Over the course of the last month the Far Right Observatory (FRO) have witnessed a resurgence of activity of far right actors using COVID-19 pandemic to rally support behind their agenda of racism and hate. This article takes a look at some of these activities and actors.
Following the abysmal showing in recent local and national elections, far right actors and groups on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have grappled to find relevance. This has included pushing wild conspiracy theories, spreading misinformation, targeting of minority and migrant communities, attacks on telecommunication infrastructure and calls for mass demonstrations that pose real danger to public health should they take place. It also involves international far right networking to use the coming economic turmoil to marshal public anger, disillusionment and high unemployment into far right street movements and political organisation.
Some Top Line Findings
- The COVID19 global pandemic is being used by far right networks to try and pull people into their movements. Several far right groups and actors in Ireland are making explicit attempts to use this crisis for personal and political benefit.
- The Irish far right are emulating a global far right movement in what the World Health Organisation (WHO) are calling the Covid infodemic
- Conspiracy theories have always been used to create a radicalising pathway by far right movements globally. We are seeing these narrative tacitics being used in Ireland in past few months
- One Facebook page in Ireland pushing 5G conspiracy theories has had over 73,000 direct interactions with over 1000 posts in the last 4 weeks
- Far right actors are using the COVID19 pandemic to undermine trust and solidarity in communities by targetting migrant and minority communities and pushing explicit ethno nationalist/white supremacist narratives.
Before we dive in, it is important to note that corporations such as Facebook, Twitter and Google remain central to growth and normalisation of far right narratives and organisation. While these big three have made statements about taking action to stop the spread of misinformation around the coronavirus specifically, they continue to be the main pathways of right wing radicalisation in Ireland. At best, these companies continue to act extremely slowly in combating the use of their platforms for hate organising. However, after years of observation of how these organisations have responded to repeated warnings about how their platforms are being used, a more sombre and realistic assessment is that the growth and organisation of the politics of hate on their platforms is of minimum concern.
There are degrees of complicity and complacency. Over the course of 2019, YouTube made significant changes to the platform that removed advertisement revenue from many far right and conspiracy channels, and removed others entirely including Infowars, headed by US based Alex Jones. These changes came about through a combination of public pressure, research and journalism that demonstrated that YouTube algorithms — the hidden written codes that decide what videos to suggest — acted as a fast track for delivering content of radicalisation.
So not only was the issue that YouTube hosted extremist hate based content, but that it also actively served it up to people. This included content around holocaust revisionism, white nationalism, Nazism, Islamphobia, antisemitism, homophobia and transphobia. Understanding how YouTube algorithms actually work is technically possible because they are merely written code that prompt content delivery. However because the algorithms used are held as trade secrets, there can be no real transparent scrutiny or oversight.
That an organisation of such scale remains willfully and purposefully resistant to engaging on the social damage its product facilitates, is a matter of grave public concern. Its reminds us of the historical inaction's of tobacco and fossil fuel industries.
Facebook’s primary beneficiary and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, was personally handed a dossier containing evidence of how his product was being used in Ireland as a means of promoting hate based politics in April 2019. Over one year later, there has been no response and no meaningful action taken on the evidence provided to him. If companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter can accumulate billions and billions of euros from the use of their products, there are no real resource barriers to taking action to stop hate filled organising. The only barrier is the absence of community and political pressure to make them take action.
Conspiracy Theories Don’t Just Happen.
Conspiracy theories are like viruses. They have beginnings rooted in the interaction of humans with the lived world around then. They require human transmission to stay alive and have any impact. The greater the transmission the greater the social impact. And like viruses, specific conspiracy theories can mutate and evolve over time in ways that can make it hard to understand where they came from.
Platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, now projects primarily to accumulate wealth and power regardless of any professed altruistic beginnings, have altered our media landscape in ways that we are still grappling to understand.
