Nationalist ideology combine with conspiracy theories and COVID-19 misinformation in far-right communication campaigns, write Ciarán O’Connor and Aoife Gallagher.
New research by ISD examines how Telegram has evolved among far-right groups and supporters in Ireland, moving from a fringe platform to become one of the main online spaces used by the far-right to communicate, promote content, spread disinformation, organise and mobilise.
The research comes at a time when Ireland is aiming to enact new criminal legislation dealing with hate crime and incitement to hatred.
However, in considering and planning legislation, policies and programmes around hate speech, it is important that both the government and independent bodies established by them are aware of Ireland’s evolving digital policy landscape and the reality and risks that online platforms like Telegram carry.
To tackle disinformation, conspiracies and extremism effectively, voices from the government, media, academia, NGOs, research and civil society organisations must all be consulted.
This Dispatch covers the key findings of this research.
In recent years, Telegram has become a key communication tool used by radical and extremist groups across the world. In 2019, Telegram worked with the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (Interpol) to take down thousands of ISIS-related accounts.
A previous ISD study also examined how the platform is used by white supremacists to post a range of extremist material, glorify terrorism and share guides that help individuals prepare for violence.
To better understand the nature of Irish far-right activity on Telegram – and the trends, tactics and themes favoured by these communities – ISD analysts looked at the activity across 34 such Telegram channels through a series of case studies where content posted on these channels resulted in real-life consequences.
The research examined the tactics, language and trends of the Irish far-right within these channels, providing much-needed detail on its activities online.
ISD identified 34 Irish Telegram channels used to promote ethnonationalist, far-right content. These channels support nativist nationalist ideologies; promote conspiracy theories targeting political opponents; direct hate towards ethnic and religious minorities; and/ or disseminate COVID-19 misinformation. Some also support violence against the state.
Irish ethnonationalist, far-right channels actively encourage followers to spread disinformation. As seen in the case studies about George Nkencho and Roderic O’Gorman (provided in the full report), these channels support the targeting of individuals with misleading or offensive content with the aim of fostering hatred or hostility.
82% of all the messages sent by these channels were sent in 2020. Out of 73,274 messages, 60,377 were sent in 2020. In 2019, this number was just 801, representing an enormous increase of 7,438% in just one year among these communities.
The largest Telegram channel discovered by ISD has over 5,400 followers and the smallest channel has 14 followers. The average number of followers for a Telegram channel was 781 users. The 34 Telegram channels examined have a combined membership of 22,591 users; however, accounting for private channels or chat groups beyond the scope of this analysis, the number of Telegram users active in Irish far-right communities is likely higher.
These channels rely heavily on image and video content. 25% of posts identified did not feature any text, highlighting the high frequency of image and video-based posts among these Telegram channels. ISD’s analysis primarily focused on text content posted and hosted by these Telegram channels, but the large proportion of visual content raises important considerations for content moderation efforts and further research.
Far-right material is intersecting with Irish anti-lockdown and COVID-19 conspiracy theory Telegram channels. In nine such COVID-related channels identified as part of this research, 9% of all messages posted by these channels originated from a far-right source.
Hostility towards mainstream media and researchers is a core component of the Irish far-right. As seen in the case studies about George Nkencho and an anti-mask rally in September 2020, attacks, false claims and harassment campaigns were levelled against the media and extremism researchers working to report on and analyse these incidents.
The case studies suggest that far-right actors are orchestrating information campaigns as entry points to push wider racist conspiracies. As seen in the case studies about Balbriggan and Roderic O’Gorman, Irish far-right Telegram channels used these events to push wider campaigns of racist and homophobic disinformation about people of colour and members of the LGBTQ+ communities.
ISD’s research highlights how Irish far-right communities publish and share verifiably false, misleading, defamatory and threatening information concerning migrants, people of colour, women or members of the LGBTQ+ community in Ireland through Telegram. Furthermore, it shows that the platform is used by far-right entities in Ireland to attack perceived opponents in the media and launch targeted harassment and smear campaigns against others. The anonymity of Telegram and the platform’s lax moderation policies highlight how relatively easy it is to orchestrate such campaigns, as well as the absence of consequences for those directly involved in that orchestration.
Ireland’s position as a hub for technology companies means that it plays a pivotal role in EU-wide discussions on how online information services, potentially including messaging platforms like Telegram, might be regulated in the coming years. Irish regulators will come to play a central part in designing what proportional but effective oversight looks like for companies that consistently host illegal content or content that is potentially harmful to public safety or fundamental rights. An understanding of the entire ecosystem of online services used to host, curate or amplify this content, including services like Telegram, will be critical in crafting comprehensive regulatory approaches.
This research was produced in conjunction with TheJournal.ie and its investigative platform Noteworthy.ie as part of their Eyes Right series, examining the growth of far-right ideology on Irish online networks, and its influence on wider public opinion.
This article originally appeared on the Institute for Strategic Dialogue’s Digital Dispatches blog, and has been republished with permission.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Vision of Humanity.