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People march on Dublin Port following the housing of some 100 migrants in East Wall PA
FACTCHECK

FactCheck newsletter: Covid, climate change and Ukraine dominated disinformation narratives in 2022

The ‘unholy trinity’ were prevalent throughout Europe this year.

This is an extract from this month’s edition of The Journal’s monthly FactCheck newsletter, which looks at what misinformation is being shared right now and points at trends in factchecking. Find out more and sign up here or at the bottom of the page.

ONE OF THE final articles of the year by The Journal’s factcheck team was about a conspiracy theory “documentary” that might make misinformation connoisseurs almost wistful.

It plays like a 70-minute best-of compilation for debunked conspiracy theories, set to footage of autospies and surgeries (some of which predated Covid-19, but were presumably included in the movie to set a mood).

Despite its grim visuals, the movie has been viewed more than 16 million times. Two million of those views were on Twitter, where it remains available to watch on the movie’s official account – verified with a paid-for blue tick – which also regularly spreads claims, without evidence, that real Irish people who have died were killed by vaccines.

As the movie had been recommended in Irish fringe groups, we decided to tackle it.

But as we watched stock footage of clots being scraped out of patients and cadavers being cut apart, we were struck by how familiar some of the film’s claims were. Wed heard it all before.

It takes time to produce a movie. It’s inevitable that some of its information would be old, maybe even out-of-date; but so much of this was made up of recycled claims.

The film made it feel like an era is closing; there may never be another original Covid-19 conspiracy theory again.

A year later than wider society, conspiracy theorists are also starting to move on from Covid-19.

But instead of accepting that maybe humanity won’t be wiped out, or involuntarily turned into cyborgs, or enslaved by 5G nanobots, many of the most prominent spreaders of Covid misinformation have decided to ditch Covid but double down on the misinformation.

While neither RSV nor the disease formerly known as Monkeypox were widespread enough to replace Covid, conspiracy theorists instead returned to fringe classics for new pet projects: immigration (which they don’t like), climate change (which they say is not real), and now, too,  Ukraine (which they think is the West being mean to Putin and Russia). 

Over the past year we’ve published 67 fact checking stories, of which only nine pieces were about Covid or vaccines, while 12 articles were about climate change or other green issues (namely whether turf is good for health or the environment). Another nine pieces were about the war in Ukraine, as well as four articles about migrants.

The unholy trinity of Covid, Ukraine and climate change dominated disinformation this year, both in Ireland and across the continent. 

Of our fact-checking articles, 12 pieces were prompted by political statements (including five on housing), while more than 40 were written in response to misinformation that was gaining traction on social media.

Some of this year’s fact-check articles have featured in Dáil debates, prompted politicians to amend their ethics disclosures, or convinced other publications to rewrite their headlines. 

The year’s most popular piece was published in February, asking whether the Taoiseach’s remarks that Sinn Féin had objected to the construction of 6,000 new homes was true.

A further 12 pieces analysing the spread of misinformation more generally were produced, including pieces looking at how best to fight misinformation, how social media is involved in its spread, and what counts as a win.

We’ve also had in-depth looks into how spreaders of misinformation operate, and how a story that a homeless girl died on the streets of Dublin made its way to the Dáil, despite there being no evidence that the event occurred.

However, a wave of misinformation targeting immigrants, which started to surge during the East Wall protests, has yet to break.

Such claims often involve suggestions that asylum seekers aren’t seeking asylum,  or that they aren’t Ukrainian, or that they shouldn’t have left Ukraine, or that we can’t accept non-Ukrainians (their ways are too barbaric for us, or, conversely, not barbaric enough for persecuted people to flee).

Other posts praise so-called ‘campaigners’ – often unvetted single men from different parts of the country – for travelling across counties to rallies to show ‘solidarity’ with locals and to protest against unvetted single men coming into the area.

Much of this misinformation appears to be spurred, emotionally at least, by the very real housing crisis, which is its own regular source of misinformation. It’s a sad fact that some people stop looking upward towards politicians, and at the perplexing policies that shape the housing system, and punch downward instead.

Currently, fringe communities are celebrating videos of anti-immigrant activists harassing suspected asylum seekers. The videos show these activists shouting at non-white people they spot on the street to ask what atrocities they have survived, and whether they have been Garda-vetted – no wonder they are bitter: the past legal infractions of the anti-immigrant activists is often public record.

Who knows how much traction the subject will gain next year. The housing and refugee accommodation crises show now sign of abating, providing fertile ground for anti-immigrant narratives and disinformation to take hold.

It could be that 2023 is the year that happens.

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