Two months ago I interviewed a fellow OSINT researcher from Germany on the topic of the far right and their online presence, especially in the context of the Iron March forum breach and the subsequent fallout.
Not many people in Ireland realise that this breach also exposed domestic users, many of whom identify themselves online as “Hitlerists” and “fascists”.
Luckily, somebody is keeping the tabs – the subject of Irish right wing extremism is being comprehensively monitored and covered on a regular basis by a new information platform, The Beacon.
As this topic seems very relevant (not just in the context of open source intelligence), I decided to invite Bryan and Annie from The Beacon to discuss it here.
What is The Beacon - how did it come about and why?
Bryan: The Beacon came about after discussions between a small group of us who were unhappy with the lack of reporting by the mainstream media in Ireland about the current rise of extremism and the far right here. And when there was reporting it was often lacking context and was, in some cases, inaccurate. So with this in mind, we decided that creating something similar to the Swedish anti-fascist publication Expo was the correct way to approach things.
What prompted you guys to investigate the far right extremist movement in Ireland? And when did you start?
Bryan: The far right has always existed in Ireland. Its activity has spiked on occasion but this was usually limited to individuals and small groups. What’s different now is that over roughly the last 18 months a wider far-right movement has emerged which is highly connected and efficient. The internet, and social media in particular, has become a recruitment and propaganda tool in a way that didn’t exist even ten years ago. We found this very worrying and, as mentioned, the lack of proper reporting by the mainstream media gave us even greater cause for concern.
So, after some discussions amongst ourselves and some brainstorming we launched the website in August 2019.
I think the main motivating fear, at least for myself, is that we will approach something akin to the situation in Germany and parts of Scandinavia, such as Sweden. In both countries far-right parties have successfully mobilised and won over a large amount of the electorate. In Sweden the Sweden Democrats, a far-right party, are the third-largest party in the Swedish parliament.
Annie: It’s not just political gains. In Germany we have seen the army, the police, the federal police and even the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution get increasingly infiltrated by the far right. We’ve seen politicians receive death threats for speaking out against racism; we’ve even seen them get murdered. Last June Walter Lübcke, regional president of the Christian Democrats, was assassinated in his home by a neo-Nazi with strong ties to the AfD. An acquaintance of mine, the former co-leader of the Green Party, Cem Özdemir, received death threats from neo-Nazis as did others. The former major of Estorf in Lower Saxony, a Social Democrat, resigned to keep himself and his family and friends safe. These are just examples of a systemic problem.
We are seeing similar sentiments here in Ireland. Figureheads of the far right have relentlessly incited hate and violence against left-leaning politicians and anyone who welcomes refugees; from Hazel Chu to the president. My motivation stems from what I’ve seen from growing up in Germany. I’ve seen how bad things get (and they just keep getting worse). In Ireland the blatant hate and racism that comes with an active far right on the scale we’re currently seeing is relatively new. We still have a chance of stomping it out before it gets too big.
In your opinion, what drives the popularity of right wing organisations in the 21st century, in Ireland and globally?
Bryan: I think you first need to understand the make-up of the far right before you can understand its popularity. You have the true believers who are 100% invested in the white supremacist ideology. For them, any person not sufficiently white, or in the Irish case, “Celtic”, is a threat to be dealt with. There’s also the belief in a wider conspiracy involving various elites who want to eliminate white people by bringing people from the Middle East and Africa to Europe. This grouping has always been relatively small.
The larger grouping is more complex. As Hannah Arendt pointed out, political disfunction breeds disenchantment with standard politics. In Ireland we’ve had over a decade of austerity. The health service is crumbling, homelessness is increasing, and most people will never be able to afford a home of their own. To the average person, all they see are successive governments who don’t care about them. The left failed to capitalise on this.
And as a result, the far right has filled the vacuum by giving people answers they didn’t have and making promises that are attractive to them. The answers may be simplistic such as “The reason you can’t get work is because immigrants are taking all the jobs.”, but it’s an answer that wasn’t there before. Standard politics hasn’t worked for them so they want something or someone who appears to be outside the standard political model.
