Editorial – The virus may be losing its grip but extremism and conspiracy theories are here to stay

Editorial – The virus may be losing its grip but extremism and conspiracy theories are here to stay

As Ireland heads towards the fifth month of lockdown, COVID denialists and anti-lockdown activists are becoming more emboldened. Their message hasn’t been dulled throughout the entirety of the pandemic. In fact, if anything, it’s only become more potent given the hypocrisies and failures of the government throughout the pandemic. 

Online organising has resulted in real-world protests and gatherings calling for an end to the lockdown and spreading various conspiracy theories about COVID-19. The involvement of far-right actors in this is indisputable. Playing on people’s fears in various online anti-lockdown groups users often spread racist and antisemitic messages and memes.

Even though the end of the pandemic is in sight — albeit still quite a distance away — the anti-lockdown and COVID denialist movement won’t fade away. Like QAnon it’ll simply morph into something else and potentially something even more dangerous.

Conspiracy rallies

When the pandemic initially hit conspiracy theorists got moving quickly. They spread the message that COVID was made in a lab in China, that it wasn’t as dangerous as scientists said, or that it simply didn’t exist. It’s the second of these that has taken root over the last year, with COVID denialists contending that the virus is no more dangerous than the yearly flu at its worst.

From here it wasn’t a great leap for them to claim that the pandemic was brought about to usher in the lockdowns. Time and again it’s claimed that governments have not introduced these measures to try and contain the virus. Instead, they’re supposedly part of the plan for elites to introduce a worldwide police state of some kind. In Irish anti-lockdown groups users regularly make the exact same claims. The fervent belief is that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, in league with various elites such as Bill Gates, are using the lockdown measures to consolidate their power and clamp down on any dissent via the lockdown legislation.

Part of their modus operandi has been to stage protests across the country with the backing and organisational help of various far-right groups and individuals. These same groupings are now protesting weekly in towns and cities across Ireland. But it’s at the larger protests, such as the ones in Cork and Dublin, that we get a clearer picture of what’s going on. 

In Dublin on 27 February a large anti-lockdown protest took place. On display was everything you’d expect, with people calling for the end to the lockdown and a return to some kind of normality. But far-right groups and individuals were present. The National Party was there to hand out leaflets and, presumably, recruit new members. 

People in the crowd were also seen with placards making a comparison between Bill Gates and Jeffrey Epstein in terms of trusting the former with global health decisions. Other bizarre claims were exhibited, such as when some protestors accused gardaí of being in the pay of “Chinese communists”. Journalists also photographed two women wearing t-shirts which claimed that children were being killed for their adrenochrome so RTÉ stars could stay youthful.

A large protest in Cork the following week saw much of the same spectacle being repeated. Bizarre conspiracy-laden claims were made about COVID and the role of elites. And known far-right activists and parties were in attendance.

Down the rabbit hole

In the online world these same people are generally more forthright about their real views. The same conspiracy theories related to elites attempting to introduce a police state and faking or overblowing the pandemic we see at the rallies across the country are promoted in online groups too. But they often take a more sinister turn.

One group, which has over 700 members and was initially created on the basis of ending the lockdown in Ireland, began by sharing the now usual COVID conspiracy theories. But it has descended into outright antisemitism and Holocaust denial. And all of this goes unchallenged by the hundreds of others reading these posts.

An example of the antisemitism promoted in one Irish anti-lockdown group on Telegram.

Another online group, ostensibly dedicated to ending the lockdown, is also full of the kind of conspiracy theories popular amongst the far right. Antisemitism is again on display, with some users linking the Rothschilds family to the pandemic. Others claim that the pandemic is part of some wider eugenics agenda on the part of world leaders and that the proposed vaccination passport is part of this plan. Of course, no evidence was forthcoming for this. 

Users are also encouraged to vote in online polls in order to influence the outcome. One such example was during the week when a user of the above-mentioned group encouraged others to vote on a poll being run by the Journal related to vaccine passports. According to the poster, because the poll was being run by “the mainstream media” it’ll show “biased results”. How the former leads to the latter is never explained. 

Out of the bottle

It’s difficult to quantify the extent to which the above is having an effect on Irish society. But it is having an effect of some kind. If it wasn’t, anti-lockdown rallies and conspiracy theories related to the pandemic wouldn’t be so commonplace. The world of the Internet, especially the encrypted messaging and social media platform Telegram, cannot be understated in all of this.

Earlier in the week the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) published a new report detailing Irish far-right and COVID conspiracy Telegram groups. It found that in a year the use of Telegram by such groups and individuals has increased by 7,438%. 

If alarm bells weren’t ringing before they should be by now. Just because something is online doesn’t make it any less real or threatening. We saw just that when QAnon supporters stormed the Capitol. And even though Q’s predictions failed to come to fruition, the cult-like phenomenon continues.

Are things really so different in Ireland? There is the noticeable cohort consisting of a mixture of far-right activists and conspiracy theorists. On the surface the two may seem disparate but the far right has seen an opening by working with the conspiracy theorists. In the US you have the Proud Boys alongside QAnon supporters. In Ireland you have the National Party standing shoulder to shoulder with anti-lockdown protestors. Again, are things really that different?

Turning a blind eye to QAnon let it gather strength and influence that would have been unbelievable less than a decade ago. Yet, despite several setbacks, it perseveres. 

We shouldn’t fearmonger, especially given the current national and global situation. But when the pandemic finally comes to an end that doesn’t mean extremism and conspiracy theories will also disappear from Ireland at the same time. Both will still be here. The far-right and conspiracy theorist genie is long out of the bottle in Ireland. So don’t expect the danger to subside just because we want it to. 

Featured image via Screenshot

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