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'The Infodemic': Ireland's weak far-right hopes to gain from online conspiracies and misinformation

Fringe groups are feeding off public frustration and misinformation.

Image: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

A SMALL BUT animated network of Irish far-right groups is using the pandemic to try to recruit members.

Some are attempting to import the language of American conspiracy theory movements to boost their own profiles and mobilise otherwise politically apathetic people via mainstream social media platforms.

Experts have warned that the pandemic and public anger with the government’s public health restrictions has provided a fertile breeding ground for the spread of certain outlandish conspiracy theories, which help to drive far-right narratives.

A spate of recent anti-lockdown demonstrations in Dublin, one of which ended in violence, has highlighted the gradual growth of their street presence in recent months.

Most people attending these actions are probably not aware of the links — many are motivated by a sense of frustration with the current measures and the government’s handling of the pandemic.

Undoubtedly, however, some fringe groups are feeding off that frustration and even stoking it with both explicit and wink-and-nod gestures towards increasingly popular conspiracy theories.

Last Saturday, two separate protests organised by activists with links to different groups, took place in the capital.

One — outside the Dáil — was orchestrated by individuals connected to the National Party. Arising from that, Gardaí are investigating an assault on a counter-protestor, who was photographed with a head injury after an alleged attack with a weapon wrapped in a tricolour.

The other protest was organised and attended by members of Yellow Vests Ireland which, while avowedly apolitical, has close links to members of another small, right-wing group: the Irish Freedom Party.

‘Infodemic’

Across the globe, the pandemic has brought with it a crisis of an altogether different variety: what the World Health Organisation is calling an ‘Infodemic’.

From March to September, TheJournal.ie debunked or examined 110 claims about the virus. These claims spread via social media; thorough WhatsApp messages, Facebook videos and tweets.

Many people spread the misinformation unwittingly, sending what they thought were helpful, factual statements to family and friends.

But in many cases, the far-right has directly benefited from the confusion and the anger fueled by false claims and also by legitimate public frustration with government-imposed public health restrictions.

Joe Galvin, director of news at international news agency Storyful, has traced the rise of conspiracy theories globally in recent years and how they are used to boost far-right narratives.

“What we’ve seen I think internationally in the last few months is the growth in misinformation and conspiracy, particularly around the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s offered a fertile breeding ground for the far-right recruitment process,” Galvin says.

It’s interesting because their goal isn’t to recruit everyone. What they’re interested in is recruiting a small group of like-minded individuals and these public events are a way of getting to those people.”

In April, Far-Right Observatory, an informal cadre of anti-racist activists who monitor far-right activities in Ireland, noted in a post on Medium that certain conspiracy theorists with links to the right-wing groups in Ireland had started to push the idea of a ‘plandemic’.

The basic idea, the post explained, is that “the pandemic is real, but also is part of a plan of social control by Big Government or Bill Gates or take your pick”.

“Those things are gaining prominence internationally and in Ireland too,” Galvin says, “and there’s not a lot of creativity here. It’s the same far-right talking points that are used in every other country.

The commonalities between what we see in the States and the UK, Germany, Australia, everywhere… the overlap is almost total. It’s a very narrow kind of field of conspiracies but one that undoubtedly has a global reach of millions and millions of people.

Conspiracy theories about the systematic replacement of Irish people by migrants, the presence of ‘Satanic paedophile cults’ within elite establishment circles and general misinformation about the pandemic have flourished online in recent months.

And wherever these narratives stir up enough anger to get people onto the streets, the Irish far-right is never far behind.

‘Cultural distancing’

The smaller of last Saturday’s protests took place outside the Dáil. It was organised by people with close links to the National Party.

One of them is Waterford native Michael O’Keeffe, who spoke at the protest.

Although he has denied that the National Party were involved in organising the demonstration, O’Keeffe himself has links with the group.

O’Keeffe has supported the party on Twitter, retweeting recruitment drives, and has repeatedly shared its talking points. At the time of writing, he had a National Party slogan, ‘Ireland belongs to the Irish’, pinned at the top of his Twitter profile.