However it is equally clear that right wing movements across the globe have spent a lot of time and energy trying to understand changes in the media ecosystem, with the specific intent of bringing fringe ideas into the mainstream conversation. The motivations are often dual. There is money to be made and entire careers have been built on promoting conspiracy theories, particularly in large populations such as the US where a tiny percentage of people donating to you can add up to a substantial untaxed income. And second is perhaps more complex, involving attraction simplistic sloganeering, finding personal and political agency, and relishing the relative status that comes with becoming a prominent figure in fringe communities.
There is a significant and flourishing network of far right groups and individuals whose main activity in life is to bring into being radical far right political formations, while raising money for themselves to devote ever greater time to the project. These networks are by no means homogeneous in their attachment to conspiracy theories, but common threads include ethno-nationalism (an outgrowth of white supremacy) and increasingly in Ireland, an attraction to right wing Catholic fundamentalism.
We have seem over the course of the last few years far right activists in Ireland speak about refounding Catholicism, which is as much about aligning itself with US and European far right networks for sources of funding and other resources. This has previously been explored by the Far Right Observatory in this piece for Hope Not Hate
Alongside this personal grifting, there is often an ideological wrap around, whether genuinely held or not. It is of primary importance that at least some of the audience is convinced that those sharing video etc actually hold the beliefs and opinions they espouse.
To give an Irish example, the most prominent far right YouTuber is Ireland is Rowan Croft, an ex British soldier who raises money via YouTube, Paypal, Bitchute and Bitcoin from supporters. Croft pushes wild conspiracy theories that are almost all originate in US contexts, and that dont alienate US YouTube viewers, one assumes because they are paying supporters. These are interspersed with allusions to scores of militant men -always called patriots — ready to fall in behind Croft to take to the streets.
Croft has been public about being radicalised by US conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. To give a flavour of Jones work, he was fined $126,000 though legal actions arising from spending years harassing families of children murdered in Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting. Jones claimed that the shooting, which killed 20 children between the ages of six and seven, was really a staged event and didn’t really happen. Jones went so far to as to accuse Leonar Pozner, the father of one child killed in the shooting, as being an actor.
Croft has regularly promoted conspiracies that first came to (relative online) prominence because Alex Jones was pushing them, including Pizzagate and QAnon.
Both of these conspiracy theories are what could only be called off the wall. Like much far right content, both ‘Pizzagate’ and ‘QAnon’ conspiracies began life on the fringes of the internet on image board 4Chan before being given wider credence by the likes of Croft’s inspiration Alex Jones.
‘Pizzagate’ arose as during the 2016 US election campaign and claims that Hillary Clinton and the wider Clinton family were involved in an secret child sex abuse network run out of a restaurant and pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong is Washington. After someone shot up the restaurant in an attempt to ‘investigate’ the veracity of the fictitious claims, Alex Jones issued an apology and retraction to the owner following legal action.
Almost four years later Croft and another far right conspiracy pusher Gemma O Doherty , are at the center of conspiracy promotion in Ireland.
In a series of YouTube videos entitled ‘Hunting the Devil in Devils Glen’, the pair have repeatedly visited an area in Ashford, Co. Wicklow, making claims that it belongs to friends of the Clinton's. It the videos, the pair are very careful of the language they use. However on viewing it seem like there is an attempt to insinuate that the property could have been used for child sex abuse.
Shot over three videos, which have amassed over 24,000 views, the pair seek to emulate the Pizzagate conspiracy promotion which called for people to target the pizza restaurant in Washington, with both Croft and O Doherty encouraging people to visit the site in Wicklow to “find out what is going on”
Another favorite conspiracy promoted by grifter Croft is the equally bizarre ‘QAnon’ which again began from the white supremacist fringes of the internet. The far right theory, insofar as it has any internal coherency, claims that there is a ‘deep state’ conspiracy against US President Donald Trump. It began by someone posting anonymously on 4chan imageboard as ‘Q’ making the cryptic claims of a plot against Trump. In a remaking of the Pizzagate conspiracy, ‘Q’ asks people to believe that Trump is continually dropping signs about another secret network of high profile political and celebrity child sex abusers. And believers spend time looking for breadcrumbs of cryptic clues.
