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Opinion: People seeking absolutes in times of uncertainty are falling for conspiracies online

Disinformation analyst Ciaran O’Connor says extremist groups online are offering simple answers to complex questions at a time when many people are frustrated.

Ciaran O'Connor

CROWDS OF PEOPLE recently marched through Dublin in an anti-mask rally that saw a series of speeches outside Leinster House, a demonstration outside the offices of TheJournal.ie and reports of an assault on a counter-protester on Kildare Street.

The protest was responding to TheJournal.ie‘s recent fact-checking work in relation to Covid-19 misinformation.

The rally was organised by anti-government protest group Yellow Vest Ireland, though some members of nationalist groups like the National Party and Síol na hÉireann helped to lead the march and spoke outside the Dáil.

Like previous anti-mask and anti-lockdown protests in Ireland and further afield, much of the planning for this rally took place on social media.

The mask issue

Those who attended believe face masks don’t work or have wider concerns about the effects of continued restrictions across the country. Such beliefs usually stem from genuine places of anxiety.

For months, we have all been living through a highly stressful time where public health guidelines have evolved and we’ve faced conflicting information from official institutions, including on the effectiveness of masks in protecting us and others against the virus.

With increased time spent online since the outbreak, people have looked for information that offers explanations to their questions about the pandemic.

However, in echo chambers online (where we hear only opinions similar to our own), the answers often take the form of conspiracy theories and misleading information that offer simplistic solutions to complex situations.

Such spaces play on people’s confirmation biases – effectively telling them what they want to hear – and platforms like Facebook have been “too slow” to remove misinformation on its site, as one report from nonprofit activist group Avaaz stated.

It’s understandable why people are seeking absolutes in a time of uncertainty. Yet, when online spaces are gamed by groups with ulterior motives, such as elements seeking to further their objectives or recruit disaffected people to their cause, these communities become fertile ground for harmful disinformation, both on- and offline.

Offline incidents, online propaganda

The playbook is always the same. Real-world incidents are twisted and manipulated for online propaganda. During a period such as the current one, where the situation is in flux and contradictions foster scepticism in people, opportunistic voices step into this vacuum to frame the event to suit their agenda with misleading claims, threatening language, or a willful disregard for accurate information.

Following the recent events in Dublin, far-right accounts on the messaging platform Telegram openly celebrated the head injury sustained by a counter-protester, sharing clips of enraged anti-mask rally attendees, many of whom wore masks, shouting conspiracy-fuelled insults at the group of counter-protesters.

This ties in with a surge of extremist activity in recent months, not all of which is tied to the pandemic.

In August, far-right activists online seized upon a house fire in Balbriggan, Dublin, to fuel racial tensions in the town, as reported by TheJournal.ie.

“The incident became a weapon used by far-right media commentators and Twitter accounts to stir up division and hatred against members of the black community living in the area,” the report stated.

Following a stabbing incident in Carrigaline, Cork in July, far-right activists similarly found their voice online. During the outbreak, such activity has intensified.

Ireland is not unique in this regard and has seen incidents that fit into a global pattern of extremist activity. In the US, far-right groups have capitalised on the recent protests over the death of George Floyd and related protests against police brutality, as well as the ongoing debates over the removal of monuments of controversial historical figures across the world.

In the UK, far-right activists clashed with police during a protest that was held to ‘guard our monuments’ in London in June, and members of the alt-right group The Proud Boys clashed with Black Lives Matter protesters in various cities across the US throughout the summer.

What happened on Kildare St bears similarities to incidents like these. As the rally made its way to Leinster House, leading the march was Niall McConnell, founder of Síol na hÉireann, an Irish nationalist group.

Like many in the movement, he uses online platforms to espouse his belief that “Ireland belongs to the Irish.” Earlier this year, he hosted far-right figures like Jim Dowson and Nick Griffin of the British National Party on his video channel.

A video released in August showed members of Síol na hÉireann protesting outside a church in Ballyhaunis, Mayo against the decision to allow two members of the local Muslim community to say a blessing at a church service in April. “This heresy must be opposed,” McConnell told the Western People at the time.

What Can Be Done?

Most researchers in this field would agree that social media companies must do more to stamp out radicalisation and protect users from harmful misleading information on their platforms.

For ordinary citizens and online users, it’s imperative that we only engage with credible voices online and report unsubstantiated, dangerous misinformation to hold platforms to account.

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The far-right in Ireland and other extremists abroad do not care about Covid-19 or face masks or anti-social behaviour. They will always seek out polarising issues and weaponise misinformation to bring vulnerable people into the fold.

They only care about exploiting these situations to stoke fear amongst the public, destabilise communities, and capitalise on people’s concerns for their gain.

Ciaran O’Connor is a researcher and investigator with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based think tank that works towards powering solutions to extremism, disinformation, and polarisation. 

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Ciaran O'Connor

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