Peter Casey personified this when he won just over 23% of the vote in the presidential elections in 2018. That should have sent alarm bells ringing in the media. It didn’t. Instead, they gave him, and continue to give him, a platform.
Annie: Short and simple: austerity. Austerity always breeds fascism. It wasn’t any different in the 1930s. Capitalism in general fosters it with its constant need for competition, but it’s when capitalism is failing in a way that affects the majority that fascism thrives.
Can you paint a picture of the current situation of the far right in Ireland? Is it a fragmented, chaotic conglomerate of individuals or is it an organised underground network?
Bryan: From my own view it’s a semi-organised network of individuals with a larger grouping around them. In private Facebook groups, for example, we see the same names popping up again and again who are pushing the far-right narrative. There are only a handful of these people but they appear to have a good deal of sway on a substantial amount of people. They’re not leaders per se but more like influencers that you see on YouTube. The difference is that these influencers push an anti-asylum seeker agenda alongside bizarre conspiracy theories.
On the other hand, there are also clear divisions within the wider movement. On one prominent Irish internet forum for the far right there have been open discussions about the lack of political viability of certain individuals and parties who have put themselves forward as far-right candidates in elections. Some of these individuals have been seen as “damaging” to the far-right agenda.
There is also the division within the movement between true believers and those they consider to be fakers as such. For example, far-right influencers have used social media to publicly attack other similar influencers, accusing them of only being in it for the financial rewards that come from wide support.
We’ve also come across direct evidence of the involvement of the far right from abroad. For example, during a so-called “free speech” rally in Cork in early January one of the people attending it said on camera that they, i.e., the National Party, have “got a lot of people in America coming on board helping us now as well”. This isn’t new but it’s also not something to be dismissed out of hand.
Annie: I think in terms of the far right it’s important to understand that it’s really only a relatively small number of people in this country. There’s a lot of casual and not so casual racism in online forums of course. And by that I mean more mainstream forums, like the comment section of the Journal or NewsTalk on Facebook. Both are notorious for rather blatant racism, and you have far-right people popping up in those for, I guess, recruiting purposes. But mostly these are just people struggling and feeling left behind by the government, desperately looking for an easy scapegoat, i.e., immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers.
The actual Irish far right is a small group of hate mongers in close contact with the far right in Europe and the US. There are very few of them. And while well-networked, they constantly fall out with each other. There’s a lot of infighting and competition for the spotlight. I don’t think there’s much of a far right underground in Ireland. The underground would be elsewhere.
Our far right is really more of a small group of grifters trying to get in on the far right cash and notoriety. They are getting their orders and input from elsewhere; mostly the US, but also the UK and Scandinavia. We know of at least two prominent far right figures with close ties to German neo-Nazis as well.
What kind of online presence does right wing extremism have in Ireland?
Annie: In terms of public online presence they are very active on Twitter and YouTube, or their own websites if they are banned. They are also active in private groups of course. The things discussed and phrases used there would make your blood boil.
Bryan: On Facebook it’s highly organised. There are many private groups there where ideas are exchanged alongside propaganda articles which reinforce the particular anti-migrant worldview. The same applies to Twitter. And on top of that you have internet forums.
All of this combined makes for a pretty substantial online footprint. Now, how much of that is from people living in Ireland is an important question. Either way, it’s worrying.
Do you have any idea what kind of people are involved in the right wing extremism in Ireland? Do you know any demographics, background, or even geographical location?
Bryan: In my experience so far, it’s quite spread out. Obviously there are concentrations in urban areas but that’s to be expected.
We’ve noticed that some people who were previously involved in anti-austerity protests a few years ago, and who were even members of left-wing parties, are now heavily involved with the far right. One well-known Irish far-right influencer was a member of the Social Democrats a few years ago. These days they’re meeting with fascists in Germany and Italy.
Annie: Geographically there’s a bit of a cluster in Dublin, as you would expect, but generally they are spread out. In terms of demographics and background there isn’t one simple answer. Some of the figureheads are from an upper middle class background; financially comfortable, well educated, etc. They are doing it in hopes of an easy power grab I think and not out of real conviction. The rest are disaffected people. Easy pickings for the fear- and hate-mongering rhetoric of the former.