What is interesting about the QAnon conspiracy theory is that it is an outsourced game. Believers like Croft spend hours and hours talking to other believers online, posing different interpretations of ‘clues’ such as misspelling in Donald Trump’s tweets. For non believers, this seems incredibly stupid and futile way to spend a life. However people like Croft are dependent on grifting money from other believers, and so need to stay relevant by repetitively talking and promoting it online. In in those attempts to stay relevant to the QAnon believer base Croft has tweeted about QAnon hundreds of times.
Another hashtag used by QAnon conspiracy pushers like Croft is #WWG1WGA — Where we go one we go all and #TheGreatAwakening, both used to indicate a popular uprising of consciousness to the ‘real’ workings of the QAon world. As we see in the tweet below Croft pushed the idea that the Trump regime is an integral part of this entirely fabricated conspiracy.
COVID19 and 5G
There isn’t one single conspiracy theory about 5G and the coronavirus pandemic. Since the original outbreak there have been a variety of overlapping and contradictory claims a made about COVID19 and 5G. This is not that surprising given a significant amount of misinformation surrounding 5G technology existed long before this pandemic.
Combine that with what is not unreasonable public mistrust in private corporations to hide known health impacts of what they sell to people— think asbestos, tobacco, alcohol, thalidomide.
People are in a generally heightened sense of anxiety and seeking meaning and understanding to what is going on around them. False promises of understanding still offer promises of understanding, however off-kilter they can seem to others.
Yet while trying to understand people’s susceptibility to these conspiracy it is important to note that in the UK almost 60 telecommunications masts have been set alight or attacked, while there have been arson attacks in the Netherlands and in several other European countries.
The claims included:
- 5G infrastructure is a source of transmission of the coronavirus
- Coronavirus is a hoax, propagated by elites to cover up radiation damage to people by 5G
- Coronavirus is a way of testing 5G capabilities
- Coronavirus began as a result of rolling out 5G infrastructure in Wuhan, where the first outbreak of what was to become a global pandemic.
- 5G suppresses the immune system, making people more susceptible to the Covid19
These wild theories have been amplified by a series of celebrities sharing them including Woody Harrleson, boxer Amir Khan, Jason Gardiner, Eamon Holmes etc. This was further boosted by uncritical newspaper coverage, particularly in the UK.
In Ireland, two masts in Donegal were set alight. They were not used for 5G but rather for boosting 3G and 4G indoor signal according to a spokesperson for Eir.
The Far Right Observatory took a look at one of many Facebook pages and groups promoting and sharing 5G-COVID19 conspiracy theories, called Mast Watch Ireland. Match Watch Ireland was set up on March 7th and has over 7,500 members.
A description of the group says
Mast Watch Ireland was set up to reference any mast or antennae in Ireland, and to inform on the type of technology it is using. Please upload any photos of masts in your area, hashtag the area/town (so it can be easily found), plus any additional information: address, date erected, who owns the land its on, 3G/4G/5G or all, proximity to houses, and any ill health effects noted in the area. If you have an EMF meter then this reading too!
While not all those in the group push conspiracy theories about 5G and the pandemic, there is no shortage of such material upon visiting the page.
It has been a place for sharing all sorts of COVID19 and 5G related material. Jim Corr is a regular poster to the group
The above post from Jim Corr is a fake post. We went to the public page of Robert F Kennedy Jr, and no such post exists in their profile.
Yet this deliberate fake was shared hundreds of times.
