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A protest outside Finglas Garda Station last month. RollingNews.ie
THE MORNING LEAD

'It's relentless': The toll of online abuse on community groups supporting asylum seekers

One local activist told The Journal that some of what is being said is “intimidation and just outright lies”.

LOCAL COMMUNITY GROUPS that have voiced their support for refugees and asylum seekers in their areas are receiving frequent abusive and threatening messages online in the wake of recent anti-migrant protests. 

The protests have become more frequent in the last six months, with greater numbers in attendance and dangerous rhetoric being used both at the protests and online, where they are often livestreamed.

The protests have been attended by members of already established far right groups, local residents, and what anti-racism demonstrators call “outside agitators” who recruit fellow protestors via social media.

Last month, a protest in Finglas attended by around 200 people saw one speaker claim that the only way to “deal” with asylum seekers was to “burn them out”.

It came after erroneous claims were made by right-wing groups online that a migrant was involved in assaulting a woman in the Finglas area. Gardaí later issued a statement saying they were “aware of a significant volume of misinformation and disinformation in circulation with regards to this ongoing investigation”.

Days after this protest was held, a prominent anti-refugee campaigner, Graham Carey, was charged with incitement to hatred over online posts made that were alleged to be threatening, abusive or insulting and that were intended to stir up hatred.

Rhetoric has been frequent on social media as the protests have continued, with disinformation being widely shared and hateful comments directed at community groups and activists working to support asylum seekers in their areas.

The Journal has debunked several claims made in relation to asylum seekers, including claims that a row of buses which appeared in a video shared online showed “5 bus loads of migrants in Santry/Ballymun”, and that a leaflet telling “girls” to stay indoors was distributed by the Irish government and the Irish Centre for Diversity.

People Before Profit activist Conor Reddy was involved in planning events in Ballymun to inform the community in the wake of protests taking place outside centres where refugees and asylum seekers are being housed.

He has frequently spoken out against the protests on social media and as a result, he said his name has been mentioned at some that have taken place in Finglas and Ballymun.

He told The Journal that the negative online messages he receives are “relentless”.

“I think pretty much everybody who has come out with a message against the protests or a message that asylum seekers are welcome, we’ve all faced some level of blowback.”

‘Intimidation and outright lies’

Reddy said the comments he receives range from those repeating the “Ireland is full” hashtag used by some on Twitter, to repeating known conspiracy theories about the systematic replacement of Irish people by asylum seekers.

“I’ve gotten quite a lot of messages personally directed at me, DMs on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, where people will make all sorts of allegations,” he said, adding that this was mostly “intimidation and just outright lies”.

“They call me a paedophile or a paedophile apologist. I’ve had a couple of threats on Twitter, a couple of people have said different things. One lad told me last week not to go anywhere near Dublin 1. Another person told me that I’d want to be very careful next time I come into the area that he’s from.

“There was one guy who I was engaging with at first. I thought he had some genuine concerns, he was talking about housing. So I gave him the benefit of the doubt and after a couple of days, he became completely unreasonable.

I think I must have gotten 500 messages from him.

“I’d seen the messages come in for weeks after and the same thing, alleging that I support paedophiles, that we’d be wiped out, that we’re on the wrong side of history and implying all sorts about me personally and then about the party that I’m in.”

Reddy said it’s very easy to be “sucked in” when you’re receiving a stream of negative comments online.

“It kind of sets the tone and it knocks the confidence of people that might otherwise support you. I would actually try to sometimes respond to what these people were saying and to try to dispel some of the rumours and myths that are circulating, and that’s jading, you get really tired really quickly,” he said.

“It had a little bit of an impact on me for a while, I wasn’t in the best of moods. It kind of keeps you up at night but I’m not scared based on what I got. Although there are people I know that have gotten much more serious abuse than me that have been scared, that have been intimidated by this stuff.”

He said it’s important to keep engaging with local communities on the matter despite the negative rhetoric. 

“We took the approach that we should actually be out talking to people. I think it’s important in these types of moments to be visible, not just to confine your activity to the online world,” he said.

“You want to want to talk to people and see where they’re really at and I think you’re far better equipped to challenge misinformation when you’re face-to-face with someone and they can see that you’re a real person. Those interactions usually go better.”

Having gone door-to-door in Ballymun following the initial protests, he said he found that the majority of people did not support them.

