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Online ‘doxxing’ campaigns leading to harassment and death threats

A tactic imported from the US, personal information is published online to ‘target’ individuals who campaign against far-right groups.

This is the third of a four-part series published today and tomorrow by Noteworthy and The Journal on the growth of far-right ideology on Irish online networks, its influence and impact on real-life protests and events and the political endgame for some of its proponents.

Here, Garreth MacNamee looks at how some elements of the far right have been utilising the tactic of ‘doxxing’ to provoke followers into offline harassment and action – and hears from victims of the practice.

HARASSMENT AND DEATH threats have become a regular risk run by activists who campaign against far-right groups.

In particular, a form of online harassment known as doxxing appears to be on the rise, used as a tactic to scare critics of anti-immigrant and right-wing conspiracy theories into silence.

Over the past five months, Noteworthy and The Journal – with the help of the non-partisan online hate monitors Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) – have been tracking and investigating how far-right messaging is pervading Irish online dialogue and influencing real-life events.

One persistent tactic at work is doxxing: the weaponisation of personal information online; publishing details such as a person’s home address, workplace, family details etc. in order to inspire fear in an individual that they may be living under a very real threat.

Doxxing as a form of online harassment has been a tactic used in the US for some time, by both the radical left and the far right, though often in different ways. The left usually uses it to ‘out’ a racist social media user or campaigner to their employers or to social opprobrium as demonstrated in these examples following the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Georgia in 2017.

The far right’s intention is also to ‘expose’ their target through publication of personal data but more often in order to intensify online harassment, silence critics or – in the worst case scenario – to raise a real-life threat against that person. 

Right-wing ideologies in Ireland have gathered pace and support, especially during the past year of fear and lockdowns.

Analysis from our colleagues at the Institute of Strategic Dialogue (ISD) notes that the messaging platform Telegram has seen huge growth in far-right messaging in just over a year.

Compared to 2019, when a handful of Irish far-right channels posted just over 800 messages, in 2020, 60,377 messages were posted by 34 channels. One of these channels is dedicated to doxxing individuals it views as opponents or critics to its messaging.

It is not confined to this channel – in our interviews with victims, they have found their personal details splashed on some of the most used and viewed platforms in Ireland, including Facebook, Youtube and Twitter.

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‘These people may not have limits’

Last year, Social Democrats councillor for Galway East, Owen Hanley, took part in a counter-demonstration against anti-mask/anti-lockdown protesters who had turned up at Eyre Square. 

He said he had become aware of far-right groups operating across Galway and had become one of their targets for abuse. 

A day after the protest, a poster was mocked up and spread online, featuring the names and photographs of 20 people, describing them as “Galway’s Hate-Filled Antifa”. The poster accused those who protested against the anti-maskers of being “pro pedophilia”, “anti pro life”, “pro anarchism”, among other allegations. 

Hanley said he hasn’t spoken about the incident before as he “didn’t want to make it real”. 

He experienced threats and learned of insidious attempts to gather details about his personal life.

“It caused anxiety and fear. It made me paranoid. I have gotten stuff in the past as well including a death threat. I was taken aback. I didn’t know what to do. Thankfully it was removed from Facebook and Twitter within a few hours which was impressive. 

“It’s really concerning. My face, my name and my number are out there. I am conscious that these people might not have the same limits as other people and they might take it that bit further.

On another occasion, a far-right activist sent messages to a large number of Hanley’s councillor colleagues posing as the mayor of Galway. The sender wanted to get “personal information”, according to Hanley. 

“I have an idea about who it was but this is what you are dealing with. These are the people who want to go out and attack you because you stood up to them.”

‘People started putting up pictures of my home and my children

Fiona O’Leary is a mother of autistic children who first came into the public eye for her campaigns against “quackery” and “dangerous” treatments that claim to “cure” autism and are promoted online to desperate parents.

She told Noteworthy that she has since come to the attention of far-right elements, particularly after she gave a radio interview on a station in Cork in which she took issue with the policies of a right-wing election candidate.

On one occasion, O’Leary says, a far-right activist turned up on her doorstep.

“These people have ruined my life.

“I live my life scared now. I used to go for walks through the countryside but now I think of my safety. There needs to be greater attention from the gardaí on issues like these.”

Is anyone there to help?