Amazingly, after the WHO were forced to make statements to say that the pandemic had nothing to do with 5G, people took to the group to seize on those statements as a sign the WHO was running scared from the truth
We decided to dig into the reach of these groups, just one of many Facebook groups and pages and what we found was pretty startling in terms of reach. In the last four weeks there were over 1000 posts to the group, and just under 19,000 comments. In terms of measuring sentiment, that is looking at the clicked reactions to posts and comments what we found was:
· Likes: 20,840
· Loves: 1,314
· Wow: 1,789
· Haha: 650
· Sad: 1,446
· Angry: 7,167
· Thankful: 0
That’s quite a significant amount of anger expressed. Without reading into this too far without an examination over longer time frames and comparisons with other pages, its fair to day the group is one that ferments anger, which it is hard to disconnect for the rage attacks on 5G infrastructure itself.
Facebook have not removed any of the conspiracy and misinformation around 5G and COVID19 at the time of publication. All of the 5G coronavirus claims mentioned have been debunked elsewhere.If you want to read about how, you can check here, here and here
Changing The Narrative From Hoax To State Control
At the start of the outbreak, one conspiracy pusher, Jim Corr, formerly of Irish band The Corrs, was pushing right wing propaganda that claimed the pandemic was a hoax, only to two days later try to argue that he didn’t. On March 28th, global figures for the pandemic had risen to 645,000 cases across the globe, with deaths at just under 30,000.
Corr is a climate change denier who has spend years crying hoax to all sorts of things . On March the 29th Corr shared out a video, filmed by another crank, Dolores Webster, claiming that there was no testing happening in public testing centers.
In the video, which has been viewed over 269,000 times, Webster asks for people to ‘wake up’, a regular refrain from the far right in a plea to people to take them seriously. The claims were that there was no public testing happening. These claims willfully ignore wide spread reporting a week earlier of the fact that dozens of testing centres were open and running around the country. Webster and other fringe actors continued over the following weeks to film at test centres and hospitals despite the clear public health dangers of walking in and out of hospitals with no idea if they carried the virus. It also flew in the face of common decency for the privacy of medical staff and patients, something the HSE specifically called for around the pandemic.
COVID19 and Bill Gates
Bill Gates coronavirus conspiracies involve multiple overlapping narratives:
- Gates planned the outbreak in advance and simulated it
- Gates patented the SARS-CoV-2 virus
- Gates is planning “depopulation”
- Gates is planning to implant tracking devices in everyone
Gemma O Doherty has played a significant role in amplifying conspiracy theories about the US billionaire. On April 13th tweeting
“Psychopath Bill Gates, whose vaccines have destroyed the lives of millions of children, is embedded in the Irish Deep State. If you consent to #LockdownIreland much longer, you won’t be allowed to leave your home without receiving a syringe of toxins. #COVID2019”
Which is pretty unhinged even for the low bar the former journalist has set for herself over the last few years.
But O’Doherty or Jim Corr — who tweeted the same conspiracies more than 30 times in the last few weeks — can’t be credited with creating the range of overlapping conspiracies around Bill Gates.
They actually began on 18th March following an ‘Ask Me Anything’ session Gates held on a Reddit forum. From that relatively obscure beginnings, the fast moving narratives got a massive signal boost when Roger Stone, a long time propagandist for the US Republican party and former adviser to Donald Trump claimed on an a radio show that Gates created both the coronavirus and a vaccine on a microchip (which doesn't exist obviously) so that Gates could track the population of the globe.
The New York Post ran Stones fabrication giving it further oxygen. You can read the full genesis of the these specific conspiracy claim in this great pieces from BuzzfeedNews
COVID19: A ‘planneddemic’ not a pandemic
Given the mounting death toll, it has become unsustainable for some far right grifters to claim that COVID19 is entirely a hoax, their positions have changed over the past few weeks. Instead, they have taken up new framings and narratives, best captured by the made-up word, “plannedemic”.
This idea — that the pandemic is real, but also is part of a plan of social control by BigGovernment/Bill Gates/take you pick is continually being pushed by grifters like Gemma O Doherty, Jim Corr, and Rowan Croft. Though like much of the utterances and clever puns that come of their mouths, this is an import from the internet rather than clever punning on their behalf.
