Readers like you keep news free for everyone.

More than 5,000 readers have already pitched in to keep free access to The Journal.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can help keep paywalls away.

Support us today
Not now
Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 2°C
Alamy Stock Photo

Major analysis shows how Irish disinformation ecosystem has been 'co-opted by far-right actors'

Groups that grew during the pandemic changed their targets in recent years.

A NEW REPORT analysing more than 13 million posts has been released today, shedding light on how misinformation about Covid-19, Russia and climate change, as well as hate material targeting migrants and LGBTQ+ people, is delivered to Irish internet users.

The report, called Uisce Faoi Thalamh (literally Irish for “water under ground” – an idiom for “conspiracy”), was published by the Institute of Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a counter-extremism think-tank. 

It outlines how misinformation and conspiracies have been pushed across social media platforms and alternative media sites since the start of the pandemic.

The comprehensive report also strongly points toward foreign influences shaping the stories spread in fringe groups, which often describe themselves as nationalists in opposition to “globalism”.

The analysis, which tracked more than 1,640 accounts that spread disinformation from the start of 2020 to April 2023, showed a major spike in posts about health early in 2020, when the Covid pandemic began.

Posts about health continued to be spread by accounts sharing misinformation, before suddenly dropping at the end of 2021.

“This mis- and disinformation ecosystem has been successfully co-opted by far-right actors who, after pandemic restrictions eased, have diverted attention towards targeting vulnerable communities,” the report said.

“Their influence is increasing,” Aoife Gallagher, one of the report’s authors, told journalists at a briefing on the report.

When it comes to issues like immigration and LGBT rights, it is prominent individuals associated with the far-right who are leading that charge.

Data highlighted in the report shows a major increase in posts about topics like the Russia/Ukraine war, LGBTQ+ people and the subject of immigration.

“Discussion of immigration within this mis- and disinformation ecosystem significantly increased in late 2022 and then exploded in 2023,” the report reads.

“ISD’s data collection period for this study ended on 3 April, meaning just 93 days of data for this year were collected. Despite this, these 93 days of activity resulted in over 267,000 posts, more than the total of 2022.”

And while the report focuses on online posts the rhetoric being used had real-world effects.

“We saw videos of abusive and confrontational and even, sometimes, violent interactions which were related to false information about Covid, receiving some of highest engagement — a total of 5.3 million views,” Ciarán O’Connor, one of the report’s authors, said.

“A typical video would be confrontations between gardaí and people during lockdowns in 2020 or 2021 in Ireland, but also interactions and confrontations with public health staff, or pharmacist staff administering vaccines.”

These include videos featuring Gemma O’Doherty and Dolores Cahill, two major figures in conspiracy theory circles who had spread false claims during the COVID pandemic.

many-properties-in-bantry-are-displaying-covid-19-information-signs-by-hse Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo


The report also described how violence is often threatened and celebrated in fringe groups, including threats against Irish politicians.

“ISD observed threatening and violent rhetoric aimed at Irish politicians in relation to the introduction of restrictions to curb the spread of Covid-19, the arrival to Ireland of tens of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers from 2022 onwards, and teaching children about LGBTQ+ issues.”

Fringe groups studied in the report had called for the execution, often by gallows, of numerous named politicians, while members used “gender-specific slurs” directed against women politicians, the report said.

According to the report: “This more recent activity has revolved around mobilising against immigration by framing asylum seekers or refugees as an existential threat to Ireland and spreading hateful falsehoods about the LGBTQ+ community”.

The fight against climate change was portrayed as a battle against “rural Ireland” and Irish tradition and culture. Far-right political parties were particularly successful in exploiting this narrative to position themselves as defenders of rural Interests.

Sources of confusion

The report gives an extensive analysis of how misinformation is spread on social media platforms, gives a picture of how alternative media is used to spread and legitimise misleading narratives and how foreign influences have spurred Irish campaigns.

X, formerly known as Twitter, is by-far the biggest spreader of misinformation among the platforms studied, though the authors noted that a proper quantitative analysis of some platforms was impossible.

“Of the accounts analysed, the top 50 most prolific accounts were responsible for over 35% of the total content, and the top 10 for over 14% of the activity,” the report said of Twitter.

“Virtually all the most prominent actors in the Irish mis- and disinformation ecosystem were highly active on Twitter,” the report read, noting that the most popular Irish spreader of disinformation had hundreds of thousands of followers.

