Releasing the Genie
Notwithstanding frantic after-the-fact efforts to rehabilitate the town’s reputation, there is little doubt that alt-right/far-right extremists successfully infiltrated that public meeting in Oughterard.
The townspeople currently protesting the proposed Direct Provision facility (Ireland’s version of an asylum seeker reception centre) are not members of any far-right organisation. They are just ordinary citizens.
However, these ordinary citizens wouldn’t be protesting were it not for organised efforts by far-right extremists to provoke them into doing so.
They wouldn’t be there — holding signs and patrolling the grounds, twenty-four hours a day — if not for a co-ordinated campaign of far-right fear-mongering, deliberately designed to infuse xenophobia into what was previously a harmonious and peaceful rural community.
Let me be specific:
- The Oughterard meeting was organised by moderators of a Facebook page that was set up specifically for the purpose. The moderators of that page include persons with links to far-right activities and pages. The contents of the Oughterard page have included several inflammatory racist diatribes.
- TV crews were not allowed to film inside the meeting. However, the meeting was filmed by a prominent far-right vlogger, who posted videos of proceedings online. He travelled to Oughterard specifically for the event.
- I have been told that buses with people from outside Oughterard arrived in advance of the meeting. Recall that up to then the meeting was publicised mainly on Facebook, via a page moderated by people with far-right links.
- A ‘fact’ sheet was circulated to attendees, which contained highly misleading information about asylum seekers (more on this below), suggesting an organised effort at co-ordinated messaging.
- The chair of the local branch of the far-right National Party spoke at the meeting. He did not, however, introduce himself as a representative of that party, but rather presented himself as a concerned ordinary local person.
- A woman in the audience proceeded to read out a letter advising the people of Oughterard that the opening of a similar asylum centre in Norway had led to a spike in sex crimes there; so much so that local blonde women needed to dye their hair in order to avoid being raped by asylum seekers. However, there is no evidence that this letter is authentic. In fact, when subsequently contacted about this by Irish journalists, the Norwegian authorities said that the asylum centre in question was “calm and harmonious” and completely debunked the claim of an associated outbreak of sex crimes. The claim was either a delusional myth or an outright lie, but either way it reveals an alt-right influence: the ‘African-as-rapist’ trope is a long-established calling card of the far right. (Try Googling “Rapefugee,” if you can stomach it.)
- The tone and content of speeches, and that of the ‘fact’ sheet, completely belie any claim that the organisers were concerned about the “inhumane” nature of Ireland’s Direct Provision system. In fact, there was no mention of the word “inhumane” in the campaign until after the Oughterard meeting had begun to attract negative media attention. The Facebook page was originally called ‘Stop Connemara Gateway Hotel Direct Provision Centre.’ After the controversy exploded, it changed its name, becoming ‘Oughterard Says No to Inhumane Direct Provision Centre.’
- A well-known far-right activist posted a message on one of Ireland’s most prominent alt-right Facebook pages congratulating his comrades, noting that “this group” had done “important work in Oughterard.”
- For the subsequent protest march, anonymous fliers were circulated advising marchers to bring Hi-Vis vests. In recent months, Hi-Vis vests have become the symbolic garment of far-right movements across Europe. There is no tradition of wearing Hi-Vis vests at protest marches in rural or urban Ireland.
- One of Ireland’s leading alt-right figures appears to have personally attended the march, posting videos online that were then seen by far-right counterparts around the world.
- An analysis by social media intelligence agency Storyful, as reported in the Sunday Times by journalists Mark Tighe and Lorna Siggins, has established that “individuals, groups and media associated with promoting far-right rhetoric were the dominant force in spreading news of the protests” across Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
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A Useful Idiot
So how exactly did the alt-right succeed in creating so much turmoil in a previously ordinary rural Irish community? Psychologists have been studying the alt-right, and their far-right predecessors, for many years. As always, these people follow a well-worn playbook. The unsettling reality is that, around the world, their tactics are consistently successful.
At the Oughterard meeting, member of the Irish parliament Noel Grealish became notorious for his racist remarks. Among other slurs, he claimed that “Africans” seeking asylum were in fact “economic migrants” coming to “sponge off the system here in Ireland.” He was particularly concerned that these asylum seekers were not “Christians.”
I doubt Grealish had read the psychological research. Nonetheless, without prodding, he successfully spouted off a burst of soundbites straight from the alt-right playbook. Around the world, the far right succeed most when they dehumanise out-groups, focus on how “we” are losing out or are being “betrayed“, normalise anti-African hostility, and promote an authoritarian focus on rules and rule-breaking. Grealish did all of this, in a rural Irish accent.
It may seem a bit churlish to point this out, but on his personal website, the very same Noel Grealish describes how many of his own family are themselves economic migrants:
Like so many in the West of Ireland, many of the Grealish family had to emigrate in search of work — at one point there were seven of them abroad, and currently Noel has three siblings living in Boston and one each in Copenhagen, Chicago and Nebraska.
However, as I stated previously, Grealish is just a patsy. A gullible loudmouth willing to throw pre-election fuel on a fire lit by cleverer, less visible actors. A good example of what people who study political extremism refer to as “a useful idiot.”
Grealish takes all the flak, while the Facebook fascists leave town unscathed and move on to their next campaign.