O'Keeffe

In a YouTube video posted last Friday, O’Keeffe said last Saturday’s protest at the Dáil was a “protest against these lockdown measures — everything lockdown-related we have an issue with; masks, social distancing, what’s going on in the nursing homes, what’s going on in the schools, airports that have been open. All of it.

“It’s being organised by people like myself and others,” he said, “the same people who organised the March for Innocence.”

Yesterday, he tweeted about “the next Nationalist anti-lockdown protest”, which he said, “has been organised”.

The National Party is a minor party, which joined the register of political parties in 2019. It was founded by its current leader Justin Barrett, a former activist with Youth Defence. He left the ultra-conservative Catholic anti-abortion grouping in 2004.

During his time at Youth Defence, he was involved in the Vote No campaign ahead of the Nice Treaty referendum. In October 2002, the Irish Times and the Guardian reported that Barrett attended conferences in Bavaria and Milan organised by the far-right, ultra-nationalist German National Democratic Party and Italian Forza Nuova party.

At the time he claimed he was not aware the NDP and Forza Nuova were widely regarded as racist, anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi organisations.

The Irish National Party supports the reintroduction of the death penalty for some crimes, opposes “unrestricted” immigration and recently on Twitter called for “cultural distancing” between racial groups in Ireland.

It ran 10 candidates in the general election earlier this year, none of whom were successful.

The party received around 4,800 votes in total, 0.22% of the national vote.

In a video that characterises Ireland as “a nation under attack”, some of its representatives have described diversity as a “weapon” for the “total and utter eradication of us as a sovereign people”, comparing immigration to the plantations of the 16th Century in Ireland.

This language bears strong similarities to that of the ‘Great Replacement’ narrative, a white nationalist, far-right conspiracy theory.

Although never explicitly used by the Nationalist Party or its members, Galvin says the Great Replacement idea is “gaining traction in Ireland” as one of the more “extreme”, faceless theories floating around the internet.

“There’s a lot of discussion about [the Great Replacement theory] on forums by increasingly large numbers of people. Now, we’re still talking about hundreds as opposed to thousands of people but still, that’s hundreds of people discussing quite extreme racist ideologies,” he explained.

According to this theory, the white American and European populations are being systematically ‘replaced’ by non-whites through policies developed by global liberal elites. For context, the Auckland mosque shooter, who killed 51 people last year, named his manifesto ‘The Great Replacement’.

The National Party, Barrett or O’Keeffe say they do not support violent attacks in Ireland. O’Keeffe, speaking before last Saturday’s event said, “We are a peaceful movement, we do not encourage or want to engage in violence, but we will defend ourselves if violence is forced upon us.”

Satanic paedophile rings

The so-called March for Innocence, mentioned in O’Keeffe’s YouTube video, took place in Dublin in July.

Inspired by an online campaign led by anonymous accounts, the protestors called for the resignation of Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman, who they falsely accused of being an apologist for paedophiles.

Justin Barrett, one of the main speakers at the event, labelled O’Gorman a “paedophile apologist” during his speech. He and other members of the National Party were pictured holding banners with images of nooses outside the Dáil at the demonstration.

Nooses National Party leader Justin Barrett (second from left) at the 'March for Innocence' Source: Sasko Lazarov; Farrell

The National Party also released a statement calling for O’Gorman to resign, calling “him unsuitable for the office of Minister for Children”.

In his own statement at the time, O’Gorman said the baseless online allegations — which later included claims that he shared Satanic images depicting the cannibalism of children — were “rooted in homophobia, stoked by anonymous, far-right Twitter accounts”.

The language of the campaign against O’Gorman, which is ongoing, is clearly inspired by American conspiracy narratives around child sex trafficking.

In the US, Joe Galvin says that paedophilia “became a huge cause célebre” in the wake of the Jeffrey Epstein scandal.

But what “really kicked off the idea of Satanic paedophile cults” was ‘Pizzagate’, which started as a theory among Trump supporters on the 4Chan and 8Chan platforms in 2016 in the run-up to the last US general election.

The basic and utterly unfounded idea, he says, was “that a satanic cabal of paedophiles was being run out of the basement of pizza joints in New Jersey and Brooklyn. That was the original breeding ground I think.

