The Irish far-right is exploiting the death of George Nkencho to promote its racist ideology. First they presented George Nkencho as a hardened criminal, but he had no previous convictions. Then they smeared his community as a hotbed of vengeance and violence. Now, they are piggybacking on the mob-violence in Washington to engage in absurdist whataboutery.
Of course, the far-right are not responsible for all the disinformation and racism in evidence on Irish social media over the past week. Thousands of social media accounts shared the false story smearing George Nkencho as a criminal. Racism and bias exist without the provocations of extremists.
Nevertheless, the specific efforts of the far-right merit attention because, although the movement is small, it is attempting to influence public debate and shift public attitudes on immigration and Irish identity.
The far-right in Ireland
Although the term ‘far-right’ is often used in a definitive sense, the movement itself is more nebulous than the term implies. It is a catch-all term for the political parties, groups, networks, and activists who share a common commitment to nativist nationalism and a rejection of human equality as a principle. Actors within the far-right have different preoccupations and beliefs, which often change over time, and they operate without a formal leadership structure.
A 2020 report by Europol, the EU police agency, places Ireland among the countries caught up in a wave of far-right extremism. Europol characterises the Irish far-right by its anti-immigrant ideology and use of social media to solicit funding and to form connections with international networks.
Online spaces have been observed to strengthen international links among right-wing extremists. Ireland reported a strong international network involving right-wing extremists from Ireland, other European countries and the USAEuropol EU Terrorism Situation & Trend Report 2020
Last June, Irish extremists appealed to this international network to help them spread racist disinformation about a stabbing in Carrigaline. In his analysis of the resulting social media posts, Mark Malone identified the following appeal posted to a messaging board:
Extremists have also become more active offline. As Conor Gallagher writes “issues such as direct provision, child protection and, more recently, opposition to Covid-19 measures, have brought the far right onto the streets”.
In September, the LGBT+ activist Izzy Kamikaze was assaulted with a plank of wood wrapped in a Tricolour while participating in a counter-protest against an anti-mask rally. The National Party and Irish Freedom Party have been to the fore at these rallies.
Opposing public health measures has helped the far-right expand its reach by intermingling with libertarians, conspiracy theorists, and anti-establishment activists. However, the core message of the Irish far-right is an ethno-nationalist one. They oppose immigration and multiculturalism because they believe ethnic conflict is inevitable and necessary to further their aims.
Beyond the National Party and Irish Freedom Party, this message is promoted by ‘Patriot Analytica’, a collective of activists that mostly publish under pseudonyms, and by YouTuber ‘citizen journalists’. Throughout 2019, these actors played the role of agitators in local debates about proposed Direct Provision centres in Oughterard and Carrickmacross.
In the day-to-day online world, trolls reinforce the message by attempting to stir up outrage about threats to Irish identity. They harass public figures and anti-racism activists and they rail against representations of non-white Irishness.
Events last week provided an opportunity to promote this agenda among a wider audience. The disinformation spread about George Nkencho and his community replicated the playbook of tactics developed by the international far-right.
The false claim that George Nkencho had multiple criminal convictions when he had none fits into a pattern of linking minorities to crime. Once this disinformation was debunked, the focus shifted from George Nkencho to his community.
Fake screenshots shared on WhatsApp purported to show conversations among Irish Africans calling for violence. Activists monitoring the Irish far-right have documented how extremists used Telegram and WhatsApp groups to discuss their manipulation efforts and plans to polarise communities.
While presenting the Irish African community as violent agitators, the far-right claimed white communities were living in fear and needed protection. They put out calls for “Irish men of Blanchardstown” to defend their town.
To reinforce this false narrative of oppression, they accused anti-racism activists and political leaders of being unpatriotic traitors. The Lord Mayor of Dublin, Hazel Chu, has borne the brunt their racism.
As Irish politicians condemn the mob violence in Washington, the Irish far-right have again capitalised on an opportunity to demonise the Irish African community.
In the US, far-right talking points have been popularised through an eco-system of influencers and partisan media outlets who relay the message in milder terms. In Ireland, those echoing the far-right message include parties like Renua and the alternative media outlets Gript and The Burkean.
Gript and The Burkean primarily produce opinion pieces while positioning themselves as an alternative to mainstream journalism. On January 3rd, The Burkean published an article “The Truth and Lies about George Nkencho” that discusses false claims at length, but offers only a hesitant acknowledgement of their debunking: “the basic assumption must be made that this meme is completely false, at the very least until it’s proven otherwise, though that seems highly unlikely”.
The author of The Burkean article concludes by lamenting the exposure of far-right disinformation and the harm it has caused the movement:
The spread of frivolous falsehoods only harmed Nationalist arguments. This mistake cost us greatly, and will do so again if the same mistake is madeThe Burkean 03-01-2021
If the far-right are drawing lessons from their failed attempt to exploit the death of George Nkencho, then the rest of society needs to do so also.
Those who have influence in terms of proving media coverage and commentary need to do so responsibly. Promoting greater awareness of far-right tropes and manipulation tactics will help people – online and offline – recognise extremism when they see it.
An important part of increasing awareness is helping people identify effective ways to respond. Reporting social media accounts that spread hate and disinformation does have an impact.
When far-right accounts are banned or suspended from the major social media platforms, they lose their audience. Some re-emerge with new accounts and have to rebuild their followers while others move to free-speech platforms like Parler where they have largely failed to attract a following.
Of course, social media companies need to do more about the hate speech and extremism that has flourished on their platforms. The shocking events in Washington may be the tipping point for definitive action.