Conspiracy theorists, fascists, far-right, loonies, nutjobs are just some of the words used to describe the crowds that have taken to the streets to protest against lockdown measures.
Some of these words accurately describe some of those in attendance. There is no doubt that the anti-lockdown movement has been infiltrated by far-right fascists. There is no doubt that conspiracy theories have successfully twisted people’s sense of reality.
But to laugh, scoff and label everyone on the streets as a loonie or nutjob is both highly inaccurate and extremely damaging to how we’re going to recover from the effects of the past year.
In other words, they are regular people who have been driven to the point of despair by the longest lockdown in Europe.
They have watched the lockdowns affect their children, their relationships, their livelihoods, and many feel like they have nothing left to lose.
We have watched over the past year as the same political parties who bailed out the banks, and failed to gain any control over a housing and healthcare crisis, have stumbled their way through the pandemic.
The same parties have failed to implement common-sense approaches to fighting the virus and have been responsible for contradictory restrictions, irresponsible Government leaks and, dare I mention it, Golfgate.
People’s frustrations are more than justified and many people who took to the streets are just that – frustrated. But there is a murkier side to this movement that we need to talk about.
I have been monitoring online conspiracy theory and far-right movements for almost five years and what I am seeing being discussed within anti-lockdown communities in Ireland is very concerning.
Pre-pandemic, Ireland had active and bubbling anti-5G, anti-vaxx and far-right movements. They were part of an international online ecosystem where pseudo science and the opinions of bad actors reigned. When the pandemic struck, these groups banded together and used this online ecosystem to spread their theories on the pandemic to the masses.
Extended periods of time spent indoors and online, coupled with powerful social media algorithms that boost content designed to generate reactions began pushing these theories into people’s news feeds. The online ecosystem exploded.
Recent research conducted by my colleague Ciaran O’Connor at ISD shows that Irish Covid conspiracy communities have almost doubled in the last six months. New “influencers” came on the scene who spoke determinedly about how lockdowns and masks were unnecessary and were infringing on your civil rights.
“If this was a real pandemic, surely people would be dying in the streets,” they said.
I’ll never forget the videos of overcrowded hospitals in Wuhan, or scenes of bodies piled up on the streets in Ecuador, that prove exactly why lockdown was the only answer, especially in Ireland, where videos of overcrowded hospitals were commonplace, even without a pandemic.
When you enter these online communities, you find just that, a community, something people have been without for a year. Here are thousands of people, all feeling as disaffected as you and determined to collectively find a purpose to fight back.
They vent their frustrations at the Government, speculate about what they think is really going on and misinterpret small pieces of information that lack context. Many share convincing videos outlining the idea that the pandemic is all part of a global plot, or that the vaccines are designed to harm you. They constantly reassure each other of their new reality where nothing is as it seems.
Conspiracy theories often erase the fact that humans act as individuals with their own thoughts and decision-making abilities in a world that is random.
They propose a world where a small number of elites have the ultimate control, and they in turn control those in governments, the media and science. No one working in these industries can be trusted as a result and they are often dehumanised and presented as the ultimate evil force.
Conspiracy theories can be empowering and addictive and if you believe in one, it's much easier to believe in more, as the enemies are often the same. The online world creates the perfect environment for this rabbit-hole effect.
Online anti-lockdown communities in Ireland are consistently peppered with content from other conspiracy theory movements such as QAnon, sovereign citizen anti-government movements and various far-right and white nationalist movements.
Given the right narrative and timing, this can lead to radicalisation and people becoming completely dissociated from friends and family members, as seen in countless stories out of the US in the past year. Pulling people back into reality is extremely difficult and often unsuccessful.
The far-right has the most to gain from sending people into this conspiratorial alternate reality. In real life, their opinions are abhorrent and despicable. In the conspiracy theory world, they are reasonable and warranted.
In Ireland, it has been well reported that the far-right has been fanning the flames of the anti-lockdown movement, organising rallies that resulted in violence and using online influencers to spread falsehoods.
They use populist talking points, mixed with powerful disinformation tactics, to present themselves as the ultimate opposition to the Government, and good, unsuspecting people are being taken in by their narratives.
This is the same far-right that spreads vile disinformation following tragedies, launches homophobic smear campaigns against gay politicians and consistently harasses people that do not fit their archaic definition of what it means to be Irish.
The language and phraseology I see in anti-lockdown conversations here is frighteningly similar to those I’ve monitored in the US.
What can we do, you ask? If you know people going down these paths, reach out and talk to them. You don’t have to talk about lockdowns or Covid, the goal is to keep them connected to reality.
Informing people on how to discern truth from fiction online is key to tackling this. Both adults and children need to be able to navigate the online world without falling into dangerous movements or believing in harmful lies. Media Literacy Ireland’s Be Media Smart campaign is a great example of how this can be done.
The elephant in the room is, of course, the social media platforms. Their lack of regulation, along with a business model that is powered by the amount of time people spend online, means that tackling this issue requires some bold, brave thinking.
Ireland houses the headquarters of some of the world’s largest social media companies, putting us in a unique position to lead on finding regulatory and policy-based solutions to tackle these issues.
The next few years are going to be some of the hardest this country has ever faced and murky far-right forces are going to spread lies and fear to exploit every minute of it.
Collectively, as a nation, we need to remain vigilant and call out their hate, lies and spin for exactly what they are.