“Without Pizzagate you probably wouldn’t have had QAnon. It spawned a kind of very wide range of subculture of conspiracies. The network being used in those days was 4chan and 8Chan. They were the breeding ground for discussion around these conspiracies. A lot of radicalisation took place on those two platforms.”

QAnon is shorthand for a web of far-right conspiracy theories, at the heart of which is the belief that a network of Satan-worshipping paedophiles exists at the centre of global power.

In America, its adherents believe that Donald Trump is waging a secret war against this Satanist cabal. But instead of playing down or debunking the outlandish narrative, Trump has praised QAnon followers.

When it was put to him at a press briefing in August, Trump said, “If I can help save the world from problems, I’m willing to do it; I’m willing to put myself out there, and we are, actually.

“We’re saving the world from a radical left philosophy that will destroy this country and when this country is gone, the rest of the world will follow.”

‘Save the Children’ rallies have been a common rallying point for QAnon supporters in the US.

Galvin explains, “QAnon again was an American-focused conspiracy but it has become global. I live in Greystones and I was driving out through Bray recently and graffitied on a wall was ‘Where we go one, we go all’ — QAnon graffiti — which is not something you expect to see in Bray.”

Organisers of the March for Innocence and last Saturday’s Dáil protest have been at pains to show that they are peaceful and non-confrontational.

The language used to describe the reasons for last weekend’s protest at the Dáil was quite vague and relatively tame. Posters for the march depicted Michael Collins delivering a speech with the slogans “#EnoughisEnough,” “#OpenthePubs” and “#OpenIreland”.

Traditionally, far-right demos in the capital and elsewhere in the country have been met with counter-protests by anti-fascist and anti-racist activists. This has, on occasions, led to clashes between the two sides.

But speaking before the event, O’Keeffe said, “In terms of the counter-protests, there will be adequate measures, put in place to ensure that violence doesn’t occur.”

Some attendees at the Saturday’s Dáil demonstration were pictured wearing armbands that held mocked up “Antifa hunting” permits, similar to ones seen at rallies in the US by members of the fascist Proud Boys group.

Last Saturday’s protest outside the Dáil descended into violence at one point when a small group of counter-protestors demonstrated nearby.

One anti-fascist protestor, long-time activist Izzy Kamikaze, was pictured with blood streaming from her head after the demonstration, following an alleged attack with a weapon wrapped in a tricolour. Gardaí are investigating the incident.

A mish-mash of viewpoints

Sometimes it’s less clear who is organising these events ahead of time and it’s obvious that many people who attend are unaware of the politics of the people behind the megaphone – understandably given the vague and obtuse nature of the advertisements for them.

Actor John Connors found that out the hard way.

He attended the ‘March for Innocence’ in July but later apologised, saying that his own “misguided anger led [him] to feed an army of… support groups whose views I find repugnant, whose politics are rotten and whose methods are ugly”.

The various protests held in similar locations on the same day also make it difficult for people drawn to anti-government messages to discern the exact nature or purpose of the rallies. 

Some 2,000 additional protestors attended last Saturday’s other anti-mask demonstration, organised by a group called Yellow Vests Ireland, a loose network of activists that developed through Facebook groups.

Its main organisers, like activist Glen Miller, have said that the group is apolitical and anti-racist and that it’s neither left nor right, representing a mish-mash of viewpoints.

Miller has described his own politics as “majority politics – so basically, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”.

Signs displayed at their protests since 2018 have railed against everything from political corruption to the fluoridation of water and the vaccine given to teenage girls to prevent HPV.

Around 2,000 protestors attended the peaceful demonstration on Saturday, meeting at the Customs House before moving through the city centre. Along the way, around 700 or 800 demonstrators stopped outside the offices of TheJournal.ie on Golden Lane to protest factchecking of false claims around the pandemic.

  • TheJournal.ie has been covering the activities of the far-right as groups have tried to increase their support in a similar manner following local community concerns about Direct Provision centres and anti-social behaviour in other parts of the country. To support this type of journalism, become a regular contributor here

They eventually moved onto Government Buildings.