“I’ve gotten loads of messages online and heard loads of stuff from people in the real world supporting what we’re doing.

“There have been a lot of people who’ve been impressed and who felt that because we’ve spoken out, that they can speak out too, so it’s giving confidence to that silent majority that are opposed to the protests and always have been.”

‘Background noise’

Paddy O’Dea, who is involved with the East Wall Here For All community group, told The Journal that what he sees directed at the group online is just “background noise”.

“Our starting point is to not engage with the negativity. We’re trying to just focus on the positives and what we’re trying to do, which is share this message of solidarity as opposed to picking fights, because I don’t think you’re ever going to win those fights,” he said.

“In terms of individuals in the group, yes, some people have come in and have taken some abuse. Generally, we just don’t engage with it and usually it runs its course or it runs out of steam.

Personally, and I can only speak for myself, you know it’s there but you don’t give it too much credence.

“There’s so much positivity coming back, which is really nice to see as well, and so many people who are very receptive and positive about what’s been done. So, I think that’s out there, too. Really, if you go looking for this sort of abuse, you’ll find it, but if you just focus on what we’re doing, I think that’s certainly a more positive way to go about it.”

O’Dea said the most common claim he has seen directed at the group online is that it was being funded by NGOs, and that those involved in the group were not from East Wall.

“It isn’t true. It’s as simple as that. It’s just not true. I live in East Wall. Everyone in the group lives in East Wall or in North Strand or in Ballybough, they’re all within a stone’s throw. There is no political parties involved in the group, we’ve made that clear from the start.

“That’s certainly been something that’s been thrown at us, that we’re funded by NGOs. We get no funding. We give up our free time, and we’re more than happy to do that.”

Hazel de Nortúin, a People Before Profit councillor for Ballyfermot-Drimnagh, has also had negative and threatening comments directed at her on social media.

She told The Journal that in January, things were “very intense” online whenever she would share posts in relation to community group Drimnagh For All.

“That’s when it was very localised and it wasn’t just anonymous. These were people in the community, men, saying: ‘I can’t wait until you knock at my door, I’m going to tell you exactly what I think about you’.”

‘Free-for-all’ online

She said there is a “free-for-all” on social media when it comes to abuse and threats directed at politicians and local councillors, including herself. 

“The latest was the colour of skin of my kids. Because my kids are white, they asked could I not find a sperm donor of colour? They can’t get me, they can’t get my politics, so they just try and go for someone that’s close to you.

“After that time when [protesters] went to Vincent Jackson’s house, you got some back and forth and it was more broad to attack anyone that was standing up, but there was one that said: ‘don’t worry, we’re coming to your house next’.

“I just deleted comments out of reaction and blocked and then eventually ended up deleting the thread because there was just so much hate being thrown on it.

I didn’t feel like they were emboldened to come up to my home, but it kind of becomes normalised… There was threats of physical attack and lucky enough nothing came of it.

Last month, a group of female TDs held a meeting with Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl to discuss their safety and security.

De Nortúin said there is a national conversation to be had about making politics a safer place for public representatives. She said she will be raising the issue with her party in the near future. 

“The party should be looking together to see what we can do to support younger women to get into politics, travellers, those from ethnic minorities, what are the steps that we should all be doing to make that a safer space?

“I don’t condone violence in anyone’s workspace, but [public opinion] just seems to be ‘well, if you put yourself out there, then that’s what you’re expecting and just deal with it’.”

She also said social media companies must improve at combating abusive or threatening content from their platforms.

“You do need Government to be challenging these companies and I just don’t think the current government want to rock the boat,” she said.

“But you just have to be a bit more assertive with the companies for the sake of society. There’s enough violence out there anyway, and they need to be addressing that. There shouldn’t be any room there for ifs, buts or maybes, it should just be done.”

Asked whether it impacts her role as a local councillor, De Nortúin said it is “outside of her realm”, but it does have an effect. 

“I can’t control it. All I can do is do my job for the amount of time that I can do it, and if I do feel that if it gets too toxic, if it gets too dangerous, then I’ll have to evaluate it and see where I want to go from there.”

She said that she doesn’t see many local representatives pursuing a long career in politics going forward “because of the toxicity around it”.

“If you are lucky enough to get elected, I don’t know if it’s something that you could sustain at the level of hate that’s there.”

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