In a recent video on 29th March entitled ‘Questioning the Coronavirus Narrative (With Grand Torino)’ Rowan Croft was hosted by Dave Cullen, a relatively recent convert to the Irish far right network. Like Croft, Cullen pumps out anti-migrant content on his YouTube channel to his significant following. He has over 430,000 subscribers, and over 99 million views. Most of this is US based and likely provides a significant income via advertisement revenue. Cullen is a product of ‘Gamergate’ and along with Croft, extols the virtues of not masturbating so as to better slease on women.
These pretty repulsive, if fairly standard fixations are regularly talked about by former British soldier Croft on his YouTube channel. Croft YouTube channel has over 22,000 subscribers and over 1,800,000 views. Croft continually talks about his preparation for war on his YouTube channel, alluding to a group of men willing to ‘follow him’ and do ‘battle over his dead body’. He has also previously made claims on a livestream to have access to guns. He recently travelled to Greece to link up with far right movements there involved in intimidation of migrants.
During the livestream, watched more than 33,000 times since it was broadcast on March 29th, Croft describes how he see political parties in Ireland are using the pandemic for their own purposes. He claims that
“Sinn Fein are calling for a new world order whenever they can plant a planeddemic and crowds can be dispersed from the streets without a bullet being fired. This is more than keeping people safe, it’s about social control. It’s the same kinda of logic as them (the state) taking away our free speech”
Croft claims that measures introduced to stop the spread of the virus were a really a cover for state control of the population. Cullen agrees saying
“You can’t get coronavirus from handshakes. This is what it’s about. Is social distancing really about stopping the spread of a virus or is it about (the state) getting us to change our behaviours?”
Later in the video, only one of dozens pushed out by right wing actors in Ireland over the last few week Cullen endorse the promotion of conspiracy theories relating to COVID19 but also that they need to push the message of extreme nationalism
“They call us conspiracy theorists, but they (the World Health Organisation and others) are fear mongers telling you there is a global pandemic and millions are gonna die. So far 37,000 people have died. That’s sad for the families but the point is at this stage hundreds of thousands would have died of the flu. A lot of people in the ‘dissident right’ been caught in the hop. Nationalism is a hard sell at a time like this because ethnic communitarian-ism [engaging only with white people- FRO] becomes very difficult, solidarity is broken down. This is a difficult time for nationalism because you need to be able to bring people together.”
This interlacing of conspiracy, paranoia and mistrust with extreme nationalism and anti-migrant white supremacy is very much a deliberate strategy of Croft, Cullen, O’Doherty and others. Its is part of a conscious means of radicalising the viewer to hold more militant, distrustful and closed-minded world views.
In the last month, Dave Cullen has pumped out 16 videos filled with conspiratorial opinions interlaced with paranoia, mistrust with extreme nationalism and anti-migrant white supremacy. They have amassed over almost 800,000 views in that four week period. YouTube has taken no action to limit these views
British Far Right Assisting Extremism in Ireland
Over the course of the pandemic we have observed some other developments which are of a different, but perhaps a more worrying concern, than conspiracy theories. A Donegal based far right activist, Niall McConnell, has been cementing links with international far right organisers. It seems that material support has been offered in terms of building up infrastructure required for building another far right political organisation, named Síol na hÉireann.
In a video broadcast on April 5th, McConnell was joined by two British far right organisers Jim Dowson and Nick Griffin.
Jim Dowson is a white supremacist of the Christian far right who argues for a white only nationalism and sees it as the work of God. A life long loyalist from Scotland now living in County Down, Dowson was responsible for bringing the British National Party significant electoral success in the UK, and raising four million pounds for the organisation. Nick Griffin is a former BNP leader and MEP. Dowson also founded the far extremists anti-Muslim organisation Britain First.
