285) discusses the issue that exists in regards to media representation of the Travelling community, and describes the changes in representation that took place between the 1960’s and 90’s:

“There has been a semantic shift from the mid-60s treatment of the 'itinerant problem' to the mid-90s discussion of the 'Travelling community'. This represents a significant perceptual change from the 'itinerant problem'”

While this shift in language occurred in the news media during this period, as Bhreathnach describes, less direct forms of biased representation began to appear through entertainment and reality TV style shows on channels such as Channel 4 in the 2000’s. It could be argued that this issue, which will be further discussed in the literature review section, has contributed and fed into the stereotyping of the community.

However, with the coming of social media platforms such as TikTok and YouTube, for example, minority group members like Travellers, are given a space where they can freely represent their community from their own first-hand perspective. With these factors in mind, the main research questions to be considered for this research are:

  • How is TikTok used as a public sphere by Traveller creators?

  • What motivations exist for Travellers creators to self-represent their community?

  • How does self-representation occur as a result of these motivations?

  • What regimes of self-representation are exhibited overall?

It must be noted that this research comes from the perspective that discrimination and unfair representation of a minority group is ethically wrong, and such sentiments will inevitably translate through throughout the course of this research study. The mentioned statistics and examples of misrepresentation highlights the issue that exists for the Travelling Community regarding discrimination and stereotyping, which could be influenced by biased representations of the community in the media. Subsequently, this study explores how through posting content, Travellers not only represent themselves as individuals, but also have the opportunity to influence and change the ideas and potential misconceptions held by a broader stretch of online communities present on such platforms.

2. Literature Review

2.1 Introduction

The following section discusses the literature which will form the theoretical framework for this discussion. The purpose for this research is to learn more about how Traveller content creators use TikTok as a public sphere and whether, through posting Traveller-related content, they are self-representing their community in terms of an essentialist or alternative regime.

2.2 Representation and Stereotype Theory

Before we can grasp the concept of self-representation, we must first understand what is meant by the term representation. Hall is a key figure in the context of cultural studies and his work has contributed significantly to the research of media representation. Hall’s theory of representation asserts that there is no fully accurate representation of persons or events in a text, but there are numerous ways that these things can be portrayed (Hall, 1997, p.7). As a result, producers attempt to “fix” a meaning (or understanding) of persons or events in their texts. He defines representation as:

“the production of meaning and concepts in our minds through language. It is the link between concepts and language which enables us to refer either the ‘real’ world of objects, people or events, or indeed to imaginary worlds of fictional objects, people and events” (ibid, p.15)

Representation, in light of Stuart Hall’s theory, is not focused on what the right or wrong portrayal of an issue or a person in a media text is, but rather, how the media is portraying the issue, person or event through use of “language” and “symbols” (Hall, 1997, p.16). Essentially, there is no ‘true’ portrayal of such events or people through media, only representations.

Hall explains that there are two systems of representation to be considered (Hall, 1997, p. 17). Firstly, the mental representations which we all carry in our own heads that help us to make sense of ideas, people and events (Hall, 1997, p.17). The second system of representation then is language, which involves constructing meaning, to translate the thoughts in our heads to the world around us (Hall, 1997, p. 17). For example, if they were to compare a conservative news outlet to a more liberal news outlet reporting the outcome of Brexit, one might observe that the two reports of the same event differ completely. The conservative news source might represent the issue as a beneficial event for Britain, whereas the liberal news source might represent the issue as more of a loss. Neither of these would actually be “true” or “fixed” representations, according to this theory. Rather, they are represented entirely through the perspective of the given media source.

According to Hall, racial and ethnic stereotypes occur through representation. He argues that stereotype means: “reduced to a few essentials, fixed in Nature by a few, simplified characteristics” (Hall, p. 249). In other words, the stereotype simplifies a person or group of people to a basic understanding of them, based on some common characteristics that cannot be changed. These stereotypes create what Hall refers to as the “Other”; with culturally dominant people groups in the position of the “Us” and anything else in the position of the “Other”. Hall (1997, p.249) gives an example of media stereotyping of black people, explaining that ”Black people were reduced to the signifiers of their physical difference — thick lips, fuzzy hair, broad face and nose, and so on” (Hall, 1997, p.249), which exemplifies the ignorance of these representations as it denies the group of any human complexity.

Walter Lippmann is another well-established contributor to the discussion of stereotyping. He often referred to the idea of the “pictures in our heads” (Lippmann, 1921, p.60) and directly associated this with the formation of stereotypes. He argues that through reading, our memory and imagination fill in the blanks and generate certain images depending on what we are reading. However, through “moving pictures” the process of observing, describing and imagining has been completed for you (ibid, p.61). In other words, mass-mediated images have a larger influence in perpetuating stereotypes since they directly present an image that represents something to us, which leaves little room for us to create our own interpretation.

If we consider the Irish Travelling Community in the context of Irish and UK mainstream media, we can identify aspects of these various theories of representation and stereotypes, and concepts such as the “Spectacle of the Other”. As mentioned earlier in the introduction section, Bhreatnach raises an insightful discussion surrounding Travellers representation in the media, highlighting the ways that press media have contributed to negative stereotyping of the group (Bhreatnach, 1998). To do this, she conducts a comparative analysis, comparing material from the Irish Times between the 1960’s and the 1990’s, to highlight the issue of the press media's tendency to stereotype the community.

“Since the 1960s, the coverage of Traveller issues has increased: an examination of the years 1964 to 1966 reveals fifty articles, while the 1995 to 1997 sample contains 155 articles. More significantly, there has been a semantic shift from the mid-60s treatment of the 'itinerant problem' to the mid-90s discussion of the “Travelling Community” (Bhreatnach, 1998, p.285).

She goes on to explain how words such as “itinerant, knacker, tinker, trader” (ibid, p.289) were often used in print media to describe Travellers until the National Union of Journalists deemed them offensive in 1996. When the Irish Times chose to report on issues involving the community, there was an emphasis on their involvement in violence both in the stories and in the nature of the headlines (ibid), which demonstrates the print media’s direct contribution to negative stereotyping of the community.

