Disinformation is nothing new in the worlds of conspiracy theories and extremism. In both milieus those with an agenda twist evidence and facts to suit whatever narrative they’re trying to promote. We’ve seen it again and again in the aftermath of protests in recent months. Truth becomes pliable and information inconvenient to the favoured narrative is pushed aside where it can be ignored.
When a member of the National Party allegedly attacked Izzy Kamikaze at an anti-mask rally last year, far-right activists showered social media with disinformation that the veteran activist had somehow faked the injury she suffered. Similar patterns played out after gardaí shot and killed George Nkencho last December.
Across Telegram and Twitter the far right spread disinformation about Nkencho and those rightly angered at his killing. This included sharing a photograph of a man they claimed Nkencho had assaulted with a knife, thereby somehow justifying the actions of the gardaí. It turned out the photograph in question was of an Everton fan who supporters of a rival team attacked.
But the latest disinformation campaign took on a particularly troubling aura as it involved the lives of two children.
The preferred narrative
Last week footage emerged of gardaí removing two children from the home of their father. In the footage a number of gardaí are seen talking to the man, who can’t be named for legal reasons, with one informing him they were concerned for his well-being. And with this in mind they would detain him under Section 12 of the Mental Health Act. Gardaí also told the man they had removed his children from his care under Section 12 of the Childcare Act.
The following day various far-right actors sprung into action. Across social media, and especially on Irish far-right Telegram channels, it was claimed gardaí detained the man and removed his children from his home as a form of retaliation. Two weeks prior the man had filmed gardaí dispersing an illegal mass in Athlone. The line was pushed that gardaí detained him and removed his children from his care as an act of revenge.
At Longford garda station National Party leader Justin Barrett made representations on the man’s behalf. Arguing with a garda on duty, Barrett could be heard telling him the reason given for what had taken place was “not an adequate explanation”.
In a video he uploaded to Telegram, fellow National Party member Philip Dwyer described what happened as “a sinister development”. He also attempted to link the event to the incident at the church two weeks prior. Over the following days Dwyer uploaded further videos in which he repeated his previous claims as well as implying that Tusla, the child protection agency, acted inappropriately and that the gardaí are “out of control” and “acting outside of the law”.
Other members of the National Party started a GoFundMe to ostensibly pay for the man’s legal fees. Within hours donations amounting to thousands of Euros had come in. By the time GoFundMe finally shut down the fundraiser people had donated over €13,000.
Across social media this message of garda overreach and vindictiveness was spread far and wide. Others outside of the National Party contributed to the morass too.
Notorious anti-mask and far-right activist Dee Wall also uploaded videos spreading the same disinformation. In one video she also interviewed the man in question. Even a senator got involved. Sharon Keogan wrote on Twitter that the incident “requires a full investigation” while tagging the minister for social protection in her tweet.
The students behind online far-right publication the Burkean insisted that the incident shows the state will “misuse legislation to confiscate children of political dissidents”. It was not the only publication to make baseless accusations.
Free Press, a website which posts wild conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and far-right talking points, proclaimed the incident was a “Revenge Attack” on a Christian activist by the gardaí.
Fellow travellers elsewhere echoed these sentiments. On one ethnonationalist Telegram channel the admin told subscribers the man’s “children have now been disappeared into a black hole of foster care”. Far-right group Síol na hÉireann also tried to take advantage of the situation. Party leader Niall McConnell said the man’s children being taken by gardaí was “disturbing” and tried to link it to the footage the man previously recorded in the church.
But there was one problem with this story of garda overreach: It was all based on a lie.
In the courts
Gardaí did not remove the man’s children from his custody because of a vendetta on their part. The reality was a bit more complicated.
Last October the man’s children had come to stay with him as part of a visitation arrangement he had with his now former wife. She lives in France where their children were born and where they usually live. But when he was due to return the children to their mother by 1 November, the man refused to comply. His argument was that the compulsory wearing of masks in French schools would damage the health of his children.
Their mother launched legal action, citing the International Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Abduction. Also known as the Hague Convention, it was enacted to “protect children internationally from the harmful effects” of abduction and or wrongful retention.
