In the final days of 2020, a young Black man was shot and killed by police in Ireland’s capital. George Nkencho, a 27-year-old Irish-Nigerian man, was shot by armed officers from the Garda Síochána – the Irish police – outside his family home in west Dublin, having earlier that day assaulted an employee in a local convenience store and threatened staff with a kitchen knife.
Within two hours of his death, video footage of Nkencho’s final moments circulated on social media. On the instant messaging app, Telegram, an ethnonationalist channel named Archiving Irish Diversity Stuff vowed to “expose the truth”, falsely claiming Nkencho had wielded a machete. Another channel, Edgy Memes na hÉireann, told subscribers to “get trolling” and “push both narratives,” spreading misinformation falsely claiming Nkencho was a “homophobe,” or that the shooter was a female “Eastern Euro LGBT” Garda.
A meme claiming Nkencho had dozens of criminal convictions spread like wildfire. In fact, he had none, but by New Year’s Eve, the day after Nkencho was shot, “Jack Dawkins”, an anonymous UK far right channel then with 20,000 subscribers, went so far as to write that Nkencho had 39 convictions and that he had cut a member of staff with his knife.
None of this was true. Nkencho didn’t have any prior criminal convictions. He did however suffer from issues of mental health. His sister Gloria, standing at the gates of Leinster House, the Irish parliament, in February, said, “he needed help, not bullets,” and “Of course race plays a factor, but class is the issue we should look at here.” But it was too late: the Irish far-right had already hijacked the narrative, focusing entirely on his race. “They [the far-right] want to tarnish the reputation of migrant communities,” said Aoife Gallagher, an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a counter-extremist think tank. “It makes people think that certain forms of racism are acceptable.”
These issues were prevalent before Nkencho’s death, and have dramatically increased in the last year. The co-author of the ISD report, Layers of Lies: A First Look at the Irish Far-Right Activity on Telegram, Gallagher and her colleague Ciaran O’Connor found messages sent by Irish far-right users rose from 801 in 2019 to 60,377 across 34 channels in 2020.
This shift, she suggests, likely came off the back of WhatsApp’s decision to clamp down on users spreading misinformation in early 2019, saying that Telegram earned favour owing to its “lax moderation policies.” Under its terms of service, Telegram prohibits promoting violence and posting illegal pornographic content “on publicly viewable” channels, or to “send spam or scam users”. Misinformation, on the other hand, is not mentioned. “It’s pretty well known that channels probably won’t get shut down for things like COVID or far right conspiracy theories,” Gallagher said.
Launched in 2013 by Pavel Durov, the founder of the Russian social network site VK, and his brother Nikolai, a programmer and mathematician, today Telegram has more than half a billion users and is the most downloaded non-gaming app. Freedom of speech and privacy, Pavel said in 2015, were its core values, with the latter being “more important than our fear of bad things happening like terrorism.”
A spokesperson for Telegram did not respond for comment on this story. There is no suggestion Pavel is himself racist.
An end-to-end encrypted “secret chat” option won it favours with protest movements in Hong Kong, Iran and Belarus. However, so too did this make it the app of choice for Islamic State fighters, until a major crackdown on jihadist accounts was carried out in 2018 and 2019. More recently, it was used to promote violence during the Capitol Hill riots and has since become a refuge for QAnon conspiracy theorists whose accounts were purged from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Telegram first gained traction in Ireland during late 2019. Among the far-right, its earliest users included Orlared, an anti-migration Eurosceptic; Edgy Memes na hÉireann, a troll channel; Irish Patriots, an ethnonationalist channel and Gearóid Murphy, who describes himself as a “moderate centrist journalist” and has espoused far-right conspiracy theories on social media and travelled the country agitating against the opening of centres for accommodating asylum seekers, known as Direct Provision.
Initially, these channels used Telegram to criticise proposals for new Direct Provision centres in small towns and villages across rural Ireland. They documented local pushbacks, and championed right-wing and independent political figures who demonised asylum seekers, labelling them “economic migrants”.
Politically, the “New Nationalists” – a term used to describe the wave of populist right-wing parties in Ireland to emerge in the past six years – had gained scarcely any ground up to this point. Of the parties under this umbrella, its Eurosceptic, Pegida-associated veterans Identity Ireland were fading after its leader, Peter O’Loughlin, failed to win a seat in the 2019 European elections. In their place came the eurosceptic Irish Freedom Party, whose president, Hermann Kelly, is the former press officer for Nigel Farage. The IFP were as unsuccessful in the 2019 race, accidentally failing to register as a party. But during the pandemic, it gained exposure to a wider audience owing to its alignment with the apolitical, anti-lockdown Yellow Vests Ireland movement.
Of more immediate value to Telegram’s far-right channels were the National Party and Anti-Corruption Ireland, both having claimed that white Irish people were being intentionally made a minority by way of Direct Provision and open borders. Justin Barrett, the National Party’s leader, provided ideal content for sharing across channels, as he advocated an “Irish Ireland” at a public meeting to discuss plans for a Direct Provision centre in county Tipperary. It was however, the former journalist turned conspiracy theorist Gemma O’Doherty of Anti-Corruption Ireland who proved the most influential, effectively laying the groundwork for the first sustained campaign of misinformation launched by Telegram’s Irish far-right users.