The Television show “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” which was aired by Channel 4 in 2010 is a more recent example of the media’s stereotyping of Travellers. Jensen and Ringrose (2013) criticise many elements of the docu-series, which aimed to offer an insight into the lives of “one of the most secretive communities in the UK” (Jensen and Ringrose, 2013, p.369). They discuss how the show’s tone is “cynical and comic” (ibid, p.371), and inaccurate in its name which includes the term “Gypsy”, despite the show featuring mainly Irish Travellers, who are a different ethnic group to Gypsys altogether (ibid, p.374). They argue that the show was “problematic and inaccurate” due to the fact that it reproduced many common stereotypes about Travellers (ibid). It could be argued that through such elements of the show, such as a mocking tone or failure to correctly address the community, a general disrespect for the people groups livelihood and culture is shown.

2.3 Social Media’s Influence in Transforming the Public Sphere

In order to understand the subject, we must understand the setting or “sphere” through which the main issue, and discourse surrounding this issue, occur. I will examine this through Habermas’s (1964) concept of ‘the public sphere’. The public sphere is an open space in society, where people can come together to discuss issues and ideas, outside of governmental influence. As Habermas argues:

“Citizens behave as a public body when they confer in an unrestricted fashion-that is, with the guarantee of freedom of assembly and association and the freedom to express and publish their opinions-about matters of general interest. In a large public body this kind of communication requires specific means for transmitting information and influencing those who receive it.” (1964, p. 49)

Habermas asserts that at the time, mass media such as newspapers, television and radio were the media of the public sphere. This example, that describes the public sphere in the context of a “large public body” whereby citizens “confer in an unrestricted fashion” and have “freedom to express and publish opinions about matters of general interest” (ibid), might bear resemblance to a description of how social media operates today, and how we, as “private bodies” use it. Habermas explains how “public authority consolidated into a concrete opposition for those who were merely subject to it and who at first found only a negative definition of themselves within it” (ibid, p. 51), and explains how such people were “excluded from public authority because they held no office” (ibid). Upon consideration of the period in discussion, the bourgeoisie-dominant-18th Century, it can be assumed that those who found only a “negative definition” of themselves within the public sphere, would be the likes of women, ethnic minorities and members of the working class, who had unequal opportunities and rights. Habermas coins the term “refeudalization” (ibid, p. 54), which refers to the decline of issues such as exclusion, which began to take place after the 18th Century, when the state and society started to become distinctly separate from each other . Social media, in the context of a public sphere, is a space where members of all genders, members of many ethnic and social backgrounds have the opportunity to voice their opinions on a huge variety of matters of their general interest. It could be argued here that social media has created a means for Habermas’s all-inclusive ideal of the public sphere to become a reality.

To consider a contrasting opinion, Fraser (1999) disputes elements of Habermas’s theory of the public sphere, arguing “despite the rhetoric of publicity and accessibility, the public sphere rested on,.. and was constituted by a number of significant exclusions” (Fraser, 1999, p.59). Fraser’s argument here is that women and working class men are largely subjected to such exclusion. Fraser subsequently refers to findings that hghlight a set of “competing counterpublics” (ibid, p.61), rather than one co-operating public within the public sphere, as Habermas argued. Some of these counterpublics included “nationalist public, popular peasant publics, elite women’s publics and working class publics” (ibid). In the context of social media, there are also separate communities that represent and are devoted to discussing relevant issues, for example, climate activists, women’s right activists, Black rights activists or LGBTQ+ rights activists. According to Fraser’s argument, these groups do not operate as one single public, but rather as separate publics, whose priorities and opinions operate outside each other and might compete for recognition.

Ronald Jacobs (2020) similarly argues that the public sphere is contained by various and separate “publics”. He advances this case in regards to the Black minority in America:

“If ever a case can be made for the existence of separate public spheres from the beginning, African-American history provides it. Separate public spaces and communicative institutions formed among Northern free blacks in the 1700s ... At least forty different black newspapers were published before the Civil War” (Jacobs, 2000, p.28-29)

Jacobs discusses how the opportunities presented by alternative media allows minority groups to engage in different discussions, and thus offer alternative points of view. This notion can be investigated and applied to this research, as we can examine how TikTok is used as an alternative media form for the Travelling Community, as a minority group. The perspective offered here by Jacobs on the Public Sphere will be later tested in accordance with this study, as we investigate how Travellers use the platform as a space of public discourse.

2.4 An Introduction to the Regimes of Representation and Self-Representation

To answer the research question: how do Travellers represent their community on TikTok? Eugenia Siapera’s ideology surrounding the “regimes of self-representation” will be heavily referenced. Siapera (2010), first introduces the reader to the idea of ‘regimes of representation’ (Siapera, 2010, p.131), which aims to make sense of the multiple types of “coexisting” (Siapera, 2010, p.131) cultural representations. According to Siapera, these ideas are “based loosely on Michael Foucault’s concept of regimes of truth” (2010, p.131), which aimed to “demonstrate how certain power structures in society could create certain ideas and discourses which, as a result, become widely accepted truths in society” (2010, p.131). Siapera’s adapted “regimes of representation” (2010, p.131) include the 1) the racist regime, 2) the domesticated regime and 3) the regime of commodification. These three regimes were established to gain insight into how others, particularly those that might be considered as dominating or majority groups, represent cultural diversity.

Having considered these three regimes that give an answer to how cultural difference might be represented by others, she continues on to answer another important question: “how might cultural difference represent itself?” (Siapera, 2010, p.149). She does this by demonstrating two regimes of self-representation: the essentialist regime and the alternative regime.

