Paul Hosford: Far right play distorted Covid tune

The Covid-19 pandemic has been an open goal for those who peddle conspiracy theories and misinformation - with language borrowed from American right-wing online communities like QAnon - to propagate racism and targeted abuse of high-profile political figures, writes Paul Hosford
Paul Hosford: Far right play distorted Covid tune

President Higgins was personally targeted by crowds at last Saturday’s lockdown protests in Dublin, with chants about him led by the march’s leaders. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire

The office of President in Ireland is, we are often reminded, above the body politic.

Limited in their scope and powers, the President is a counterweight, a failsafe and an ambassador. But the pandemic has, in a very small corner of Ireland, changed all of that.

Throughout the pandemic, Michael D Higgins has been a target of fringe elements for whom he represents the entire apparatus of the State, signing the laws they believe are either unconstitutional, unfair or in some cases, fascistic.

The targeting has taken on threatening and bizarre elements, veering from critical to abusive to outright conspiracy theories. These theories are often retreads of debunked far-right American premises, often with the same languages and targets.

Last week, gardaí confirmed that they are monitoring some of the content posted to social media about the President, including one post which read “kill the c**t”.

Mr Higgins was also personally targeted by crowds at last Saturday’s lockdown protests in Dublin, with chants about him led by the march’s leaders.

The President’s offence in this case? Signing into law the Health Amendment Bill which is the legal underpinning of reopening hospitality to those who are vaccinated.

President Higgins had not received any advice that the Bill was unconstitutional and, as such, was limited in his powers.

But as a figurehead for the entire State, and with a long history in left-wing politics, Mr Higgins is a perfect lightning rod for this kind of anger.

A garda spokesperson said: “An Garda Síochána are examining some recent social media content which refers to the President of Ireland.

“An Garda Síochána considers any suggestion in respect of the threat to use violence and/or perpetration of violence in a general sense or against named individuals or organisations as a matter of serious concern and could potentially be subject to criminal investigation in respect of such matters.”

While many were shocked about the content of the messages, for those who have watched the small but active anti-lockdown/mask/vaccine/Covid cert movement over the last 18 months, it was no surprise.

Open goal

The pandemic has, in many ways, been an open goal for those who peddle conspiracy theories and misinformation — it has required massive government action, has impinged on individual liberties and it has negatively impacted many people financially.

This has led to thriving online communities which propagate and amplify these claims, as well as play host to conspiracies, racism and targeted abuse of high-profile political figures.

In April of this year, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), an international think-tank which focuses largely on right-wing extremism, published research which found that the anonymous messaging app Telegram was being used by “Irish ethnonationalist, far-right channels” to “actively encourage followers to spread disinformation”.

The report found that “these channels support the targeting of individuals with misleading or offensive content with the aim of fostering hatred or hostility”.

This can be seen in the minutes after the announcement of the Bill, with messages on Telegram groups that read ‘Traitor’ ‘Hopefully the maggot chokes on his dinner’ and ‘Little Commie Bastard’.

Some in the group speculated that the President was a “globalist”, “a puppet” or being blackmailed by the Government, while others simply vented fury.

Members of the group would go on to be key participants of marches in Dublin and Cork on Saturday.

Importing the language

The language around many of the posts is striking in its Americanisation. Borrowing heavily from the language of American right-wing online communities like QAnon, the theories often end up being similar. The ISD report says that this is not an accident.

“The administrators of these (anti-lockdown) Telegram channels use language and tactics commonly seen in US and international far-right movements and display the same ardent efforts to promote division and conflict.” Telegram is used by far-right entities in Ireland to attack perceived opponents in the media and launch targeted harassment and smear campaigns against others.

Furthermore, our analysis also found that almost one-in-10 messages posted by Irish anti-lockdown and Covid-19 conspiracy theory Telegram channels originated from far-right sources, highlighting a concerning intersection that may fuel radicalisation, extremism or violence.”

QAnon is a debunked right-wing conspiracy that claimed, among other things, that former US president Donald Trump was fighting a secret battle against “deep-state enemies” and a cabal of child sex traffickers. These two themes — the deep-state and child abuse — pop up frequently in social media groups discussing the pandemic in Ireland.

Throughout the pandemic, Michael D Higgins has been a target of fringe elements.
Throughout the pandemic, Michael D Higgins has been a target of fringe elements.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar is often singled out as a member of the Irish “deep-state”, but what the makeup or aims of this group of people are is often left unclear.

The issue of protecting children has been at the forefront of much of the far-right activity in Ireland in the last 18 months and the ISD report highlights what is now frequently referred to as “the day of the noose”.

On July 11, the far-right Irish Freedom Party and National Party organised protests outside the Dáil calling on Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman to resign.

Mr O’Gorman had originally been the subject of a number of tweets and Facebook posts over a picture he had taken with LGBT campaigner Peter Thatchell. Mr Thatchell had written in a 1997 Guardian article that friends of his had made conscious choices to have sex with adults, adding “it is time society acknowledged the truth that not all sex involving children is unwanted, abusive and harmful”.