The legal remedies available to victims of online doxxing are not yet extensive here. 

A positive step came on 28 December last year, when President Michael D Higgins signed off on new legislation known as Coco’s Law. 

The most striking addition Coco’s Law made to the area of harassment prosecution was to criminalise the distribution of intimate images without the person’s consent. However, what it also did was give Ireland’s harassment laws a 21st century revamp. 

Under Coco’s Law, the existing legislation was also updated in the area of harassment, broadening the scope of the offence of harassment to cover other forms of persistent communications about a person. The most serious forms of harassment will now be punishable with seven to ten years in prison. 

That said, the legislation isn’t necessarily an option for many victims of doxxing as it specifies “threatening or grossly offensive communication”. So if, in a doxxing situation, there is an accompanying and explicit threat to harm, then that may allow the victim to look for a criminal investigation. 

But in many cases, the threat that doxxing poses to its victims is implied; a provocation to others to use the personal information posted about an individual to other ends – without the original poster actually specifying what that outcome should be.

Gardai have informed Noteworthy that anyone who feels threatened by persistent online communication should contact them to make a statement and stressed that all queries will be dealt with in the strictest of confidence. 

The more public-facing of social media platforms here, Facebook and Twitter, told Noteworthy that they each have a specific policy regarding doxxing.

Facebook directed us to a section of their community standards guide which covers privacy violations. The platform states that it doesn’t allow people to share or ask for other people’s contact information – including their home address – and that threatening to share this information violates their rules. It insists that once it is made aware of doxxing content – for example, if it is reported through their ‘reporting post’ tool under ‘privacy violation’ – they can remove it.

It’s a similar story with Twitter, which told us that doxxing is a breach of Twitter rules and expressly forbidden. Again, it advises victims to report violations to them and that if Twitter agrees that a post breaches the rules, it will take “enforcement action”.

We asked Twitter and Facebook if they kept records of the number of doxxing incidents reported to them in Ireland and beyond, and to share the outcomes of those reports but no records specific to Ireland were released to us. Twitter did direct us to this report which shows the overall number of accounts suspended or posts removed in a given period but the information is a global overview.

The larger social media platforms have been grappling with the issue for years, as doxxing – in a number of formats and not just on social or messaging sites – has been a phenomenon in the US since the 1990s.

Its rise here reflects a larger picture of a far-right movement in Ireland which is taking its cues from how their ideological counterparts have been operating elsewhere.

Assistant professor of sociology at Trinity College Dublin, David Ralph told Noteworthy that the far-right in Ireland is effectively a “copy and paste” groups in the US and Europe. 

“I find that amazing. There is no reference to history or context and those ideas are copy/pasteable from one country to the next. There is nothing new that you haven’t heard from the Irish far right that you haven’t heard from AFD in Germany, for example.”

Ralph’s expertise centres around migration and how racism is able to develop and ferment over time. There are often broader social reasons as to why people might get caught up in the world of the extreme right; with one of the main reasons being the lack of exposure to diversity, according to Ralph.

The opportunism shown by far-right groupings in exploiting concerns and miscommunication around immigration and direct provision in Ireland, for example, is identified in this first piece in our project, by Cónal Thomas.

“If you look at people growing up in a homogenous society, maybe in rural areas, they are not exposed to different cultures and diversity,” said Ralph. “(And) if you have not been to third level (education) or done a lot of international travelling, then that can add to it as well.

“You put those two things together along with someone who is socially disadvantaged, then that can be a very heady sort of cocktail.”

The “heady cocktail”

George Nkencho was shot dead by gardaí in Clonee on 30 December last year. The 27-year-old’s death is the subject of a Gsoc (Garda Ombudsman) investigation.

Nkencho, who was suffering from mental health difficulties, was allegedly brandishing a knife and threatened gardaí before he was shot.

Within hours of Nkencho’s death, disinformation was rife online, with baseless allegations made against the victim and his family, including an image that claimed George Nkencho was a violent criminal with multiple convictions. This Journal FactCheck showed this allegation to be false but found that at least 2,400 accounts had shared the false claim image in the six days following the shooting. 

According to analysis by the Institute of Strategic Dialogue on ethno-nationalist/anti-immigrant channels on messaging app Telegram, there is evidence that this misinformation was spread in a calculated campaign to capitalise on the death of George Nkencho, with channels “sharing clear instructions to its members on how best to react to the shooting to stir up racial tensions, including by spreading disinformation and targeted hate”.