2.5 The Essentialist Regime

The essentialist regime is described by Siapera (2010, p.150) as a “polemical perspective”, a term which might otherwise be described as a strongly critical perspective. This regime puts forth what Siapera describes as an “essential and core identity” which leads to a “policing and controlling” of the processes of representation (Siapera, 2010, p.150). The “imagined core identity” (Siapera, 2010, p.150) is a term used to describe the standardised ideal put in place by various essentialist perspectives. It is convincingly argued how the notion of an “imagine core identity” might be harmful for members of a community who do not meet it. For example, in the Muslim faith, an “imagined core identity” for a female might include the wearing of a hijab. The essentialist regime and insistent “imagined core identity” might invalidate the experience of a Muslim woman who decides not to wear the hijab, as it does not meet the imagined ideal. This regime is referred to as a “direct counterpart” (Siapera, 2010, p.150) to that of the racist regime of representation. However, Siapera puts forth the convincing argument that the extremity of it also “ultimately leads to exclusion, marginalisation and oppression”, (Siapera, 2010, p.150) due to its extremely critical and non-inclusive ideals.

Siapera’s essentialist regime of self-representation operates through three aspects: continuity, construction of a persisting and essential core, and through claims of authenticity and authority (Siapera, 2010, p.150). The first theme, continuity, involves establishing history and background to the represented identity which can be used to endorse the “imagined core identity” mindset. Secondly, the ‘construction of an essential core’, refers to a set of similarities that persist across time and place (Siapera, 2010, p.150). This would include certain specific characteristics that one “must have” to belong or fit in as a “group member”. According to Siapera, these aspects are also used to reinforce the idea of a “stable, core identity” (Siapera, 2010,p.150).

The third theme through which the regime works is achieved through “making claims of authenticity and authority by asserting the right to speak on behalf of the community and by claiming to represent it as a whole” (Siapera, 2010, p.150). Siapera discusses how this aspect of the regime sets up the “us” and “them”, whereby the outsiders of the represented community have no authority to speak on behalf of the insider community because they are not “genuine” carriers of the identity (Siapera, 2010, p.150). In this instance the community is essentially policed, as only members deemed as authentic have the right to express opinion on the community’s behalf.

The essentialist regime emphasises the idea that if one does not meet the “correct” criteria of a chosen minority group, they have no right to voice opinions about it. This regime denies people the chance to engage in open conversation, an element which most would agree is an important element of tackling issues of injustice, including racism. Siapera argues that this regime is harmful; in line with this argument, it is recognised that an alternative regime is necessary for open, non-critical discussions about cultural difference.

2.6 The Alternative Regime

Siapera explains that the alternative regime “avoids the construction of a singular understanding of cultural difference” (Siapera, 2010, p.158). In order for a regime to be considered as ‘alternative’, the images and discourse of a representation must be “radically open” to “discussions, debates, critiques, and rejections” (Siapera, 2010, p.158). Through the “constant probing of truths” put forth by the other representations, Siapera argues that this regime “commits to plurality, openness and diversity” (Siapera, 2010, p158). Through this regime, questions of cultural difference are constantly questioned (Siapera, 2010, p158) to promote openness to both discussion, and to looking at things from different perspectives.

The alternative regime is demonstrated through three self-explanatory themes, according to Siapera (2010, p.158) : “a) representational ambiguity, b) innovative approaches to issues of cultural difference, and c) the variety of perspectives/identities/images”. An example of this regime in action, Siapera explains, is when John Akomfrah, one of the founding members of the Black Audio Film Collective, says that the goal of black filmmaking should be "to assess the importance of representations that went beyond the idea of positive/negative images” (Siapera, 2010, p.158). To put it another way, he contends that presenting the “ambiguous nature of cultural difference” demonstrates the richness and diversity that can be found in every identity (Siapera, 2010, p.158). Conversations which question and reflect on matters that occur within various cultural communities, taking place in an open, unbiased, and non-judgmental manner, exemplifies what is meant by the alternative regime. Someone making use of this regime, will discuss the struggles members of their community face, such as discrimination for example. However, while acknowledging these truths, they are not afraid to also discuss the shortcomings of their own community in an open and unbiased way. Siapera convincingly argues that this regime is the most ethically sound and realistic of the two.

2.7 Conclusion

This section has highlighted the key theories that will be referenced throughout the course of this research. Understanding the theories from which the theoretical frameworks for this study stem will provide clarity for the reader throughout the following sections.

3. Methodology

3.1 Introduction

This section offers an in-depth explanation and justification for the methodological approach taken to conduct this study. It first offers an insight into what the chosen methods aimed to achieve and how, what made these methods suitable for this study, and what strengths and weaknesses exist for them. Hereafter entails a detailed rationale for how these research methods have been applied to the research.

In order to achieve accurate results, a mixed-method analysis was the approach deemed most suitable for this study. In another study which aimed to investigate how TikTok creators operate within the space (Klug et al. 2021), both qualitative and quantitative approaches were taken to find out about both the users assumptions/opinions about TikTok algorithms and to analyse the content posted by the users under these assumptions. These approaches investigated two different, yet related issues to gain a deeper understanding of the topic at hand. Having recognised the benefits that this method incurred for this research, it was determined that a similar approach would also benefit this study, as to conduct it properly, it seemed important to examine not only the content creator’s behaviours, but also learn about their influencing experiences and opinions. It was decided that the best way to approach both of these important elements would be through a combined conduction of a quantitative content analysis and a qualitative survey.

Similarly, a quantitative content analysis allows us to examine the patterns of behaviours seen throughout the TikTok videos, however the qualitative insights are important in understanding the opinions and experiences that influence these user behaviours. These two methods of analysis are appropriate for answering our main research questions. Generally speaking, the idea here is that the ‘how’ questions can be directly answered through data from the content analysis, and the ‘why’ questions can be determined through data collected from the qualitative survey. In regards to the remaining research questions, themes found throughout the content will allow answers to be formed to the question of whether Traveller creators are operating within the realms of TikTok as a public sphere. To do this, we can compare the themes and subject matters relevant in the TikTok videos to Habermas’s recognised defining characteristics of the public sphere. Through a combined analysis of content and survey answers, we can explore how Traveller creators represent their community through the videos, what motivations exist for their content creation and what regimes of self-representation these characteristics align with.