Eventually the case reached the High Court. At one point the defence wanted to call Professor Dolores Cahill as an expert witness in relation to masks and COVID-19. Cahill, the former chair of the Irish Freedom Party (IFP), has made bizarre claims about COVID and the pandemic. She’s argued that the virus is no worse than a seasonal virus and that it’s part of an agenda by elites. The court refused the request.
On 12 March the judge ruled that the man must return his children to their mother, arguing “there had been a wrongful retention of the children”. He appealed the ruling.
During the appeal he attempted to introduce evidence in relation to the supposed lack of effectiveness of face masks, COVID-19 tests, and vaccines. In its judgement the court pointed out the submissions were “not legal submissions in any meaningful sense”. In fact, they were “a series of factual or quasi-factual assertions” that also included “a great deal of irrelevant and/or sensationalist material”.
According to the court there is no risk to the health of the children by wearing face masks. The man, it pointed out, had also made “lurid claims” about the safety of vaccines which it said were “wholly unsubstantiated by any evidence before the Court”. And on 28 April the Irish Court of Appeal upheld the High Court’s ruling ordering the children’s return.
In directing the return of the children to their mother the court opined “There is no dispute that they have been wrongfully detained in Ireland”. And, what’s more, their mother “did not consent to the children remaining in Ireland beyond 1 November 2020”.
By the time the courts made their rulings and the truth came out it was too late. Unfortunately the false narrative about garda vindictiveness and a conspiracy to steal the man’s children was endemic on social media. People were led to believe he didn’t want his children to be forced to wear masks in school and that the state’s response to this was to punish him and take his children.
But the reality is that the man had effectively kidnapped his children. And both the High Court and Court of Appeal ruled as much. A different account the far right and conspiracy theorists initially pushed had no concern for these facts and the actual truth. What mattered to them was their narrative.
All of this is in keeping with warnings the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) made last year. In a publication on COVID-19 disinformation it highlighted that various extremists were using the pandemic to further their agendas. It revealed that conspiracy theorists and far-right groups were using the pandemic “opportunistically”. It also warned that groups were using COVID-19 as a “wedge issue” and encouraging “insurrectional violence”.
An increasing problem
Over the last 12 months a number of anti-mask rallies have taken place across Ireland. Conspiracy theorists and extremists of various shades have stood side by side at these public demonstrations of anger, irrationality, and zealotry. In all cases the belief that the government is attempting a power grab of some kind has been a common theme.
At such a rally last November, Cahill proclaimed that governments were using the pandemic to bring in a form of “tyranny”. Michael Leahy, the new chair of the IFP the party appointed to the position in March after Cahill’s resignation, told the crowd that gardaí were now enforcing a police state in Ireland. Just two weeks ago at a rally in Cork Cahill made similar assertions. She told attendees there was a “globalist agenda” to outlaw ownership of property and that COVID-19 vaccines were making young people infertile.
At some of these rallies violence has been on display. Extremists attacked counter-protestors at one of these rallies in August last year, with one person ending up hospitalised. As already mentioned, a member of the National Party allegedly attacked Izzy Kamikaze outside the Dáil last September. Kamikaze and fellow activists were observing an anti-mask rally organised by National Party when she was struck over the head by a piece of wood with the Tricolour on it. And at a similar rally in March this year, protestors on Grafton Street set off fireworks aimed at gardaí.
Clearly there is a pattern here of the far right using the pandemic to spread disinformation in the way the ISD warned. The latest manifestation of this was the case with the man and his children. Opportunists took up his cause with relish without concern for the facts. All that mattered was using the entire affair to promote a narrative that painted conspiracy theorists and the far right as victims of state power and corruption.
The speed at which the false story spread across social media is troubling. Clearly social media companies need to do more to tackle disinformation. At the moment their attempts have been less than adequate.
What this latest incident shows is that no matter the reality, those with an agenda will use any cause to promote themselves and their preferred narrative. And while COVID0-19 might be loosening its grip on Ireland, the disinformation war won’t any time soon.
Featured image via Wikimedia Commons – kieranlynam