In short, users of Twitter (X) were central to the production and promotion of mis- and disinformation in Ireland.

Elon Musk bought Twitter in late 2022 and has been reluctant to take measures to stop the spread of misinformation on the platform, even unbanning major spreaders of falsehoods.

Musk has posted false conspiracy theories onto his personal X account and shared tweets by antisemities and other racist commentators.

Meanwhile, though the report acknowledged that Facebook was “still a popular platform within this ecosystem,” its analysis showed that, at least within the groups studied by the ISD, its “popularity may be waning”.

TikTok, a Chinese-owned video sharing platform, is frequently criticised for it’s privacy protections and its role as a major source of news among young people. However, the ISD analysis showed that influential Irish spreaders of misinformation struggled to establish themselves on the platform, either failing to create followings, or, in most cases, getting suspended.

However, this did not mean that misinformation or hateful content did not spread on TikTok.

“Despite the accounts analysed having low follower numbers, some of their videos reached more than a million viewers,” the report said, noting that anti-migrant content, including videos of migrants being harassed, was a recurrent topic on the platform.

The messaging app Telegram, known for its lack of censorship, was described in the report as “one of the main online spaces” for far-right groups in Ireland “to communicate, promote content, spread mis- and disinformation, organise and mobilise”.

However, the analysis also showed how these Irish fringe groups, which often describe themselves as nationalist, are heavily influenced by international sources.

The report also found that Telegram served as a “conduit for Russian state-backed media”, with posts from RT (previously Russia Today) spread at scale by Irish fringe accounts after Russian media outlets were blocked by EU sanctions.

It also found that Tommy Robinson, an anti-immigrant activist with who identifies as a “loyalist” and has defended British soldiers accused of crimes in Northern Ireland, was ranked fourth on the list of the top ten most-forwarded Telegram accounts in Irish groups.

“Other figures from the UK such as Mark Collett and Nick Griffin, both formerly of the far-right British National Party, were also shared regularly within the Irish mis- and disinformation ecosystem on Telegram,” the report reads.

Similarly, the report shows that discussion on LGBTQ+ issues in fringe groups rarely focussed on local issues, instead relying on international news and commentary by such figures — with the notable exception of Enoch Burke, an teacher who has falsely claimed he was fired for refusing to use a student’s preferred pronouns.

The most shared post on fringe Facebook pages featured a video of a rant against trans rights by Andrew Tate, an American-British media personality who is currently awaiting trial in Romania on charges of human trafficking, rape, and forming a criminal gang.

The report also noted the popularity in Irish fringe groups of posts about library protests, a movement that began overseas which often sees activists accuse librarians of encouraging paedophilia unless they remove books about LGBTQ+ issues.

bucharest-romania-21st-june-2023-andrew-tate-and-his-brother-tristan-tate-surrounded-by-bodyguards-leave-the-bucharest-court-where-their-trial-in-the-preliminary-chamber-began-today-tate-brothe Alamy Stock Photo Andrew Tate leaves a Bucharest Court in June of this year. Alamy Stock Photo

Alternative media

While many of the arguments used in fringe communities are taken from overseas, the report also highlights the popularity of Irish alternative media in groups that spread them.

The report found that the most shared media within the fringe groups studies, by far, was of, a conservative alternative media site.

The report noted more than 78,000 shares of Gript articles – often on the topics of health, LGBTQ+ issues and immigration.

“Since the beginning of the anti-immigration protests in November 2022, Gript has published an average of 48 posts per week across Facebook, Twitter (X), YouTube, Telegram and Instagram that reference this topic,” the report says.

“Four of the ten most-shared URLs within the immigration topic linked to articles from Gript and five of the most-viewed YouTube videos within this topic were published by Gript”.

In a right to reply appendix to the report, argued that it should not be included as a spreader of misinformation. They cited an active complaint with the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) made by them against a factcheck by The Journal. In September, their complaint was dismissed by the IFCN in favour of The Journal.

Together with, a right-wing website that has been factchecked numerous times by The Journal, these two sites made up almost half of all media shared in the fringe groups studied.

Support increasing 

While the study’s authors note that, until an election, it is hard to know how widespread the beliefs expressed in these groups are among the general population, their study does indicate that support for extreme positions is increasing.

“The impact that they are having is still very serious,” Aoife Gallagher said.

Members of the groups, she said, “don’t need to have political power in order to harass migrants, and they don’t need to have political power to go into libraries and harass librarians and storm Drag Queen Story Hour events.”