To accurately carry out the mixed methods approach, it was initially understood that it would be necessary to combine both open and closed data to achieve best results. The open ended data comes from qualitative research, which looks in depth at more ambiguous answers, whereas the close ended data comes from quantitative research and is based on the frequency of various themes.

According to Margolis and Pauwels (2011, p.266) the benefits of conducting a quantitative content analysis lie in its ability to “reduce the material to a small number of codes, which can be counted and analysed mathematically/statistically.” It also allows for an analysis of “large amounts of visual data” from which “generalised predictions can be deduced” (ibid). This approach would, then, allow us to efficiently analyse a wide range of TikToks from which to gather our relevant data.

However, as is the case for every method of research, the mixed method approach used is not without weakness. From the outset, it was understood that conducting a mixed-method analysis would be a considerably more time consuming task than a single method analysis. It was also understood that a mixed approach would be considerably more complex, due to the conduction of two separate researches along with the overlapping of results that would have to be juggled to outline relevant arguments. However, it was deemed necessary due to the depth of insight that would result from two simultaneous analyses; as both mentioned questions of “how” and “why” needed consideration to avoid ambiguity in results. In other words, while this mixed method approach required more work, it was recognised it would provide stronger evidence than a single method analysis.

Another weakness of this methodology lies in the vast number of ways qualitative data can be interpreted. The content analysis research takes a thematic approach to identify relevant data, and this data in itself is open to the researchers interpretation. In an ideal case, more than one researcher would be beneficial for this research to consult and discuss issues as they arise for a fairer interpretation of both relevant themes and data. The qualitative survey approach focuses on answers from a small group of seven Traveller content creators, so considering this, we recognise that results are only relative to the size of the group in question. It also must be taken into consideration that, for protection of the content creators being analysed in Research A, a different group of Travellers were needed to do the survey so that Research B participants could be left anonymous; in line with the set of proposed ethics. While both research group’s participants are different, data drawn from both analyses are related because they represent the same people group. The aim of this methodology is to answer the main research questions, but to also accumulate a set of recognised patterns about this group’s behaviours with regards to self-representation on TikTok, as a collective of individuals.

Ultimately, although it was recognised that conducting a mixed method analysis would be more time consuming and more complex to carry out, the benefits of a mixed method approach ultimately outweighed the disadvantages, due to the importance of what both methods would contribute to the study.

3.2 Methodological Process for Content Analysis (Research A)

The first step in collecting data for the TikTok content analysis was to find relevant TikTok creators from the Travelling community, whose TikToks would later be analysed. Prior to this investigation, the researcher was already familiar with 10 Traveller content-creators, which is how the idea for this research was initially formed. However, in order to gather as broad a variety of Traveller creators as possible, hashtags such as #IrishTraveller, #TravellerLife and #TravellerGirl were searched to generate results from creators that hadn’t yet been considered. An extra 6 creators were generated from this list. The category and style of content from each of these creators were assessed, so that the data collected from the content would be as varied as possible. Upon considering each creator's content, 5 creators were chosen; a sufficient number for the size and nature of the study. It was decided that 10 posts from each creator would be sufficient for the analysis; a total of 50 posts altogether could provide a sufficiently varied collection of data. For a post to be relevant to this study, it must have given specific reference to the Travelling community. Each creator’s profiles were assessed, and a range of Traveller-related videos were gathered. From here, 10 Traveller-related posts were randomly selected from the range of Traveller related videos, to generate unbiased results. One chosen creator had exactly 10 Traveller related posts to be examined, however before the analysis could be conducted, 3 of said posts were deleted. This narrowed the total number of posts to be analysed down to 47 in total. Since TikTok videos are part of the platform’s public domain, it was deemed appropriate to include the names of the TikTok creators chosen throughout this study, where relevant.

Each video was then numbered, so they could be easily identified when discussing results. These 47 selected videos were then watched a minimum of 3 times to identify recurring themes that appeared in the videos, which would then be coded. It must be mentioned that while the content analysis was quantitative in its style, in order for the coding process to be carried out, themes throughout the content had to be highlighted to generate relevant codes. Extraction of relevant themes was done qualitatively, through a thematic analysis of sorts. Results and discussion from this content analysis are also discussed qualitatively, when examples from various TikToks are extracted, interpreted and discussed.

Examples of identified themes include genre, content style and topic of discussion. The coding process then began based on these recurring themes that occurred throughout the 47 videos. The codes represent answers to questions such as: Does the video mention discrimination/ stereotyping/ misconceptions? Is the content directed towards an audience from the Traveller Community (e.g as relatable content)/ audiences from outside communities/ both? What TikTok style videos were common (e.g. lip syncing, talking?) Does the video respond to a comment? Does it offer an insight into the Traveller’s life? Does it play on/ make light of elements of their culture?

It was determined that statistical findings based on forty-seven videos could collectively generate a valid answer to our research question, which would then be discussed in relation to results from the survey in Research B. A sample coding sheet is copied as an appendix at the end of this article. The codes, which indicate various words and themes from each video, were then recorded on a spreadsheet so that findings could be easily read and calculated. To minimise error, each video was then re-analysed a minimum of three times to ensure each thematic question had been answered accordingly. When all data was recorded and checked, the data was calculated to be recorded and used as findings.

3.3 Methodological Process for Qualitative Survey (Research B)

Before it was confirmed that a qualitative survey would go ahead, interviews were also considered as a means of collecting qualitative information. However, a survey was deemed more appropriate upon further consideration, as it is a more time-efficient method for both the researcher and participants. Due to this factor it was recognised that we could likely gain more willing participants and thus more information through this method.

A list of relevant questions first had to be thought up and ethics approved before this research was conducted, as it would deal with human participants. To generate these questions, the same recurring themes found in Research A were considered. In the aim that answers found throughout the survey questions in Research B would cooperate with the findings in Research A, priority was put on ensuring the questions outlined the same themes and touched on similar and relating topics.

