Covid-19 giving 'extremist groups chance to launch disinformation campaigns'

Warning comes groups on social media platforms called for the reopening of Irish businesses in defiance of level 5 restrictions

Groups on social media platforms have urged Irish businesses to reopen in defiance of level 5 restrictions. Picture: Sam Boal / RollingNews.ie

The Covid-19 pandemic has given “fringe and extremist groups” opportunities to launch “disinformation campaigns”, according to a counter-extremism expert.

The warning comes as a number of groups on social media platforms called for the reopening of Irish businesses, in defiance of level 5 restrictions and current public health restrictions.

Aoife Gallagher works with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that monitors online extremism.

“This is a highly co-ordinated campaign, being run from the UK, to encourage business owners in Ireland to defy lockdown rules and open their businesses,” said Ms Gallagher, referring to a movement on the instant messaging app Telegram.

“It is attempting to reach disaffected people who feel left behind by the Government, who don’t see a viable way out of the pandemic, and who are desperate for any kind of hope they can find.” 

Ms Gallagher, who says she has been watching the movement grow in real-time, described it on Twitter as the “most co-ordinated campaign” she has seen throughout the pandemic.

“Although the numbers in Irish groups are still relatively low, they are growing every day and conversation within them is constant.” 

Ms Gallagher's warning comes as a Fine Gael senator said he was made aware of a Facebook group which urged shops to reopen over the weekend

In a blog post, John McGahon described the group, which he claims has more than 1,300 members, as “extremely irresponsible”. 

“This group is an insult to the memory of those people who have sadly died from Covid-19 and is deeply disrespectful to those frontline workers who put their own lives at risk every day,” said Mr McGahon.

Ms Gallagher explained some of the dangers that campaigns, such as the one she has been monitoring, can bring. 

Most disaffected

“They are being set up to target some of the most disaffected in society at the moment — people whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the pandemic and those who feel completely left behind by the Government,” she said.

“The pandemic has presented fringe and extremist groups with numerous opportunities to launch disinformation campaigns. Any of the anti-lockdown, Covid-denier movements that have sprung up over the last year use the same tactics to suck people in. 

"They are being fueled by increasing pandemic fatigue among the population, as well as the lack of long-term plans on how we’re going to deal with this disease and get back to some semblance of normality.”

A spokesperson for An Garda Síochána said it does not comment or speculate on third-party material either printed or posted online in any format, but added: “There are a number of public health regulations currently in place. An Garda Síochána will investigate any breaches of these regulations."

On the question of disinformation online, a spokesperson for Facebook said: “We remove Covid-19 misinformation that could lead to imminent physical harm, including false information about approved vaccines."

The instant messaging app Telegram was contacted for comment.

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