Joe Galvin outlines how far-right groups are capitalising on current frustrations around Covid restrictions.
RECENTLY, THE FUTURE of Media Commission, a body set up by the Irish government, held a number of discussions on disinformation as part of its ongoing work into the challenges faced by media organisations in Ireland.
The discussions presented a global view of the disinformation crisis, with no Irish-based journalists participating on the panels, and though the commission itself has identified disinformation as a significant threat, the issue features only briefly in the written submissions made to the commission by Ireland’s largest media organisations.
TheJournal was one organisation that outlined the current crisis, concluding in its submission: “With disinformation flooding our social networks and impacting on public perception and decision-making, and distrust in a contracting and under pressure media growing, an emergency approach is needed to allow good quality information to rise to the surface.”
Two days later, the streets of Dublin were dealing with the real-life consequences of disinformation, as a rally, organised by individuals who believe the coronavirus is a part of a plan to usher in a New World Order, turned violent.
The violence hit home the dangers of disinformation, and newsrooms across the country worked to get a handle on exactly what had transpired, who was behind it, and what they believed.
Disinformation on the march
The volume and reach of online disinformation in Ireland have been consistently growing since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Research by the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, a counter-extremism thinktank, showed that the membership of 40 Irish-based Covid-19 conspiracy groups on Facebook had almost doubled in the past six months.
“It just feels like whack a mole, really,” said Brian Mahon, a journalist with The Times Ireland who has been covering the issue closely. “You write a story, you go to Facebook for comment and they say, thanks for flagging, we’ll take that down, and you think to yourself, well, this isn’t supposed to be my job!”
The protest brought a renewed focus on the impacts of online disinformation, but, throughout the pandemic, experts have been highlighting how conspiracies are being exploited by the Irish far-right.
In some cases, their work has led to a backlash. Only last September, a number of anti-mask protesters demonstrated outside the offices of TheJournal.ie, as a direct response to its fact-checking work.
Aoife Gallagher, an analyst with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, has found herself personally targeted in right-wing hit pieces. “Anyone working in the disinformation space is the constant subject of abuse, [but]it just drives you on a little bit further because that’s the kind of stuff that you’re fighting to stop,” said Gallagher. “Ireland, though, is a pretty small country and you’re only two or three people removed from anyone, so it can feel a little closer to home than it would if you were in a larger country.”
Gallagher has consistently highlighted the link between the Irish far-right and online disinformation. Conspiracies, even those that appear outlandish, have proven to be a powerful propaganda tool.
According to a recent study by New York University, far-right conspiracy pages garner significantly more engagement on Facebook than any other partisan news, and in her 2020 book, Hate in the Homeland, the US academic Cynthia Miller-Idriss outlines how the far-right has successfully weaponised conspiracy theories as a key propaganda tool, allowing the “mainstreaming” of far-right ideas around, for example, the “invasion” of immigrants and Jewish global funding.
No longer on the fringes
The connection between disinformation and far-right politics is undeniable, and, for Ireland, this presents a new challenge. We have largely managed to escape the influence of far-right politics, but, with the growth in conspiracies online, there too has been a growth in subscribers to far-right beliefs.
“What has happened, over the past four or five years, is an increased formalisation of the far-right, going from social groups to more formal types of political organisation and mobilisation,” said Niamh Kirk, a UCD researcher who has tracked the growth of the far-right in Ireland. Some of those groups, such as the National Party, were prominent at the lockdown protest, distributing flyers and other promotional material to attendees.
“I absolutely think we are in danger of the far-right becoming a force,” said Harry Browne, a lecturer in media at the Technological University Dublin. “It’s strikingly good at exploiting these conspiracies, but I think that what’s really important is that we don’t completely dismiss those who may have come under the influence of the tricks that they play.”
This raises the question: how do you bring people back after extreme beliefs have taken hold? Some find their way back on their own; the CNN journalist Donie O’Sullivan recently talked to a South Carolina mother named Ashley Vanderbilt, once a fervent believer in Qanon, who managed to do exactly that. But for those who don’t find their way back – how can we reach them? Better still – how do we stop them from getting there?
Central to tackling disinformation is developing better systems to hold big tech platforms to account for the content they host. Mahon suggested Ireland is in a unique position in this regard, as many of the platforms’ European headquarters are in Dublin.
“I think there’s a special responsibility on journalists here in holding these companies to account,” he said. “And the government could have a much larger role in the governance of social media companies than it chooses to have.”
Improving media literacy standards is another potential route to limiting disinformation’s impact. Media Literacy Ireland’s Be Smart Campaign aims to do exactly that. “I’m a big believer that if you’re going to raise awareness of an issue like disinformation, you need to signpost people to to where they can start to help themselves,” said Martina Chapman of Media Literacy Ireland.
Chapman, however, is keen to stress that improving standards of media literacy isn’t a cure-all. “I think of media literacy as having a really good immune system,” she said. “It’s not going to stop you falling foul of misinformation, but it can help you to better deal with it, though developing this immune system isn’t going to happen overnight.”
Events elsewhere have shown it is also important to create the societal conditions that dissuade people from seeking easy answers in the wrong places. Economic and social crises are the ideal breeding ground for falsehood and disinformation, and, as people struggle to get the answers they need, extreme beliefs can take root.
The Irish government’s mixed messages and leaks around its pandemic strategy have eroded trust; this confusion and lack of clarity can be easily exploited.
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In 2015, nobody believed it possible that Donald Trump could be elected, but by exploiting disinformation that played on people’s fears, he managed to succeed. A society in turmoil proved the ideal backdrop to his victorious campaign.
That kind of turmoil, fuelled by the pandemic, is what we are living through now; businesses struggling, families struggling, and a government strategy that is at times incoherent, leading to real people developing real grievances.
Online disinformation can offer some of those people false hope and false answers. What they need are real hope and answers that offer clarity. If we cannot offer that, we may run the risk of a new and dangerous political movement taking hold.
Joe Galvin is a journalist and editor who specialises in social media verification and online disinformation. He was formerly the managing editor of Storyful news agency.