When Russia invaded Ukraine last month many were shocked, not least of whom some commentators who didn’t think Vladimir Putin would go that far. Others, though, knew what was coming and predicted it years ago. Putin, unable to countenance any kind of independence in the former Soviet states, would eventually act. And act he did, with the result being a massive invasion of Ukraine in what could be the early days of a Third World War.
But there’s another war going on at the same time: An Information War.
Social media has been flooded with both disinformation and misinformation. It’s easy for uncertainty to seep into situations such as war and for stories to go viral before it’s revealed that it’s not the entire truth. Then there are scenarios in which bad actors intentionally spread lies or mistruths in order to paint one side as evil and the other as righteous. Or, in the case of the war in Ukraine, to portray the dictatorial Putin as a hero doing battle against nefarious forces of the West.
Almost without skipping a beat Irish conspiracy theorist and extremist circles have jumped into the fray with gusto and have become part of the Information War. Telegram appears to have become the main vector through which disinformation related to the ongoing war is being spread, with pro-Russian messaging being rife on the platform. Although only one element of Irish extremist organising and propagandising, Telegram provides an important insight into shifts in messaging across the wider zealot-filled ecosphere.
The Beacon examined messages posted in various Irish-based anti-vaccination, conspiracy theorist, and far-right Telegram groups across a three day period from 27 February to 2 March. We found dozens of messages posted in support of the Russian invasion as well as comments spreading disinformation and propaganda. Some included antisemitic and racist remarks about both the origins of the war and the reasons for the invasion.
In one such channel users regularly posted disinformation and conspiracy theories about Ukraine and the war there. Originally set up for parents and teachers against the COVID-19 vaccines and who were also against the wearing of masks, a post from the channel of British far-right extremist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, aka Tommy Robinson, was shared with no pushback from other users. In the post it’s claimed the war is “a timely distraction” and that it’s the West that’s “CORRUPTED [sic] the Ukraine and made it a money laundering/money making mechanism for Democrats including the current dribbler in chief”.
The same channel featured a post shared from a QAnon group which asserted that Putin had invaded Ukraine to “CLEAN UP THE DISGUSTING FILTH IN THE UKRAINE”. In this case the latter referred to Ukraine’s apparently central role in child trafficking and organ harvesting. The public reasons for the invasion, which have been widely reported in the media are, it’s argued, “LIES FROM THE DEEPSTATE [sic]”.
On his channel, well-known Irish extremist and former British soldier Rowan Croft, aka Grand Torino, trod over the same ground. Croft approvingly shared a post from a crypto currency channel which declared the war is “the next stage in this global takeover”. Going on, it calls the war “fake” and “staged” and alleges it’s been arranged as such to “usher in the next stage of the Great Reset”. Putin is, in fact, trained “to play the villain but it’s all just part of the worldwide pantomime”. One commenter agreed with the assessment, declaring the mainstream narrative about the war as “bollocks” and “all staged”.
The bioweapons disinformation
Other channels originally dedicated to protesting against the COVID lockdowns and mask mandates followed suit. Dolores Cahill’s World Doctors Alliance promoted a post from the Daily Expose, a website which has regularly published disinformation about COVID-19. The post in question declared that “Covid and Putin are not a threat to your freedom; people like Schwab, Gates & Trudeau are”. It also stressed that the war was created because the “pandemic narrative began losing steam” and that Putin is “the latest bogeyman in the globalists’ crosshairs”.
But the World Doctors Alliance also posted a link to an article which made claims about the supposedly real motives for the Russian invasion that have been repeated across Telegram and social media in general: Putin is targeting US biolabs and bioweapons in Ukraine.
In the Telegram channel already mentioned which was initially set up for parents and teachers, the same conspiracy theory about biolabs could be found there. A commenter in the group posted a video which purported to show the Russian invasion forces engaging in a pincer movement to “cut off the Cabal’s infrastructure for their biolabs, weapons, human trafficking, and money train”. Likewise, in another Irish channel which regularly promotes conspiracy theories about the pandemic, as well as racism, the bioweapons story also made an appearance. A channel admin posted a link to the Veterans Today website which ran an article contending Putin’s invasion thwarted a US bioweapons attack in Ukraine. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the website has posted conspiracy theories about Israeli involvement in the 9/11 attacks and has also engaged in Holocaust denial.