“The language and phraseology used by these channels is associated with US and international far-right and white supremacist ideology.”

In Telegram accounts observed by Noteworthy, George is regularly described as a “dindu nuffin” – a derogatory term for a black pderson who is the victim of police violence. This phrase, a stylised pronunciation of “didn’t do nothing”, was created in the US. 

One message posted in the aftermath of Nkencho’s death reads: 

“They have their own George Floyd now. Except this fella was way more guilty then George Floyd.   Just imagine if an Irish fella in England went on that rampage with a blade that this African did in Dublin, imagine the whole Irish community coming out to support him, no you can’t because it would never happen in a million years, good enough for him we’d say. This is racial and only racial ingroup preference you are looking at here. This is gone from us individuals, but we need to start looking at every one of these Africans as being part of the same problem because they are.”

Leon Diop is one of the spokespeople for Black and Irish, an activist group dedicated to promoting black Irish voices and calling out racism. 

He told Noteworthy: “Black and Irish was only founded in June 2020 at the height of the BLM movement. In that time, we have seen a dramatic increase in racist commentary in our country. Especially since the tragic death of George Nkencho. We saw the far right, along with many average white Irish people online, use his tragic death as reason to sow division, hate and fake news.

“The far right are actively connecting with people who are mainstream or not,” said Diop. “They did not just appear out of nowhere, they have always been around, and we have been far too slow to wake up to this reality. For too long, this feeling of ‘Ah, at least we’re not America or the UK’ has allowed these evil actors to grow in strength within the shadows.”

Diop said the longer we refuse to deny the strength of their presence, the more influential they become.

“Look how easy it was for these hateful people to spread lies and fake news about George Nkencho. Look how easy it was for many Irish people to accept those lies and fake news as fact,” he added.

Since Nkencho’s death, there has been rhetoric from right-wing commentators that west Dublin is but an African township in Dublin and that roving gangs of black teenagers, armed with machetes, are coming to kill innocent, white teenagers. 

When Noteworthy put this scenario to a source who is involved in community policing in west Dublin, they called these claims “absolute dangerous bullshit”. 

Balbriggan and the ‘African township’ ruse 

Balbriggan is a seaside town on the very edge of north Dublin. In the last 20 years, the town has seen an increase in the number of different ethnicities living there.

Since 2019, interest in the town by the far right has increased significantly. 

According to Lucy Michael, a spokeswoman for the Fingal Communities Against Racism, tensions flared when Gemma O’Doherty ran as an independent candidate in the Fingal constituency in the general election of 2020. 

O’Doherty had claimed that a “globalist agenda” was ruining Balbriggan. 

Online accounts started to describe Balbriggan as “an African township” and a “no-go area for whites”.

Videos were shared online showing fights between local groups of teenagers in Balbriggan. The clips purport to show “black gangs” – a phrase often mentioned by the uploaders – but, in fact, they are groups, both black and white, who have been part of alleged anti-social behaviour in the town.  

As reported in TheJournal in September last year, an electrical fire in a house in Balbriggan was used by far-right groups to spread misinformation about the black community in the town. 

Conspiracy theories blamed the house fire on “African gangs” and even claimed a drug dealer lived at the house. Both claims were completely false.  

But Michael explained how, within hours of the fire, a video mixing together clips of anti-social behaviour and the house fire were being shared on social media. 

“There was someone there – ready to mix together these clips with the single goal of blaming the black community. It was up and online that same day and this is shared on WhatsApp and other social media and becomes the rumour,” she explained.

Incidents such as these create the false narrative that white Irish people are a minority in Balbriggan. But the town does have its problem with anti-social behaviour – something its local activists do not shy away from. 

Speaking to Noteworthy, John Uwhumiakpor said there is unacceptable behaviour in the town but that it is being carried out by a cross-section of people, and not an issue solely for the black community. 

A man was convicted last month of racially abusing Uwhumiakpor, who ran as a People Before Profit candidate, in January 2020.

Prior to the incident, his campaign poster had been used in an online video as “evidence” of “a globalist agenda” in Ireland. 

