In June, the 'Ireland' page of Reddit, one of the world's most visited discussion websites, took the unprecedented step of shutting down on a nightly basis. A statement on the popular page explained that it had become the focus of overnight attacks. Conducted during US daylight hours, these produced a deluge of racist material that the volunteers who police the page struggled to deal with.
After updating its automated flagging systems and doubling its number of active moderators, the Reddit Ireland page is now running overnight again. However, a moderator told Review that despite these changes and a drop in the number of harmful posts, racist and extremist content remains an issue.
Far from being an isolated incident, the situation reflects growing concerns about right-wing extremism or 'alt-right' activity on Irish internet platforms. In the same month, Europol's annual terrorism report warned that Ireland was experiencing a significant rise in far-right activity. Highlighting how online spaces can "strengthen international links among right-wing extremists", the EU police agency found that Ireland "reported a strong international network involving right-wing extremists from Ireland, other European countries and the US".
This trend has been observed by Dr Niamh Kirk, a University College Dublin researcher, in her work on Irish right-wing YouTubers and the ecosystem they inhabit. "The online networks are across all social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and many niche forums and private messaging platforms," she says. "There are some strong alliances within and between various online communities including the Irish conspiracy theorists and right-wing and far-right groups.
"There are multiple links to groups and other influencers in the US, UK and throughout Europe. How groups or individuals become aligned and mobilised is not entirely clear and is largely understudied regarding the Irish ecosystem. However, co-operation includes simple acts like referencing each other's works and featuring each other via interviews."
In the media, 'alt-right' has become a catch-all for new forms of internet-based right-wing activity. In Kill All Normies, her book on the online culture wars, the Irish academic Angela Nagle argues that the strictest definition of the term is that used by "its own online circles" to refer to "only a new wave of overtly white segregationist and white nationalist movements and subcultures". To illustrate, she uses the example of Richard Spencer, a leading figure in the US alt-right, who openly supports the concept of a state populated only by white people.
The internet's role in disseminating conspiracy theories and extremist ideologies is well-documented. Popular podcasts such as Caliphate and Rabbit Hole have explored how online communities can foster radicalisation and conspiratorial thinking. Given the widespread use of digital technologies and social media in particular, it is not surprising that these trends are making themselves felt in Ireland, but it is concerning.
The Far-Right Observatory (FRO) describes itself as a "loose network of researchers, activists and people from community development backgrounds" who monitor far-right activity in Ireland. Since 2015, they have become alarmed by what they describe as a proliferation of alt-right activity on Irish online platforms. A FRO representative told Review: "Over the course of 2017 and definitely over the course of 2018, we started to see a significant uptick in online conversations around anti-direct provision, anti-immigration and white supremacy.
"It seems significantly different to what we've seen previously and it's quite distributed. Alongside that, you had the emergence of a couple of YouTube grifters.
"These are people who are making money off the back of promoting far-right identity, often with a significant overlap of conspiracy theories. What we're witnessing is an interplay between platforms.
"Facebook is a key recruiting space for seeding conversations. Twitter would be a regular space for trolling and attacking particular organisations and individuals around particular themes."
Last year, the FRO prepared a briefing document outlining their concerns about alt-right activity on Facebook in Ireland. It was given to Mark Zuckerberg during his trip to Dublin. Comparing 2015 activity levels to those of last year, it says: "In 2019 these pages number over 40 with a total of 130,000 Facebook profiles liking these pages. A base figure from 2015 monitoring was three to four pages."
According to the FRO brief, significant and rapid changes have occurred in alt-right activity here in the last two years. Chief among these, they say, is a shift "into real world activity with people willing to identify themselves".
This is in tandem with what they describe as the development of networks that span not just Facebook but YouTube and Twitter, in some cases with follower numbers in the hundreds of thousands. On the scale of these networks, the document says: "Although there is overlap, if mobilised there would be significant impact."
In Europe, Ireland has traditionally been an outlier when it comes to right-wing radicalism. This is largely due to a colonial past that fostered a nationalism built on notions of liberation. This is distinct from the 'blood and soil' variety that emphasises race as a key component of national identity. However, as history and as recent upheavals in the US, the UK and eastern Europe show, ideologies that were once fringe can quickly become mainstream.
"The online world has created an environment that favours conflict and arguments over healthy debate and this can often drive people to more niche corners of the internet where their views are affirmed by like-minded people," says Aoife Gallagher, an analyst with the ISD think-tank, which works to understand and combat extremism.
"If these views are centred around hate and bigotry, this affirmation can often lead to radicalisation. This type of thinking creates a polarised society and provides the perfect breeding ground for populist political campaigns. You don't have to look too far to see the consequences of these kinds of campaigns, especially when they are coupled with the constant rhetoric that the mainstream media cannot be trusted."
While Gallagher says trust in the traditional media here is "still high", she sounds a note of caution: "Ignoring the extremist undercurrent that has seeped into Irish society in the last few years has the potential to damage this trust, which could have serious consequences for our democracy."
Having seen these consequences play out elsewhere, the time to be alert to the threat of alt-right ideology in Ireland is now.