A video of the protest, including speeches made by Miller, posted on the group’s Facebook page includes the caveat, “Some of the views and opinions expressed by individual speakers in this post do not coincide with those of Yellow Vest Ireland and its followers.”

But the march included a colour party, fronted by Niall McConnell of a tiny ultra-Catholic faction called Síol na hEireann, or ‘the Irish Patriots’.

McConnell, a sheep farmer from Castlefin, Co Donegal, ran as an independent in his home constituency in the general election earlier this year. He received just 500 votes and told local news website Donegal News that he was “perplexed” that people had labelled him a fascist, which he called “ridiculous” and said he was against violence.

In an interview with the same outlet before the election, McConnell used a homophobic slur to describe then-Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

Despite wrapping itself in the language and aesthetics of Irish republicanism, that group has a friendly relationship with Scottish loyalist Jim Dowson, himself a close confidant of British fascist Nick Griffin, former leader of the British National Party.

According to The Times of London, Dowson — who founded the extremist British group Britain First before leaving it in 2014 — is a former Orange Order flute player whose family are from County Cavan.

In a video posted after Saturday’s march, Dowson told Griffin that he was a “bit unsure” of the Yellow Vests.

He said that when he heard his “good friends, Síol na hEireann, run by a guy called Niall McConnell, a fellow Ulsterman” were going to be at the Yellow Vest demonstration he was “concerned” because he’s not sure where they stand.

Dowson praised McConnell for his speech, delivered outside the offices of TheJournal.ie, which railed against the “fake news Irish media” for “pumping anti-Irish Marxist, communist rhetoric” and “LGBT propaganda”.

In a video taken on the day, a woman in a yellow high-vis vest is seen reprimanding him for this last comment, calling McConnell’s name and shaking her head at him.

Dowson praised McConnell because he said he showed the Yellow Vests up as being wishy-washy liberals.

Speaking separately on Golden Lane was Ben Gilroy.

Although the Yellow Vests are “leaderless”, Gilroy is one of their leading lights. He was in at the ground floor of the Irish incarnation of the Yellow Vest ‘movement’ and read out its demands at the group’s first protest in December 2018.

Speaking at the protest last Saturday on Golden Lane, Yellow Vest organiser Miller described Gilroy as “our own Ben Gilroy” and said that “he is my voice because I’m useless at speaking in public”.

Gilroy is a self described anti-eviction campaigner, well known in legal circles for the numerous cases he has taken cases against banks, due to a history of frivolous and vexatious complaints.

In 2018, High Court judge Robert Haughton actually banned Gilroy from taking certain legal actions against AIB and from “advising, participating in, assisting or otherwise engaging in litigation in any court in the State in a representative capacity on behalf of others”.

Reporting on the case, The Phoenix Magazine said at the time, “The issue of Gilroy’s finances also came in for some special mention from Haughton, who found that bolshy Ben was being ‘dishonest when he indicated he was without income’.

He noted that Judge Brian McGovern had previously forwarded a transcript of a related High Court hearing to the Revenue and the DPP, based on anomalies between information provided when Gilroy sought free legal aid and when the activist was ordered to do community service.

The judge in that case also said that Gilroy ‘is probably in receipt of remuneration… in respect of his activities as a trustee’ in something called the Morrigan Private Settlement Trust.

‘Football hooligans’

In 2010, Gilroy helped to set up a party called Direct Democracy Ireland but resigned as leader in 2014.

He has run, unsuccessfully, for the Dáil on three occasions and for the European Parliament twice.

In the general election earlier this year, he ran as a candidate for the tiny Irish Freedom Party in Dublin Bay North, mustering just 1.08% of the vote. In fact, the party ran a total of 11 unsuccessful candidates in February, pulling in just 0.25% of the national vote.

Gilroy’s candidacy for the Irish Freedom Party, also known as the Irexit Freedom Party, put him firmly on the far-right of the Irish political landscape.

Founded by Nigel Farage’s former advisor Hermann Kelly in 2016, the minor party’s raison d’etre is arguably to agitate for an Irish exit (‘Irexit) from the European Union.

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Although it has organised some events, The Irish Freedom Party mainly exists online.