It was important that appropriate language was used, in both the approaching of participants, explanation of the study, and in the survey questions, to ensure participants felt comfortable to answer the questions honestly. To achieve this, the purpose of the interview was made clear upon approach. It informed them of the ethics statement, what their positions and rights were as a participant and what the interview and study as a whole aimed to achieve.

The website ‘Google Forms’ was used to create the survey, and when it was created, a link was sent to the 16 identified Traveller creators, through Instagram’s direct message function. 7 out of 16 replied and agreed to participate. It was understood by all participants that their individual responses would remain anonymous; so when approaching the results, it must be kept in mind that the group of participants who took part in the survey are separate to the group whose TikTok videos were analysed.

4. Results and Discussion

4.1 Introduction

To reiterate, there are three main research questions that must be answered throughout the course of this section. Firstly, how is TikTok used as a Public Sphere by Traveller creators? What are the implications of this, and who are the audience? Secondly, what motivations exist for Travellers to self-represent their community, and how do they represent said community as a result of these motivations? Thirdly, what regimes of self-representation are exhibited overall? Throughout this section, it is the goal to navigate through the findings so that answers to these questions can be formed and that a discussion about the findings can be had. To reiterate these questions sets forth a clear vision for how the findings and results will be ordered and discussed throughout the course of this section.

4.2 Traveller Creator's use of TikTok as a "Public Sphere"

To accurately address the research question, “how do Traveller creators use TikTok as a public sphere?”, we must draw back to the discussion in the Literature Review section which discusses both Habermas’s theory of the public sphere, and Jacobs’ ideology surrounding minority groups' use of public spheres. To do this, information must be taken from our study to show how, if at all, the Travelling Community acts as a “public” on TikTok, through ”conference in an unrestricted fashion”, “freedom of assembly”, “freedom of expression of opinion about matters of general interest” in accordance with Habermas’s theory. Secondly, we must compare our results that show how the Travelling Community as a minority uses TikTok, in accordance with Jacobs’ theory, to see how well they cooperate.

Findings from Research A’s content analysis showed that Traveller creators uploaded content of various genres, used various video styles and discussed a range of different topics within the Traveller-related category. These findings fall in line with Habermas’s definition of the term. Results from Research A revealed that only two genres of content were identified: comedic videos represented 55.32%, while educational videos represented 44.68%. Styles of these videos varied between lip syncing trends (36.17%), talking style videos (51.06%), and screen recordings of other media (10.6%). This might be considered an “unrestricted fashion”, as Jacobs (2000, p.28-29) argues. While the content in this content analysis was explicitly Traveller-related, various discussions under this bracket took place. For example, some videos offered insight into various elements of Traveller culture and experience (89.36%) and some videos discussed issues of discrimination, stereotyping and misconceptions (59.57%).

Data from Research B showed similar findings when discussing Habermas’s themes that a Public Sphere can be recognised by. One of the survey questions asked participants: “What type of content do you produce?”. Answers included the following various categories: lifestyle, comedy, beauty, educational, personal, LGBT related, motherhood and fashion. While our content analysis did not examine any of the user’s videos that weren’t Traveller related, this survey question helps to fill in the blanks when we consider the extent of content being produced by these creators. From these results, it is recognised that the TikTok content produced by Travellers varies in form, style, genre and topics. These factors highlight that there is a ”conference in an unrestricted fashion”, “freedom of assembly” and “freedom of expression of opinion about matters of general interest” (Habermas, 1964, p. 54). In line with this notion, it is now recognised that TikTok is considered the ‘sphere’, and the Travelling community is considered a participating ‘public’ of that sphere, in the context of this discussion.

The main points to focus on in relation to Jacobs’ theory include the process through which minorities supposedly use the public sphere: “by constructing alternative narratives which contain different heroes and different plots'' (Jacobs, 2000 , p.28). In the content analysis, it was found that 47% of the videos were branched under the ‘educational’ category. Of these videos, 81% addressed issues relating to stereotypes, misconception or discrimination. It could be argued that these figures correlate to the author’s point regarding how minority groups turn to alternative media. If we consider why almost half of the Traveller related videos feature the users engaging in educational discussions, addressing issues such as discrimination, stereotypes and misconceptions; we see that they are repeatedly addressing an issue which they feel is important for people to made aware of. It could be argued from these results, that the frequency of such topics being discussed is an attempted change in narrative about the Traveller community, which challenges common misconceptions, dismantles stereotypes and openly disputes discrimination, in line with Jacobs’ above assertion.

It might still be asked: what implications exist for the Travelling Community who use TikTok in the context of a public sphere? Why is it relevant? Is it beneficial? If we consider the number of opportunities that exist for settled people and Travelling community members to mix and discuss issues, we quickly realise they are very limited. With this, TikTok is beneficial for the community, as they get to offer a new perspective, allowing them to meet people they would unlikely otherwise reach. It could be argued that social media has created a space for minority groups, such as the Travelling Community, to take ownership of their media representation, to an extent. The next part of this section will reveal how this representation is being reclaimed through TikTok by further examining the results from the content analysis and survey.

TikTok as a public sphere has presented the Travelling Community with the chance to change a narrative that has been outwardly imposed upon its’ members through past media representations. However, when considering the ways that the community approaches representation through TikTok, it is important to establish who the audience is. If the content was only exposed to an audience of Traveller TikTok users, it would contradict the notion that TikTok is being used for representation. It is also important to mention the sizes of the audiences in question. The videos for the analysis came from accounts whose followings were: 306.5K, 83.7K, 57.4K, 39.6K and 23.1K. The survey also asked participants their followings. Answers included were: 300K, 190K, 73.1K, 54.9K, 36.3K, 34K and 4.8K. These numbers provide context into how large the audiences reached by these videos were.

The content analysis or Research A identified that 21.3% of content was directed towards members outside the Travelling community, through themes that discussed dealing with hate, dismantling stereotypes and answering questions outside members had about the community. 21.% of videos were identified as directed towards other members of the Travelling Community, through either ‘relatable’ Traveller content, or discussion of cultural issues that online inside members of the community would understand. However, 49% of videos were more general, and couldn’t be identified as explicitly directed towards one audience or the other. This content could be consumed and equally understood by either audience.