In October 2019, the radio station Newstalk ran a documentary series on Balbriggan, a seaside town in county Fingal in the Dublin region, where 28 percent of the population was born outside Ireland. Balbriggan stood in close proximity to the Mosney Direct Provision centre, and this led to its being subject to malicious rumours, claiming the town was overridden by “gangs of black youths.”
The documentary looked into and debunked that rumour, but the following month, it was reignited by O’Doherty when she stood as an independent candidate in the Dublin Fingal by-election. Streaming on her now suspended Facebook account, she attributed the supposed decline of Balbriggan to “the globalist financial corrupt criminal banking elite” and multiculturalism.
Though O’Doherty lost the by-election, she stood again in the February 2020 General Election, meaning Balbriggan remained on the ethnonationalist radar constantly. Everything and anything was to be used to discredit Ireland’s “most diverse” town. “They were organising around Balbriggan openly on Telegram, sharing misinformation, lots of videos taken out of context and saying, ‘Oh look, this is what happens when multiculturalism was introduced,” says Bryan Wall of The Beacon, a website which monitors Irish far-right activity. “Just flat-out racism, and they really pushed that.”
When in August 2020, a house fire was reported in Balbriggan after an electrical fault caused an oil tank to explode, the Orlared Telegram channel immediately spread fake reports that the property belonged to an “African drug dealer.”
“The family who lived in the house were a mixed-race family,” says Dr Lucy Michael of Fingal Communities Against Racism, refuting the claim. Nevertheless, the story continued to spiral out of control. Video footage of dozens of young Black locals arguing in a nearby park was shared across social media platforms, with Orlared’s channel making the baseless claim that they “likely played a role.” According to Michael however, some of the kids in the video were friends with people in the house, “But that’s not the story that comes across,” she says.
Within 48 hours, news of the house fire had spread to Telegram channels overseas. “Jack Dawkins” would claim there were “African gang wars playing out on the streets of Ireland.” Michael says there was evidence that the manipulated story was being heard as far afield as the US.
“After the house fire,” she says, “there were a lot of phone calls – in the region of hundreds – to the Balbriggan Garda station from Americans claiming that they lived on the street and that they were worried about ‘black crime.’”
As a means of building support however, overtly stoking racial animus had its limits. The pandemic, on the other hand, offered members of the Irish far-right a much greater opportunity to launder their views and their image. Connecting with vulnerable and alienated people could be done with greater ease if the entrypoint were less contentious issues such as the government’s mishandling of COVID restrictions or mental health.
Explicitly anti-lockdown Telegram channels in turn enabled this strategy by sharing content from virtually any dissenting voice within their reach. “The pandemic has just created a perfect storm,” says Gallagher, who in her report found that 9 percent of all messages on Irish COVID conspiracy channels originated from far-right sources.
“There’s a couple of things I saw in the past few weeks like the idea that vaccines are meant to depopulate white nations,” Gallagher says, referencing the white nationalist “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, which states that white populations are being reverse-colonised by non-white, non-European migrants. “That stuff is really worrying, because if you believe one, you’re likely to believe in more. You completely reject anything mainstream and think nothing is true, everything is propaganda.”
Throughout the autumn, the app afforded members of the grassroots and political right in Ireland ample space to spread their message at anti-mask rallies. On the 12th of September, one such rally was advertised outside Leinster House by figures linked to the National Party, and which culminated in the assault of Izzy Kamikaze, an LGBTQI+ activist.
Kamikaze had gone up to observe the protest from a distance, saying, “As somebody very involved in LGBT activism for almost 40 years, I obviously take a strong interest in the activities of the far right.” Then, when a speaker drew the crowd’s attention towards herself and her friends, they were met with chants of “paedo scum, off our streets”.
“Suddenly there was this wall of people approaching us.” Kamikaze was struck over the head by an individual armed with a wooden plank wrapped in an Irish tricolour flag, requiring medical attention subsequently. Footage of her bloodied head did the rounds on social media, and various claims were made on Telegram and Twitter that she staged the incident, hiding a blood pack in her hair.
Elsewhere in Dublin on the same day, a separate rally was organised and promoted by anti-lockdown, ethnonationalist and troll channels. They proceeded towards the offices of TheJournal.ie, a news site which fact checks various social media rumours.
En route, they were met by Stephen Hatton, a doctor, who was photographed giving the marchers a thumbs down. “I’d been working 12 days in a row,” he says. “I felt kind of moved to give some disapproval of some form. People were shouting at me. A couple of members broke off and one snuck up behind me and was whispering things in my ear.”
Later, a channel would use anti-Semitic slurs to describe his physical appearance, and a string of users took to his Twitter page to harass him.
The widespread negative coverage surrounding the 12th September rallies and further bad press at another action in the capital on 27th February – when a firework was launched at a Garda officer – brought about a rift between explicitly far-right groups and those concerned exclusively with the lockdowns.
Of more concern to Gallagher, however, is the ease with which Telegram affords users to slip down the rabbit hole into radicalisation. Its power is less about feet on the ground, and more about the dissemination of ideas.
Gallagher is advocating for social media literacy to be taught in schools. “We can blame the platforms all we want, but we need to teach people to be responsible online in the same way that you teach people to be responsible in real life.”