Both are heavily involved in the radicalisation of ultra-nationalist Christian movements across eastern Europe, providing training in marketing, fundraising and online growth, as well as providing shipments of military equipment to armed groups in Serbia and Hungary. This was carried out through Knights Templar International (KTI), an organisation formed by Dowson, with Griffin at his side. They are quite open about their preparations for an imminent war between Islam and Christianity by building an international network of ultra nationalist groups — who will become militias when a war starts.
Dowson, a fanatical anti-abortion campaigner, explained his plans and vision in an interview with James Kelso for the right-wing radio programme ‘The Trump Phenomenon’ in January 2018. Prior to that Dowson had travelled to the Turkey-Bulgaria border in 2016 to join armed paramilitary group Shipka Bulgarian National Movement (BNO Shipka) to hunt down people seeking asylum. You can find more on his links here and here
Dowson and Griffin were also significant, if hidden, figures in the 2016 election campaign of Donald Trump in the United States. Dowson ran a sophisticated propaganda and misinformation project called The Patriot News Agency, from July 2016 from Belgrade in Hungary involving a constellation of fake websites and Facebook groups pretending to real US based pages and groups. The modus operado was pushing out fake news and misinformation about Trump’s competitor Hillary Clinton.
There is reason to believe that Dowson, who has appeared several times in video streams with Irish far right actors, has already assisted Niall McConnell with support with his online presence and fundraising. Over the course of last year over €15,000 in attempted fundraising got pulled through the actions of grassroots anti racists and anti-fascists contacting platforms like GoFundMe. This was a significant impediment to McConnell’s ability to organise.
However in the months preceding the last general election, McConnell launched a new online platform to promote ultra nationalist. and raised €20,000 for his unsuccessful election campaign. The online platform used by McConnell is the same Dowson has used on multiple sites as part of fundraising and building out online reach via email marketing, and it would appear this is a result of direct support from Dowson and the British far right.
During the livestream of the discussion on19 Dowson stated that he thinks the COVID19 pandemic is overplayed, but that it also provides an opportunity for organising extremism.
“Its all rubbish nonsense, this is rubbish. I don't know if its an economic reset or if its to get rid of China, or trade. I don't know what its about, but I know one thing for sure. This corona thing is like a nasty flu. Its no more than that and the figures are telling us that now. Go and look at the figures. But the good news for you Mr McConnell and for you Mr Griffin, because I know my marketing and I know my psychology, the right wing soars in times of great economic depression. So if you keep to a right wing path, you two guys are going to do very well”
Nick Griffin sets out that he think the pandemic is started deliberately while proceeding to outline how the coming recession will be key to the future growth of far right nationalism
“The two great things about the financial crisis we are about to see is it will hit the middle classes. And if there is a target, it is the middle classes, that’s who you want. Because they are going to be squished by accident or design those people are going to lose their shirts. So you are going to have middle class people with nothing to lose and they are the people who tend to be the organisers, the really efficient ones, the ones with business experience, the ones who can get up and hold an audience, the ones with all sorts of skills. So that's really good.”
Over the past few months, McConnell, himself a Christian fundementalist has launched Síol na hÉireann. At this stage it is unclear if this is anything other than a name but for reference has over 10,000 YouTube subscribers and just over 453,000 video views. However we do know that with Jim Dowson’s assistance, McConnell has been involved in building up a significant database of email contacts and with the help of Dowson marketing, is outstripping another far right political organisation, the National Party, in terms of fundraising capacity. This has lead to significant infighting in Irish far right networks, with the Irish Freedom Party and the National Party accusing McConnell of lining his own pockets.
Whatever the squabbles between the far right, it should be a significant concern to many communities that the likes of Jim Dowson and Nick Griffin are involved in providing advice, and material support around the development of far right networks, be they street movements or political organisations. These men have set out a world view which sees militant, and when needed, military conflict as part of their strategies of building white only Christian fundamentalist states. Their involvement with armed organisations elsewhere in Europe should serve as a wake up call that far right movements are movements of violence and organised hate.