Similarly, when survey participants were asked if they had a target audience, responses included: “women”, “I don’t have a target audience”, “anyone who watches TikTok” and “the English and Irish Community”. Results to a question about who they receive comments from also revealed information about the audiences their content reaches. 42.9% of respondents said the majority of their comments came from both communities, 42.9% said their comments came from settled people, 14.3% said their comments came from Traveller users and 14.3% said their content came from “fake accounts”.

The results seen in both researches show that the Travellers content is reaching a majority mixed audience, with more engagement from members of the settled community. This data shows that Traveller content creators on the app do, in fact, have the chance to represent their community to outside members, and are generating engagement with members of the settled community.

4.3 Motivating Factors and Representations

As Jacobs (2000, p.28) advances: “minority groups have turned to alternative publics and alternative media as a way to compensate for their exclusion from the dominant publics”. In line with this statement, it could be argued that minority groups turn to alternative publics, such as TikTok, as it benefits them more than mainstream media. Past media representations such as the newspapers discussed by Bhreatnach (1998) and reality shows such as My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding addressed by Jensen and Ringrose (2013) are examples of media that has been created by outside parties. It has been argued that, as earlier addressed in the Literature Review section, such media has contributed to biased representations of Traveller culture and has fed into certain misconceptions and stereotypes about them as a community. In the context of representation, social media platforms such as TikTok have given the Travelling Community, amongst many other minority groups, a chance to self-represent, voice their opinions, and challenge long-standing inaccurate narratives about who they are as a group. These elements create space for a deeper understanding of Traveller culture and offer a deeper insight into how discrimination affects them, presenting the community as separate and equal persons with various interests and personalities; while also granting them a platform to freely express their opinions. These observations have been made in the aftermath of the results from the conducted research. They are expanded on, with reference to both studies A and B, throughout the course of this section. Also, while some of the general motivating factors to Travellers content production have been considered here, they will be made more clearly defined as we reference back to said findings. As previously highlighted, all videos fell under either the category of comedy or education. While we discuss various topics of discussion highlighted throughout the content analysis, the impact of genre will also be considered in the realms of various discussions.

If we refer back to Ronald Jacobs’ argument of how minority groups turn to alternative media as a response to exclusion from society, due to the lack of accurate first-hand media representation of the community in the past, Travellers want to inform outside communities about the reality of their culture. One answer to the survey question which asked: “Why do you think TikTok is a positive/negative platform for Traveller creators?” said: “to educate people about our everyday lives and culture”, which suggests that it is in Traveller creators interest to give a realistic insight about Traveller culture for educational reasons.

Responses to another survey question which asked participants “Do you feel the Irish Traveller community have been misrepresented by the media? If so, how?” highlights opinions of community members on the issue. 7/7 answers said yes in response to this question. Answers included: “They only like to publish the bad side of our community”, “Travellers are stereotyped all over the media”, “We’re all painted with the same brush”, “I definitely do, but people are starting to have a more positive view of us”, “Definitely, they’ve influenced a lot of young people to believe we are all criminals and all we can think about is fighting, especially Channel 5. I think they’re obsessed with trying to create a bad image of Travellers and Gypsies”.

These answers reveal an opinion about the community’s stance on the issue. These results show that community members agree with the arguments put forward by Bhreatnach (1998) and Jensen and Ringrose (2013), that mainstream media representation of the Travelling Community hasn’t been all fair. In hypothetical terms, if the Travelling Community felt as though they had been misrepresented by the media, and were then presented with the chance to reclaim their narrative and represent themselves through an unbiased lens, it would make sense for them to take this opportunity for their own benefit. In this case, TikTok has presented them with this very opportunity, and they have been able to influence the narrative being introduced to the audiences they reach on TikTok.

An aim and common theme recognised in the content analysis and survey was that Traveller creators offered first-hand insights into elements of the Traveller culture and experience through their content. Results from the content analysis showed that 89% of videos analysed offered an insight into the Traveller experience. This was done through creation of ‘story time videos’, which gave insight into some relevant experiences and video responses to both discriminatory comments and genuine questions about Traveller culture. Interestingly, it was found that 43% of videos analysed, played on, or made light of aspects of the Traveller culture for entertainment purposes. This shows that Traveller creators were open to joking about elements of their culture to engage and attract viewers. This point will contribute to a later conversation when we discuss the regimes of representation found as a further result of the analyses.

The most common points of discussion throughout both the content analysis and the survey results were “discrimination, stereotypes and misconceptions”. The three themes were put under a collective thematic category since the lines between the three were blurred in many cases, and discussion of discrimination also related to discussion of misconceptions and stereotypes, and vice versa. Results of the content analysis revealed that 60% of videos touched on issues of discrimination, stereotypes or misconceptions about the Traveller community. However, these videos were posted in response to various factors. 46% of videos discussing such issues were in response to a discriminatory or stereotypical comment. For example, one video created by user @mandy_marie_gavin responded to a comment which wrote “there’s no such thing as a nice traveller”. In the video, Mandy disputes the comment in defence of the Travelling community: “you get what you give, and that goes for every community”. Another example taken from a video by @themacsisters said “It’s socially acceptable to be racist against Travellers”. The sisters replied to the comment by lip syncing the words to a song which said “I’m not hating I’m just telling you, I’m just trying to let you know what I’ve been through”. It was interpreted that this song was used to make an example of the comment; to reveal to the audience some of the discrimination Travellers are typically faced with.

However, other videos which discussed discrimination, misconceptions and stereotypes, were created in response to genuine questions from the outside community members about Travellers experiences with such issues. For example, @jamesglawrence posted a video response to a comment which read “Please do a vid on what words are offensive to travellers/ Irish travellers”. In his response, he discussed words that Travellers find offensive, which included “knacker” and “pikey”. He asked, “please do not use these words to address Travellers, thank you. I hope you found this video educational”.