Mr Thatchell has since said that the letter was edited and that sex with children is “impossible to condone”. The ISD report says that far-right groups were then used to spread one of the most telling images of the day — protesters with an image containing a noose.

One promotional poster shared on Telegram stated that the protests were to “demand the immediate removal from government of those complicit in child abuse, cover-ups and paedophilia activism”.

“Social media channels, including Telegram, were used to share content from the events of 11 July, including photos of National Party members holding a placard featuring a slogan saying “protect the innocent, punish the guilty”, next to an image of children and an image of a noose.” Mr O’Gorman has since said that much of the focus on him was “rooted in homophobia, stoked by anonymous, far-right Twitter accounts”.

Indeed, many posts about Mr O’Gorman, who is openly gay, show him kissing his partner in an attempt to draw a line between homosexuality and paedophilia. This supposed link between the “deep state”, child trafficking and paedophilia is a large part of the basis of the Q-Anon movement, which began when an anonymous poster to the 8Chan message board claimed to have inside knowledge that Donald Trump was readying to reveal the existence of a cabal of child abusers in politics, media and Hollywood.

One bizarre incident saw claims of a fictitious child sex abuse ring based at a Washington DC pizzeria, Comet Ping Pong, due to hacked emails of Hilary Clinton mentioning pizzas.

In 2016, a 28-year-old proponent of the theory fired an assault rifle inside the restaurant, claiming that he was there to investigate reports of children being locked in the basement. The restaurant has no basement and the man was sentenced to four years in prison.

Hitting back

When the idea for using Covid certs for access to hospitality was floated, there was much public anger, from across the political spectrum, not just those who had been actively anti-lockdown.

Executive director of Irish Council for Civil Liberties Liam Herrick said that the legislation “will write discrimination based on health status into our laws”, while Labour’s Alan Kelly said it would create a “two-tier” system. So it is important to say that opposition to or support of the Health Amendment Bill is not strictly linked to a place on the political spectrum.

However, those who have sought to use the pandemic for political gain are generally on the right or far-right and have, in recent weeks sprung into a grassroots form of action. Aside from marches, some have taken to making bogus bookings with venues which are reopening to vaccinated customers.

During the week, the Restaurants Association of Ireland (RAI) wrote to Facebook and Google to highlight the “malicious, concerted and co-ordinated” campaign which has seen bookings made and fake reviews of premises posted on the platforms for people from other parts of the country.

The Restaurants Association of Ireland has highlighted a campaign of fake bookings and reviews by people who disagree with the recent legislation on vaccine certs.
The Restaurants Association of Ireland has highlighted a campaign of fake bookings and reviews by people who disagree with the recent legislation on vaccine certs.

“The Restaurants Association of Ireland has been made aware by members of the Association that fake bookings are being made via email and reservation platforms and reviews have been made on various social media and review platforms. These fake bookings and reviews are intended as a protest by those who disagree with recent legislation permitting only the vaccinated or recovered from entering a premises to dine indoors.

“As per our members, those leaving the reviews have not dined in the premises and such negative and spurious reviews are directly impacting upon the competitiveness of these businesses and their ability to trade.

“This activity is having an economic impact on businesses with substantial revenue loss due to this sort of deceit. We would respectfully ask that online media and review platforms take any necessary steps available within their community guidelines to prevent such fake claims continuing to be made to the detriment of the hospitality sector.”

The RAI has written to the Oireachtas about the incidents, though Facebook has said that a 600-strong group which discusses businesses does not break its terms and conditions.

In another case, a well-known Dublin pub was graffitied with the words “two-tier scum”.

Misinformation

Many of the same pages are being used to spread all sorts of misinformation, particularly around vaccines.

While a certain degree of hesitancy around new medication is to be expected, much of the posting around the vaccine is alarmist and, quite often, misleading.

Already, the Government and Nphet are warning parents that social media will be awash with horror stories in the coming weeks as the vaccination programme extends to children.

“It’s important that parents prime themselves now and know they will be a target in the next two to three weeks, particularly through social media,” deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn said.

“It’s also important to be aware and not to assume that everything you see on social media is accurate, and not to share anything to social media or family and friends groups unless you know the data is accurate and verified.”

He told a National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) briefing that childhood vaccines “are a particular target for misinformation and disinformation”.

With Ireland having what the Taoiseach called “Olympian” vaccination levels, it can be easy to underestimate the level of anti-vaccination sentiment across our social media platforms.

An ISD vaccine misinformation monitor in February found that memberships of anti-vax groups on Facebook alone had risen 90% over the course of the pandemic.

“In January 2021, these groups hosted over 20,900 posts — photos, links, statuses and videos. These posts generated 467,000 interactions (reactions, comments and shares), compared to 256,000 interactions in July 2020 from 12,900 posts, which is a 62% increase in the number of posts and 82% increase in the level of interactions.”

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