Like the National Party, it has also been associated with ‘the Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory.

As reported by the Irish Times last year, Kelly appeared in a YouTube video with Dowson in which he claimed,” The first thing they want to do is kill Irish kids and [they] want to replace them with every nationality who wants to come into our country.”

Elsewhere, Kelly has tweeted that, “it looks like those talking about a Great Replacement in Ireland have a point”.

Outlandish conspiracy theories

Since the start of the pandemic, figures associated with the Irish Freedom Party have spread misinformation about the virus, culminating in a series of anti-mask, anti-lockdown marches in recent weeks.

The party’s chairperson, Professor Dolores Cahill, made a number of false statements about the virus in a YouTube interview in May.

In the video, she claimed that people will have “hardly any symptoms” if they get the virus once they have been eating healthily and taking vitamins C and D along with zinc. She also said that there is no need for a vaccine for Covid-19.

The video was widely shared before YouTube and Facebook took it down after it was debunked by US science website Health Feedback.

Separately, a Facebook page, which publishes many of Ben Gilroy’s videos has also been churning out outlandish conspiracy theories since the start of the pandemic.

Billionaire Microsoft founder Bill Gates features in many of the videos published on the page, a figure who features prominently in a lot of the conspiracy theories doing the rounds online since the start of the pandemic.

He is accused of everything from trying push for “enforced government vaccinations” as a method of population control to being influenced by Nazi eugenics programmes.

One video shared by the page, titled ‘How they pulled off the pandemic’, claims that a cult, which is “driving the direction of the world… wanted and needed a Covid-19 crisis” and chose Italy as ground zero.

The video also claims that public health officials admitted that they were “generous” in blaming the virus for deaths in Italy. In reality, the video says, “99% of people who died from Covid-19 had one or more other morbidities” causing their death.

It claims that the media then used this hysteria “to frighten the hell” out of people.

A vast network

The conditions that allowed for the proliferation of far-right groups over the past decade are related to those that have allowed for the rise of conspiracy theories and their spread across the internet.

Worsening economic inequality and hardship caused by the post-2008 recession followed by years of austerity politics saw a number of extreme right-wing parties gain traction in Europe.

According to a 2018 study of data from 16 European Countries, published in the journal Economic Policy, the rise of far-right populism was “importantly influenced… by positional deprivation”, in other words, “how much a person’s growth in disposable household income is outpaced by that of others in his or her country”.

It was also influenced by positional inequality or “the extent to which a country has its wealthier citizens experience more growth in disposable household income than do poorer citizens”.

Although they have fed off the same narratives as their European and American counterparts, Irish far-right groups have found it very difficult to gain a foothold here and they remain small, ineffectual and divided.

Conspiracy theories and misinformation shared online are helping them boost their profiles, however.

Joe Galvin says that in Ireland, we often believe the population as being immune to global trends.

“We always see ourselves as kind of outside, as different. I think there is that perception and that’s just not the case. We need to be mindful that these conspiracy theories can take root quite rapidly, they can spread quite rapidly.”

The last 10 years, he says, has seen young, disaffected men across the globe radicalised online through “closed” and “semi-closed” forums on the internet.

Increasingly, conspiracy theories are being shared on more mainstream social media platforms like Facebook.

The issue we are dealing with is that the platforms themselves really aren’t in control of their own platforms; that they find it very difficult to tackle the volume of misinformation that’s being shared — or even just knowing what to do when misinformation is shared.

“Often by the time they make a decision on it, it’s too late.”

In this context, he says that Irish politicians are in a “uniquely privileged position to have a big impact on [misinformation], mainly because the European headquarters of all the major social media platforms are here in Ireland”.

“It’s not something perhaps we’ve made the most out of from a policy perspective or a government perspective… but policy decisions made here in Ireland can have a major impact on the platforms.

“It’s all our jobs,” he says, “to highlight the abuses and put pressure on our own government to do something about it.” 

  • Reporters from TheJournal.ie and its colleagues at Noteworthy.ie are teaming up on a project to conduct further investigations in the influence far right groupings are having online in Ireland – and who exactly is funding their activity.

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