From these results it can be recognised that through both types of comments, creators wanted to offer insight into their experiences and feelings surrounding various topics of discrimination. Creating video responses to comments which bring up issues of discrimination, stereotypes or misconceptions, allows Travellers to draw awareness to a certain point and then give their opinion and share their own first-hand experience.

In Research B, the question “What type of comments do you generally receive?” was asked to participants. 4 responses said they get a mix of good and bad comments, however the 3 other participants emphasised the extent of negative comments they receive. These responses said: “I've seen your house on the M25, pikey, tax dodgers, your house has wheels, your house has a handbrake, you steal everything, dirty gypsies”, “I get a lot (of trolling) but I just block them and remove the comments, I think you have to be a strong person but some stuff still gets to me”. A response to another survey question, which is relevant in this discussion of comments, said “I always get a sinking feeling in my heart when one of videos start to go viral, because I know the comment section is gonna be bad, and not just for me, but for other Travellers as well, especially little girls.”

Another response said: “A lot of people would call us pikeys, tinkers/robbers etc, the list is never ending. But I would mainly get called out by other Travellers, would you believe, for being my true self and filming content most Travellers would disagree with. I just love being honest and showing the Internet the way I choose to live. I myself am a Traveller and my partner isn’t, so I’m very accepting of all communities. Some people can be very racist.” It is interesting here that Traveller audiences criticise Traveller content creators for not meeting what might be understood as the “imagined core identity”. This point will be further discussed in the analysis of the regimes of representation.

Findings from the survey also showed that not only do they want to represent their community, but 85.7% of creators feel that there is pressure on them to do so. One response said: “I want to create a different and new image for people about Travellers, everyone has the same opinion on Travellers really and I want to change that”. It could be argued that with the freedom that is presented by TikTok, comes a moral obligation of sorts for Traveller creators, to defend their community by making use of a representational opportunity that was never available to them in the past.

This evidence taken from both Research A and B reveals an answer to why 60% of the videos touch on issues of discrimination. It is evident that while Travellers receive a mix of good and bad comments, from both within and outside the Travelling community, discrimination is still a huge issue that they face; an issue that cannot even be escaped online. However, unlike mainstream media, such as newspaper articles and reality television, Travellers have equal power on TikTok to respond to discrimination and dismantle stereotypes. This is done through sharing personal opinions and shedding light on their own experiences, as seen in the above examples. Power structures on TikTok are measured on how many views or followers a user has, whereas on alternative media, the power for representation is left in the hands of the journalist or production team. A large motivating factor which can be drawn from these findings, is that Traveller creators want to speak up about the injustices they face, and challenge misconceptions held about them as a community.

4.4 Considering the Regimes of Self-Representation

Now that the reasoning and motivations for Traveller’s production of TikTok content have been examined and analysed, the regimes of representation apparent within the content can be identified. As discussed in the literature review section, Siapera’s regimes of self-representation, which are loosely based on Foucault’s “regimes of truth”, recognises two perspectives through which self-representation takes form: the essentialist regime and the alternative regime. To recap, the essentialist regime comes from a more critical perspective, and assumes an “imagined core identity” for community members, that they are expected to meet and are otherwise criticised for not meeting. In contrast, the alternative regime comes from a “radically open” perspective which doesn’t shy away from, but encourages open discussion and the asking of questions surrounding the realities of cultural difference. In the case of this research, an examination of the regimes of representation that occur is conducted so that a deeper understanding of the community can be reached. Patterns that have been observed in the motivating factors and representation section will be discussed further in terms of Siapera’s regimes of self-representation.

Generally speaking, the most prevalent regime that is recognised from the content analysis and the survey results is alternative, which is more open and less critical. However, there are also elements of the essentialist regime that arise from results that are relevant to this discussion. These assertions will be deconstructed in relation to the evidence from Research A and B.

The alternative regime became clearly identified in both Research A and B. In discussion of the factors present in this regime, Siapera (2010, p. 158) mentions that the alternative regime can be achieved through creative ways of dealing with cultural differences. The content analysis revealed two separate genres, and a variety of video styles and topics, which tell us something about the regime at play. As earlier mentioned, video genres included comedic, which represented 55.32%, while educational videos represented 44.68%. Of these comedy style videos, only 34% were considered “relatable Traveller content”, or content aimed at mainly Travellers. According to this evidence, humour is commonly used as a self-representation method for the community on the platform. It could be argued here that using humour is a creative way to attract an audience. The use of humour also shows the individuality of personalities of Travellers’; a personality trait that can be recognised and appreciated by someone from any culture. This reveals a fundamental characteristic of the alternative regime of representation, creativity in displaying cultural difference, at play.

Another characteristic relative to the alternative regime as described by Siapera is the “ambiguity of representation” (ibid). An example of this was recognised in a video taken from the @themacsisters. The video is posted in response to a comment which says: “To be fair, you're the only Traveller that doesn’t look like a Traveller”. Caitlin Mac responds to the comment:

“I cannot count on both of my hands how many times I’ve gotten that... I’ve probably gotten it about a hundred times. You don’t look like a Traveller… I mean, how are we supposed to look? You don’t sound like a Traveller… most Travellers sound different! We’re not all the same person... But to each their own.”

This discussion creates a clear example surrounding the ambiguity of cultural difference. It questions the “norms'', and questions why such assumptions are in place. It could be argued that the discussion brought forth by Caitlin Mac in this video exemplifies what is meant by Siapera (2010, p.158) when she asserts: “the alternative regime poses ongoing questions... (it) contributes to the continuous reflection of identity, difference, and diversity”.

The third and final theme mentioned by Siapera in her description of how the alternative regime presents, is through the “multiplicity of perspectives/ identities/ images”. An example of this is present in a TikTok posted by @jamesglawrence. In the video, the LGBT Traveller discusses his experience of coming out as gay in the Travelling community:

“I think my bigger problem was with the stigma around being gay in the Travelling Community, reared with the idea that it’s a bad thing to be, that’s the mindset that I had for years. So then when I felt this way myself, I thought, what am I going to do about this? But then when I came out to my family it wasn’t as bad as I built it up to be in my head”.