And racist commentary such as this post featuring Uwhumiakpor began appearing on numerous accounts online:

Uwhumiakpor says that his photo, and not that of any other election candidate in the area, was used for a specific reason.

“I think it’s so important that people see that, yes, there is unacceptable behaviour from the teenagers but this is from both sides. It is not just the African teenager or the gangs as people call them. They are teenagers.”

Far right here ‘replicating’ US and UK campaigns

Shane O’Curry is the director of the Irish Network Against Racism (INAR). The work of the NGO means that O’Curry is at the coalface of the fight against racism. 

For O’Curry, he believes the political upheaval following the Brexit result and the election of Donald Trump in 2016 “emboldened” the Irish far right and gave it the impetus to forge its own path in Ireland. 

“We saw these results and the rhetoric surrounding both the campaigns spilling over into Ireland. I think it had such a big reaction here because the US and the UK are similar to us in language and culture. We saw the far right here replicating the campaigns in these countries.”

The copycat behaviour also included social media. Message boards on Reddit and 4Chan had their own Irish far-right sections, Telegram was fast becoming the messaging system hardcore white ethno-nationalist groups. The entire subculture, with its own memes and toxic tactics, had arrived in Ireland – and included doxxing. 

“They started going after people they did not agree with,” said O’Curry. “The far-right grifters, the ones with the blogs and the followers, they were smart enough not to say anything too outrageous or overtly racist – they instead gave their followers a target and let them do the dirty work.”

Screenshot 2021-03-12 at 4.16.34 PM Shane O'Curry, Director of the Irish Network Against Racism (INAR), who has experienced doxxing as well as observing its impact on others. Source: INAR

O’Curry soon found himself the victim of doxxing and received death threats which worried him so much that he went to the gardaí. 

“I get named in various forums. I have appeared on different lists created by people. I have been named in real-life meetings.  

“I have had threats – both direct and indirect, some of which I considered passed the threshold to contact the gardaí.

“I know one of the doxxings of me was on a document that was circulated through several social media mediums – it was shared in Facebook groups – it may have been shared in a Reddit group – it may have been shared in a Telegram group – my name, some of the activities I am associated with.”

What these doxxings did, according to O’Curry, was to point the finger at him to be a target of right-wing abuse.  

While the doxxing concerned him originally, it was the ease with which people would discuss killing him that made the activist fear for his own safety. 

As a result of the harassment, O’Curry brought in a security consultant to his workplace.  There are now providers in place to ensure the safety of all those who work in the building. 

 

***

O’Curry feels that proper garda responses must be set up to deal with the “very real threat from the far right”. 

For O’Curry, it’s easy: “You don’t make a martyr of them – you make a fool of them.”

Galway councillor Owen Hanley, who has received death threats online, said there needs to be greater accountability both by social media firms as well as those who use the platforms. 

“I think I was one of the fortunate ones. The post which was put up, the one with my face accusing me of being ‘pro-pedohilia’, that was taken down within a few hours which I was really surprised by. 

“I don’t know if that was an anomaly or it’s because I am a local representative; I know of other people who have had terrible experiences and awful things written about them and it stays up. I think there needs to be real action on issues like these and just talking about it.” 

Lucy Michael of Fingal Communities Against Racism referred to the family at the centre of the house fire in Balbriggan who had to go into hiding due to fears for their safety after far-right groups created the narrative that a drug dealer had been living at the house and that it was started maliciously. 

“Within two hours of the fire on the 9th, somebody in a far-right group had stitched together a video of kids fighting with an image of a fire. Someone video edited that together within two hours. They have a strategy ready to go.” 

John Uwhumiakpor says: “It is something that needs to be changed. You can not have one person say this and that it stays online even if it is a lie. We need to be able to say ‘no’ this is not acceptable anymore.”  

Eyes Right Reverse

***

This investigation was carried out by investigative platform Noteworthy and our colleagues at The Journal.

The idea for this investigation was proposed and funded by you, our readers, as well as with support from the Noteworthy general fund to cover additional costs.

You can support our work by submitting an idea, funding for a particular proposal or setting up a monthly contribution to our general investigative fund HERE>>

  • Special thanks to Aoife Gallagher and Ciarán O’Connor of the Institute of Strategic Dialogue for their assistance in tracking far-right content online across this EYES RIGHT project.

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