Who’s more deluded, the conspiracy nuts or the journalists who dismiss them?

Ireland often likes to see itself as a cosmopolitan kind of place, where the world’s tourists, investors, and bohemian artistes are promised the traditional hundred thousand welcomes.

As the most recent example of our keenness to globalise, witness our incorporation of the latest intellectual trend: delusional-right-wing-conspiracy-theory-based anarchy!

Last weekend’s violence on the streets of Dublin was shocking. Many in the Irish media have been keen to depict the events as “protests” that got out of hand: crowds gathering to complain about the national COVID lockdown, and a minority of yobs taking their chance to do what it is that yobs do best, namely: be yobs.

I guess if you are the Irish Times right now, you might well be worried about those exaggerated headlines you ran last week, claiming the Irish people wanted to “reopen” “society” “as soon as possible”, when in fact your own survey showed that 67% of respondents felt the current restrictions were the minimum that should be imposed.

Few people actually read newspapers these days, but headlines like that feed into a radio-based rolling news cycle that sends sound bites rippling through the national consciousness. Presumably some of those who congregated in Dublin on Saturday were convinced that Irish people in general supported their anti-lockdown cause.

But it turns out that clickbait headlines were not the only factor feeding into their belief system. Some of them had bigger fish to fry. Or, rather, reptiles. Because, yes, the Irish fringe has now fully caught up on that notorious global lizard-people conspiracy theory, the one launched by the author of Conan the Barbarian and popularised, in part, by a man who used to present snooker on the BBC.

Journalists Mark Tighe and Joe Galvin, writing for the Sunday Times, caught up with some of them at their impromptu post-riot party on O’Connell Street:

Among the protesters was…a mother of one from Swords, who was drinking a can of Heineken while holding a flyer from the National Party. [She] and her friend…wore matching black hoodies which said “RTE sold there [sic] souls” and “Save our children from the reptilians”.

[She] said she was protesting against the lockdown and vaccines. “We’re here to protest against RTE as well,” she added. Her friend said over “9,000 people went missing in Ireland last year”.

Asked how this was linked to RTE, the pair outlined a conspiracy theory that involved babies being killed and harvested for “adrenochrome” which is used to keep RTE celebrities “looking young” while the corpses are buried under the new children’s hospital.

The two claimed the government were “basically paedophiles” and that there were videos explaining this on a website known for hosting far-right speakers and conspiracy theories.

There’s certainly quite a lot to unpack there.

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Essentially, what we have is an Irish variation of the QAnon conspiracy theory, itself a manifestation of some disturbing historical tropes. The theory asserts that a covert coalition of political, media, and business figures are responsible for running a Satan-worshipping paedophile ring, which organises the large-scale abduction and abuse of children. The claim is that these people surgically extract a hormone from the bodies of the kidnapped children, from which they distil a powerful (and secret) drug capable of rejuvinating its consumers, such as to, in theory, confer them with everlasting life.

It may not be immediately clear where the lizards came into it, but we will come on to that shortly.

This thinking led to the 2016 Pizzagate controversy, where online trolls accused Hillary Clinton and her officials of operating a sex-trafficking ring for which they had imprisoned hundreds of children in the basements of a chain of pizzerias. The claims sounded almost comical, but when a gunman seeking to free the children opened fire on the Comet Ping Pong restaurant in Washington, DC, it was time to stop laughing.

As outlined by writer Stephanie Kemerrer, the whole thing is essentially an updated version of the “blood libel” myth, an antisemitic trope that for centuries saw Jewish people blamed for child abductions right around Europe and, later, in North America. As recently as 1928, a Rabbi in New York was interrogated by police and Jewish businesses were boycotted after a local child had gone missing (she had gotten lost in the woods and turned up after a few days, safe and sound). And here, in fact, is where the lizards come in. Consistent with the disturbing human habit of depicting out-groups as animals, “reptilian” essentially serves as a euphemism for “Jew”.

Simon of Trent blood libel, Illustration in Hartmann Schedel’s Weltchronik, 1493 (Source: Wikipedia)

* * *

And of course, as well as Pizzagate, we then had the whole assault-on-the-US-Capitol farrago back in January. At the time I noted, with concern, that “we have no shortage of home-grown far-right knuckleheads right here in Ireland.”

Don’t be giving them ideas,” I pleaded.

Well, it seems as though the global pandemic of racist right-wingery has spawned a new Irish variant.

In their compelling report, Mark Tighe and Joe Galvin went on to describe the wider context within which Saturday’s events in Dublin were organised. Having constructed a paranoid echo chamber on encrypted digital platforms, where they encouraged users to distrust traditional media, groups opposed to the “New World Order”, “antifa”, and “(George) Soros” joined forces with a number of well established Irish far-right extremist organisations. These same extremists have spent the last few days openly gloating about Saturday’s violence, praising the hooligans’ attacks on the vastly outnumbered police officers, vulnerable frontline workers already overburdened by the demands of the COVID-19 crisis.

The overlap among the various factions involved — equal-opportunity objectors to masks, migrants, minorities, and the mainstream media — is striking. But we cannot not claim it is surprising. Anyone who follows these people know that these causes go together. One American QAnon-supporting congresswoman combined her endorsement of the child-abducting-elites theory with her belief that last year’s California wildfires were caused not by environmental degradation, but by lasers fired at California, from outer space, by Jews. When it comes to COVID, she also resolutely stands against masks, lockdowns, and even vaccines.

For the protagonists, anti-lockdown paranoia is just another cause with which stir up the masses. Their real agenda is hard-right. Its running themes are xenophobia, reactionary dissent, and all forms of anti-progressivism. These are the uber-conservative, anti-technology, hate-everyone fringe, soulmates to fascists, Nazis, and racists the world over. It can be noted that in recent years, two of the organisations that Tighe and Galvin mention in their report have also been embroiled in other controversial campaigns, including the protests against a proposed residence for asylum seekers in Oughterard, County Galway.

* * *

Few media outlets in Ireland have given serious attention to the rise of the far right. One review, by journalist Conor Gallagher, appeared last September. But arguably, some major newspapers (who should know better) have occasionally done more to titillate fringe extremists than should ideally be tolerated in a democracy. Incidents get reported from time to time, for sure, but by and large there has been remarkably little analysis of the underlying string-pullers, their political alliances, or the way they duplicate the tactics of their international peers. Only in the past few days, after Ireland experienced its own assault-on-the-Capitol moment, has the concept begun to get some proper attention.

It’s as though some senior players in the Irish media don’t actually believe that these increasingly recurrent incidents of far-right extremism really do have anything to do with the far right. They keep telling themselves, and the rest of us, that it’s all just a coincidence. Yobs being yobs. Hooligans who need locking up. But fascists? No, we don’t have real fascists in Ireland.

Echo chambers, you see, come in many forms.

Misdirected paranoia can be powerfully destructive. Misdirected scepticism, in its own way, can be far worse.

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