The Travelling Community is known for holding many traditional sentiments and ideas which can, in some cases, lead to a culture of what might best be described as “toxic masculinity,” whereby the male is expected to meet certain masculine standards. Through the discussion of his experience of coming out as gay in this example, James describes how he doesn’t meet what might be considered the “imagined core identity”, explaining the pressures that came with being brought up with a mindset that being gay was a bad thing. This example is relevant to the alternative regime, because it shows a new dimension of identity within the Travelling community. James’ honesty about not meeting this “ideal” is apparent; which further points towards the alternative regime, as he is not afraid to be honest about some of the challenges and negative elements that exist within the community.

While these factors point to a generally alternative regime at play within the content, some responses explained they feel they have to be careful about what they post due to the judgements that could be made about them from audience members also from the Travelling Community. Participants responses included: “You have to act respectable no bad words and definitely no sexual chat”. “Travellers are judgemental and I have to watch what I post, if I post the wrong thing, Travellers would judge me for it etc., or if I do or say the wrong thing that’s not expected of a single Traveller girl to say or do”. Another response said “I would mainly get called out by Travellers would you believe for being my true self and filming content most Travellers would disagree with”. These responses reveal further pressures that exist for Travellers to meet the “imagined ideal” that is expected of them, and they are aware that fellow community members are part of their audience.

The point these examples draw upon is that, while the Traveller creators themselves are not posting content which can be linked to the essentialist regime of representation, they are often influenced by essentialist ideas that are enforced upon them by members of the community through the comment section, and possibly offline too. So, while they do not directly represent their community through the essentialist regime of representation, they are exposed to and influenced by these pressures.

Having considered the findings from both Research A and B, it is evident that the alternative regime best describes the ways that Traveller TikTok creators represent their community through the app. However, Traveller creators are aware of what Siapera describes as an “imagined core identity”, which is held by other Travellers. This imagined ideal sets certain expectations for how Travellers “should” behave and express themselves. As seen above in the example which discusses @JamesGLawrence’s video, not all creators allow these opinions to influence their content. However, others do. So, while the essentialist regime is not identified by the content creators in question, it does influence their content production to an extent.

Ultimately, on TikTok it is understood that influence is not measured by social class, colour, race or ethnicity. Rather, it is measured by the number of followers held by a user, or by the amount of views and likes a video gets. As many creators from Travelling backgrounds have a large number of followers, this puts them in a powerful position in the context of TikTok as a public sphere. In a sense, the power structure at play within this public sphere dismantles any ideas that power is relative to social class, background or ethnicity.

5. Conclusion

This section will evaluate the effectiveness of this study through a recap of the findings in relation to the initial research questions. As mentioned in the introduction, this study’s aim was to explore how TikTok is used as a “public sphere” by Traveller content creators, what motivations exist for Travellers creators to self-represent their community, how self-representation occurs as a result of these motivations, and what regimes of self-representation could be identified through the analysed content production. Ultimately, these questions have been answered, through the findings from the content analysis and the survey results.

The findings highlighted that TikTok is used as a public sphere by Traveller creators. This was calculated through consideration of how the content relates to both Habermas and Jacobs ideologies and theories of the “public sphere” paradigm. Findings showed that TikTok was in fact used as a public sphere, according to Habermas definition of the term. Patterns exhibited in the content revealed there was “conference in an unrestricted fashion”, “freedom of assembly”, “freedom of expression of opinion about matters of general interest”, which confirms that TikTok is used as a public sphere. Jacobs’ assertion on the public sphere which said that “minority groups turn to alternative media as a response to exclusion” (Jacobs, 2000, p.28) contributed to an interesting exploration into how this applies to the Travelling community. Ultimately, it was considered that due to the lack of accurate first-hand media representation of the community in the past, it is possible that Travellers want to inform outside communities about the reality of their culture, a desire that was evident throughout the findings.

Next, the Traveller’s motivations for content production was assessed, along with the type of self-representational content produced as a result of these motivations. Findings from the research pointed towards various motivations, however, the most prevalent included the hope to educate other communities about stereotypes and discrimination; and give a first-hand representation into the unique Traveller culture. However, it was also revealed that pressure was a motivating factor in content production, and Traveller creators felt pressure to defend and change outside communities mind’s about who they are and what they represent. In essence, this showed that Traveller creators wanted to retain their individuality in a public attempt to disprove the common stereotypes about their community.

Finally, when considering the results in terms of Siapera’s “regimes of representation” theory, the creators appeared to apply the alternative regime, which is committed to “radical openness” in discussion of cultural difference. This was seen through the commitment to engagement and generation of discourse through creative means such as through posting video responses to comments and using humour in videos in an attempt to generate discussion. However, themes evident within the “essentialist” regime of self-representation were still relevant for creators, as there was pressure to meet the “imagine core identity” that is present within the essentialist regime mindset. Failure to do this would result in criticism from other community members. Some creators revealed their disregard of these pressures when creating content, yet others revealed they succumb to them.

Ultimately, these findings give us a deeper understanding of the process of self-representation of the Travelling Community, as it occurs on TikTok. Furthermore, the findings discussed allow us to consider the possibilities of the motivations, emotions and pressures that contribute to self-representations occurring through video form on the app.

Future research into this subject might look further into the use of TikTok as a Public Sphere, and potentially how the Travelling Community’s use of this sphere compares to that of other similar ethnic minorities, for example Romany Gypsies. Further investigations might also consider analysing media from other social media platforms, such as YouTube, Instagram or Twitter, to gain a clearer insight into exactly how much self-representation occurs online through Traveller-produced content. A larger number of survey participants could also result in more insightful results for a future approach to a research project of similar focus.

Word count: 10,470 words (excluding abstract, keywords and references)


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