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Whoever Controls the Narrative Wins the Day
The key to turning a crowd is to get in early. Psychologists call this the primacy effect. It doesn’t matter if your facts are spurious. The research shows that once a community’s fears have been stoked, the bad feeling can be very hard to remove. Lies have a much longer half-life than truth.
People are more likely to believe the stuff they hear first, and less likely to accept the contradictions that come later. We stick to initial information even when we are presented with evidence that it is wrong. In fact, when challenged, we often dig in and become defensive, a problem psychologists refer to as backfire.
Conspiracy theorists have convinced millions of people around the world that climate change is not real, that vaccinations are dangerous, and that the Holocaust never happened. Heck, some people still believe that the earth is flat.
This is the psychology of mass evidentiary reasoning. By nature, human beings are trusting. Their default reaction is to believe. It is why eye-witness testimony is so compelling (even though we all know that hearsay is unreliable), and why misinformation spreads so widely.
The residents of Oughterard are not stupid. They are simply human.
When we hear speakers at a meeting, we presume they know what they are talking about. People who are skilled at manipulating public opinion play on this tendency. In short, they knowingly lie to us, aware that most of us will take their words at face value.
We are all susceptible to being influenced by this effect.
The default belief-reaction is a key psychological factor that enables the alt-right to pursue their racist agenda. In practice, the task is straightforward: attend a meeting, mouth some extravagant claims, and let the audience’s belief-response run amok. If you nudge the narrative correctly, the crowd’s natural reactions will do most of the real work. Before you know it, tempers are flaring and chaos has been unleashed.
It’s basically intellectual hooliganism. Pile in, get the blood boiling, and stand back and watch the carnage.
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It sounds obvious, but an audience will trust information if they believe it to be true. The best way to achieve that is through presentation. Make the information look ‘official’. Make it look real.
Make it look scientific. Provide lots of charts, numbers, and jargon. Refer to ‘official’ reports. Use numbers. Numbers are particularly effective (I’ve written elsewhere about the power of illusory precision). Throw in some percentages and decimal points. After all that, people will just assume you have done your due diligence.
This imitation of accuracy, in the absence of actual accuracy, is called pseudoscience. I’ve been writing about pseudoscience for years. From dubious advertising, to conspiracy theories, to common myths and prejudices, the world is absolutely full of it. Data in the absence of fact-checking. Opinion without transparency. So-called ‘information’ produced with zero quality control.
And so here we have Exhibit A: The Alt-Right’s Oughterard ‘Fact’ Sheet, the flier handed to people as they turned up at the door:
Very quickly, here are some points:
- No information is presented on who produced this ‘Fact’ Sheet. It is anonymous.
- The content, however, resembles that of a notorious YouTube video popularly associated with the alt-right in Ireland. The maker of that video was present, in person, at the meeting.
- Note that there is no mention of the “inhumane” nature of Ireland’s Direct Provision system. Remember, that idea came later, only after negative media attention.
- In the section on ‘Dubious Claims’, it is stated that most of Ireland’s asylum seekers come from countries like Georgia, Albania, and even Pakistan (note: while these countries might be deemed ‘safe’, it is still possible to be persecuted in each). If anything, this should imply that the numbers coming from African countries are relatively low. So why then did most of the Oughterard meeting focus on “Africans”?
- The section on ‘Never Deported’ implies that 90% of asylum applications in Ireland “fail”. This is factually inaccurate. Only 15% of decisions on asylum applications are rejected. There is a big difference between 90% and 15%, so we cannot put this divergence down to a margin-of-error problem. It’s just a lie.
- The section on ‘Single Men’ simply tells us that some asylum seekers are, well, single men. As explained above, the allusion here is to sex crime. The only purpose of this information is to plant the seeds of rape paranoia in the audience.
- The section on ‘Money Racket’ presents some out-of-context spending figures, combining periods of twelve, and then five, years. There is no baseline comparison (in other words, does this expenditure represent good or bad value?). In public expenditure terms, the monies involved seem small. For example, the revenue to Fazyard suggests that the system costs around 10 cent per taxpayer every month. This type of detail should matter much more than some Clip Art of a sack of money. But psychologically, Clip Art is more effective.
- The section on ‘Stretched Resources’ talks about schools and police stations. However, this is all based on a status quo error (specifically: if children were placed into Direct Provision in Oughterard, the local school would be funded to recruit more teachers, special-needs assistants, and so on). This section also complains about planning permission. However, as I pointed out before, the population of Oughterard is already expanding without controversy. New houses for hundreds of inhabitants have recently been approved, and there were no protests about schools or police stations when they were announced.
It is not the anti-racism campaigners who believe that ordinary people are stupid. It’s the alt-right who do that: they freely put forward bogus factoids and junk stats with the clear expectation that local people will be so dumb as to just gullibly lap it all up.
Please concentrate on this. Spread the word. These alt-right/far-right agitators believe that YOU are stupid. In fact, this belief is their core working assumption.
Awareness is key. The alt-right rely on the mainstream media to report the fuss they cause, to describe their grievances, but also — crucially — to gloss over their racism.
I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again.
The people of Oughterard really do deserve better than this.
Brian Hughes is an academic psychologist and university professor in Galway, Ireland, specialising in stress, health, and the application of psychology to social issues. He writes widely on the psychology of empiricism and of empirically disputable claims, especially as they pertain to science, health, medicine, and politics.