Far-right extremism has found a safe home online in the decade since Utøya

Far-right extremism has found a safe home online in the decade since Utøya

Most of us had no idea who Anders Brevik was until 22 July, 2011 and the attacks in Oslo and Utøya. Norwegian authorities knew who he was. In spite of this he was on no watchlists. Nobody in anti-fascist circles had heard of him either. He spent years developing his ideology even if his online comments were no more extreme than those usually found on the Internet. Eventually he came to the conclusion that the only way to further his ideals was to murder innocent people he saw as enemies. He planted a bomb in the centre of Oslo which exploded outside government buildings, killing eight people. He then went to the island of Utøya where a summer camp for the youth wing of the Norwegian Labour Party was taking place. Containing some of the best and brightest of Norway’s left-wing youth, Brevik murder 69 of them in cold blood. Dressed as a police officer, some ran to him after hearing gunshots thinking he was there to save them not knowing what was to come. 

Utøya has become synonymous with Norway and far-right extremism. And the name of the murderer of 77 people is known the world over. Until that day in July ten years ago, he was nobody. He was just another conspiracy theorist and racist. It was all just words, until it wasn’t.

Home-grown rhetoric

It’s pointless to ask ourselves if it can happen again. Of course it can. And it has. In New Zealand and the US far-right terrorists have held up the Norwegian murderer as an example to replicate. Their victims had committed the crime of being different in the eyes of their murderers; they were Muslims, or Jewish, or simply left-wing activists. And like the Norwegian case, the terrorists were young men who had leaned into far-right extremism. Finding fellow travellers across social media as well as the darker parts of the Internet, their rhetoric could have been lifted straight from the Norwegian murderer. 

In Ireland we like to think that nothing like any of this could ever happen here. But isn’t that what everyone thinks? What do we think will happen when the same kinds of words and ideology beloved by the Norwegian terrorist is rampant among conspiracy theorists and extremists here?

Dee Wall, aka Dolores Webster, one of the more vocal of the far-right and anti-lockdown activists in the country, has previously said president Michael D. Higgins should have his head stamped on. During a far-right rally outside the Dáil last year she directed a large crowed toward a small group of observers. This resulted in a member of the National Party, Michael Quinn, attacking well-known LGBTQIA+ activist Izzy Kamikaze. Using a plank draped in the Irish flag, he hit Kamikaze over the head, leaving her bloodied and bruised. At a rally two weeks ago outside the Convention Centre Webster was again directing a large crowd of anti-lockdown protestors. With some of them having seemingly arrived in an agitated state to begin with, a riot almost erupted when she fed them false information over a mobile PA system. 

At the same rally was Graham Carey. Another of the more vocal anti-lockdown activists in recent months, he’s become known for his long, angry rants posted to his Facebook page. In recent weeks they have taken on a more sinister turn, with Carey being openly antisemitic. According to the truck driver, Jewish people want “to chip all the children in the world” with the COVID-19 vaccine, a theme on the conspiracy theory that the vaccines contain a microchip for various purposes. When this knowledge becomes more widely known, Carey says “the world is going to be drawn to Jerusalem”. And because Jewish people have been vaccinating children simply for “financial gain”, Carey declares “We need to wipe the Jews out”.

We also regularly see how the far right mobilises in incidents where race is likely a factor. Perhaps the most horrific example of this was in the aftermath of the gardaí shooting and killing George Nkencho late last year. Almost immediately far-right groups on Telegram sprang into action. Admins of the groups told members to “be as callous as possible” to anti-racism activists and members of the Black community in Ireland after the shooting. Their intention was to stir up tensions in the hopes of laying the groundwork for an eventual race war. Turning words into violence is a common theme in the conspiracy theorist and far-right milieus. And it’s also become all too normal in Ireland.

Platforming a threat

As the pandemic has lurched on far-right and anti-lockdown rallies have continued to proliferate. At the same time the rhetoric mentioned has festered, sometimes in the open and but often in private groups. This confluence of organised extremism on the streets alongside radicalisation via Facebook groups and Telegram channels is a serious problem. 

President Higgins has once again become a target having signed the bill into law allowing pubs and restaurants serve fully vaccinated people indoors. For this COVID conspiracy theorists have described him as “a traitor”. Others have called for him to “be pulled out of his residence” and that “THIS MEANS WAR”. In an even more disturbing turn, and seemingly aping the tactics of QAnon advocates, the same groups have now also begun to claim Higgins is a “child rapist”. Because of this so-called “compromat [sic]” — in which compromising material of the faked or real kind is used to discredit or blackmail a public figure  — the president is “100% controlled”, apparently by some nefarious forces.

This is the scene that’s been set for two rallies in Dublin to take place later today. One outside the Custom House and another outside the GPO. Splits in the wider Irish extremist movement have sometimes resulted in parallel rallies held by rival factions, as is the case here. But both rallies, and the groups associated with them, are underpinned by hatred and calls for violence that are there for all to see. A rise in reports of hate crime to the gardaí in the last year is no coincidence. 

Social media’s role in all of this cannot be underestimated. Rowan Croft, aka Grand Torino, has an active Facebook page where he posts livestreams of his rants about the so-called “Great Replacement”, calls for violence against his enemies, and for the targeting of vaccination centres. In one such video he posted in May he told supporters the death penalty should be reintroduced for politicians in favour of vaccinating children, saying they should be “hung by the neck”. Facebook eventually removed the video for violating its policies on violence and misinformation. But his page remains online. 

At the time of writing Carey’s Facebook profile, where he posted his antisemitic diatribe, is also still online along with the video in question. Mark Zuckerberg’s online empire continues to provide a platform for such views, despite its claims to the contrary. The Yellow Vests, countless anti-mask groups, and various extremist individuals and organisations, have little to fear from the platform that has provided them an outlet to radicalise people, spread disinformation, and promote racism.

A Facebook account linked to Webster posted the contact details of Dr. Tony Holohan, the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) chair and the country’s chief medical officer. Since then he’s received a number of “threatening calls”, which gardaí are currently investigating. His colleague Dr. Ronan Glynn has also experienced similar in recent days. 

It’s easy to dismiss all of this as just posturing and irrational anger on the part of a fringe element of Irish society. But that misses the point. All it takes is just one person to cause serious damage. The warning signs are there. It only took one man to end the lives of 77 people in Norway in the space of a few hours. It’s all just words, until it isn’t. 

Featured image via Flickr – NRK P3

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