Similar claims about bioweapons could be found in the channel of the Irish branch of the far-right Proud Boys as well as portrayals of Putin as a hero doing battle against Western plans for a so-called one-world government. There it was written that “the ONLY [sic] places he is Bombing [sic] in Ukraine are U.S. Military Bio Labs [sic]. Sandra Giltrap, a far-right activist and ally of Cahill, has also shared videos and posts attempting to link Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, to the war. She also posted a map of Ukraine which appears to show the locations of US biolabs in the country, commenting “Awake yet?”.
On both Facebook and Twitter posts about biolabs and bioweapons are easy to find. One of Ireland’s more notorious far-right talking heads has also promoted the conspiracy theory. In a livestream earlier in the week, Graham Carey told viewers that “Putin has destroyed 11 biolabs in Ukraine that were brought in by the Biden family back in 2014/2015”. In the same video Carey argued that the war in Ukraine is in actuality an attempted coup against the current government because it’s been involved in “filtering children around the world”.
Agendas at play
For all of the talk about biolabs and bioweapons it’s simply another conspiracy theory, more disinformation, to add to an already toxic mix. In fact, there are no US-run biolabs or bioweapons labs in Ukraine whatsoever. It seems that the story originated on Twitter from the account of an anonymous user which the company quickly suspended. But by then it was too late and now we can see the results all over social media. Disinformation and misinformation about the war are commonplace. And in the Irish case most of it seems to originate in the same ecosphere which spread countless lies about COVID-19 and the pandemic in general over the last two years.
This itself may point to Russian influence. Time and again investigators have found Russia to be the source of disinformation during the pandemic. It appears that the same tactics are now being used as Putin engages in an illegal war. Writing for Foreign Policy, Justin Ling pointed out that within minutes of Russian missile attacks on Donetsk, Odessa, and Kyiv, pro-Russian Telegram channels “supplied details, images, and video of the war in real time, in Russian, English, Spanish, and French”. And, perhaps not fully understood in the West, Telegram is the one social media app in Russia on which there are no restrictions against “state-backed propaganda campaigns”. Given the spread of Russian disinformation, Ling correctly describes it as “the front line of the information war”.
QAnon has become another avenue which pushers of Russian disinformation have begun to utilise. With the infamous Q having long lionised Putin, the wider movement backing the autocrat should come as no surprise. David Gilbert of Vice has noted that over the course of 11 months in 2021, links for Russia Today were the ones most shared in the QAnon environment. Today, that translates into conspiracies on QAnon groups which describe Putin as doing battle against the so-called “cabal” and child traffickers in Ukraine.
Looking closer to home again, there are political parties also using the war for their own ends. Fine Gael has now opened the debate on Irish neutrality and appears to be making a push for increased spending on Ireland’s military. Of course, Ireland’s neutrality has only ever been theoretical. From World War II to the US military’s ongoing use of Shannon Airport, Ireland has never been neutral.
But appeals for increased spending on the military are playing directly into the hands of the far right, with the Irish Freedom Party (IFP) calling for greater funding of the Defence Forces. Its logic is that increased militarisation is to protect Ireland’s “sovereignty” and “territorial integrity”. Not one to miss an opportunity, Justin Barrett of the National Party has also demanded the strengthening of Ireland’s military. Speaking during a recent party conference, Barrett told the crowd “I’m no pacifist” but Ireland should nonetheless stay out of military “entanglements” and that he’s against NATO membership. Instead, he remarked that he supports a “militarised Irish neutrality” and “a much stronger Defence Forces for Ireland”.
Many agendas are at play. Russia is without a doubt doing its best to push one particular narrative that is far removed from the truth. Willingly or not, Ireland’s own extremists are also playing a part in the Russian disinformation campaign. The war has become another excuse to attack the left and the government in one go. Instead of doing their own research, like they encourage their critics to do, they’re parroting Kremlin propaganda. No matter the current geographical state of the conflict, it’s a continent-wide war in the online world. And Ireland is already deep in the battle.
Featured image via Wikimedia Commons – The Presidential Press and Information Office