Who are the typical targets of the Irish right wing groups, in a broad socio-political sense?
Annie: Who isn’t? First and foremost it’s immigrants of course, especially Muslim people. Then it’s anyone opposing them; anti-fascist activists, communists, socialists etc., but increasingly also more centrist voices who are opposing them.
In fact quite a few of the far right and its fan base seem to be more enraged by “anti-fa” than immigrants. It’s important to remember history here. The Nazis in the 1930s came after the communists, socialists and social democrats before they came after the Jews. I suppose ethnic cleansing is easier when the opposition is gone.
Bryan: In terms of recruitment, the main targets appear to be anyone angry at the successive governments of the last decade. Recession and austerity left many people in a bad position. And now that things are apparently better these same people are struggling to get by. As a result, there’s been a clear attempt to target working class people, at least in my view.
One of the common narratives used by the far right is that the working class have been abandoned by the government in favour of asylum seekers. So, at these anti-direct provision protests we’ve seen emerge in the last 12 to 18 months it’s always framed as an economic issue; that there aren’t enough jobs or services in the areas where asylum seekers are due to be placed.
But this is just a front. Behind the scenes, in private Facebook groups for example, this talking point has been artificially created in order to sanitise the wider and real agenda. And that agenda is one where anybody believed to be non-Irish is to be stopped from entering the country or, if they’re already here, deported.
Could you share the worst examples of online incitement to hatred you have encountered in your research?
Bryan: It’s hard to narrow it down because, frankly, there’s a lot of it. I think the most concentrated amount of online incitement to hatred can be found on that internet forum I mentioned. Anything goes there.
Then there are the leaks from the Iron March forum where you had Irish users openly calling for Jewish people to be gassed.
Facebook is also guilty of not doing enough to clamp down on incitement and hate speech. In these private Facebook groups I mentioned you see all kind false narratives and conspiracy theories about asylum seekers and left-wing politicians being pushed.
Annie: Even Twitter and public Facebook pages are increasingly full of terrible hate speech. It’s really quite shocking what people get away with, which is why a proper actionable hate speech legislation is so important. And of course there’s the various live streams of far-right figureheads that are full of increasingly bizarre lies and conspiracy theories about anyone foreign as well as anyone opposing far right ideas.
It gets even worse when the target is a member of both groups. On last week’s so-called “free speech” rally someone took it upon themselves to call the counter protestors “vermin” and also had obvious suggestions about what to do with them. We’ve seen terrible abuse and incitement directed at political candidates who aren’t quite Irish enough for the far right; mostly candidates on the left, but also the taoiseach.
There’s an incredible amount of hate directed at our Muslim population and a lot of deliberate lies are being spread to foster it. There’s also the constant anti-Semitic element of course. Most far-right conspiracy theories are at their core rooted in anti-Semitism.
Based on your knowledge of the domestic right wing fundamentalism, how should the Irish government approach this problem?
Bryan: For a start, it needs to be taken more seriously. When we previously spoke to Shane O’Curry of INAR he argued that the gardaí is stuck in an institutional way of thinking in which Irish Republicanism is seen the main threat to Ireland. He’s not wrong. And the gardaí are notoriously resistant to change.
I think that a lot could be learned from the model used in other countries where the threat from far-right extremists is taken seriously. The introduction of deradicalisation programmes would also be of benefit.
The public consultation on Ireland’s hate speech laws is a step in the right direction but it’s only one step. And it remains to be seen if anything will actually come of it.
In November I interviewed a German researcher of this topic and asked him about his own online and physical safety measures. How do you approach this yourself, since investigating right wing groups can be a risky business?
Bryan: I don’t want to go into too much detail here, for obvious reasons. But when it comes to online safety and investigating things, it’s all pretty commonsensical; VPNs, Tor, etc.
Thanks very much for your time, Annie and Bryan. Is there anything else you would like to mention?
Bryan: If people want to contact us with information or tips they can contact us privately and we can arrange to speak via Signal or whichever secure communication method they prefer. Anonymity is guaranteed.