Category: Stereotyping

Fact-checking the racists: A look at the psychological approach of Ireland’s alt-right

oughterard

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:

  • 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.
  • 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 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.

* * *

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.

* * *

Manufacturing ‘Truthiness’

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:

IMG_20190917_200823-01.jpeg

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.

When contextualizing its report on transphobic death threats received by an Armenian activist, The Guardian somehow forgets to mention religion

Lilit Martirosyan’s speech in the Armenian parliament has gone viral.

Addressing a panel on human rights, Martirosyan described the plight of the trans community in Armenia. She explained how her own experience of threats and violence reflect the challenges that she and other trans people face in the country:

I encompass in myself — tortured, raped, kidnapped, subjected to physical violence, burned, immolated, knifed, subjected to murder attempt, killed, emigrated, robbed, subjected to stigma and discrimination in social, medical, legal, economic areas and in every aspect of a dignified life, unemployed, poor, and morally abandoned — the Armenian Transgender’s image.

While Armenia has passed legislation to decriminalize homosexuality, there are no laws to prohibit discrimination against LGBT persons. The government disqualifies LGBT people from joining the military. Same-sex couples are not allowed to marry, or to adopt.

ILGA, a globally renowned NGO, ranks Armenia 48th out of 49 European countries for LGBT rights. In the ‘Hate Crime & Hate Speech’ category, Armenia finishes (joint) bottom of the pile, with a score of zero percent. The past year has seen a surge in violent anti-LGBT attacks in the country.

Therefore, perhaps it was no surprise when Martirosyan’s truly historic and brave speech sparked an immediate backlash from Armenian conservatives. It started even before she left the podium. Panel chair, Naira Zohrabyan, decried Martirosyan’s speech for having (allegedly) deviated from the official debate schedule and ordered her to leave the chamber, shouting “You have violated the agenda!” at her as she walked away. Some of the MPs applauded this verdict, shouting “Bravo, Ms Zohrabyan!

Pic: YouTube

The Guardian reported on the death threats today:

The speech, two weeks ago, has since sparked a backlash in Armenia, where homosexuality has been decriminalised but discrimination against LGBTI people is rife. There have been anti-LGBTI protests in front of the national assembly and verbal attacks made by some parliamentarians have included calls for her to be burned alive…

Martirosyan said the home addresses of several people who work for Right Side, the transgender rights organisation she created in 2016, have been leaked and that her own home address has been spread across the internet by extremist groups who have threatened to “kill them if we find them”. Nationalists, she said, have gathered outside her house, raising Armenian flags…

And so on, and so on.

Pic: Aysor.am

Strangely, across its 760-word report, The Guardian entirely avoids pointing out why these Armenian protesters want LGBT persons to be “burned alive” so much that there are pickets outside parliament and — more disturbingly — attempted lynchings in rural Armenian villages.

They fail to even refer to the fact that the protests are spearheaded by Armenian church figures and clerics, and that much of the inflammatory language used in the protests is infused with religious diatribes.

The leader of the Prosperous Armenia party, Gagik Tsarukyan, invoked “Armenian traditions and faith” to declare Martirosyan’s address a “vice,” adding that “we must hide the vice as it was before.”

Protesters were led to parliament by religious groups and individual clerics, who called for a “ban on sexual minorities” at the legislative level. The clerics included Ghazar Petrosyan, a priest who once berated the Armenian president for being a “friend” of Elton John, on the basis that “nothing can alleviate the sin of being gay.

One of their schticks was to declare that Martirosyan’s speech had “desecrated” the parliamentary podium, and that the chamber needed now to be cleansed. They brought incense, which they said was needed in order to “sanctify” the podium at which Martirosyan had stood. The protesters were told that this would set off the fire alarm in parliament, so they offered to bless the podium with holy water instead. Some of the religious groups even brought a new podium to replace the one that Martirosyan had tainted.

In Armenia, religious attacks on the LGBT community go right to the top. Last year, the supreme leader of the Armenian Church decried “the phenomenon of homosexuality” as “unacceptable to the way of human nature” and, literally, “a threat to our nation’s survival.”

The fact that The Guardian can report on these protests without even mentioning their religious underpinnings — in a country such as Armenia, where church-led conservatism has long been a source of concern — is, frankly, nothing less than bizarre.

The obvious question to raise is: would The Guardian have mentioned religion had these protests taken place in a Muslim country?

Well, when The Guardian reports on transphobia and homophobia in places like Brunei, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Iran, for example, it seems to me that they are quite quick to refer to sharia law, clerics, and other religious frames of reference by way of context. The fact they avoid doing so when describing Christian protests in Armenia certainly stands out.

I note that the Guardian’s Armenia report is “supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.”

I wonder does this mean that certain terms and conditions apply?

Maybe not, but it’s worth remembering all the same that, even in The Guardian, paid-for content is exactly what it says it is.

Paid for.

If you spend 20 years gaslighting your patients, perhaps you should think twice before accusing *them* of trolling *you*

This week we learned that online activists are silencing scientists in the UK:

Reuters contacted a dozen professors, doctors and researchers with experience of analysing or testing potential treatments for chronic fatigue syndrome. All said they had been the target of online harassment because activists objected to their findings. Only two had definite plans to continue researching treatments…

The idea of critics or activists challenging researchers and seeking to hold science to account isn’t new. Most researchers say they are happy to engage in discussion. But with social media, email and internet now accessible from almost every home, mass communication gives online activists a voice with unprecedented power. In the field of CFS/ME research, it’s often personal. Those at the centre of it say it’s gotten out of control.

The good news is that these poor put-upon scientists are not going down alone. They have defenders. For example, rushing to their aid on the pages of The Times was none other than that paragon of fact-checking, Mr Rod Liddle:

Yep. That Rod Liddle.

Far be it from me to say anything bad about Mr Liddle. I will leave it to Wikipedia to explain how his various writings have been described as racist, homophobic, transphobic, ablist, misogynistic, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic, and regularly just hurtful to whatever vulnerable minority or target group he chooses in the moment. I know, Wikipedia might be wrong. Bad Wikipedia.

Nonetheless, we can certainly say that Mr Liddle is very much on the side of the silenced scientists. I won’t quote him directly. Instead, I will direct you to Frances Ryan’s eloquent riposte over at The Guardian, where she identifies the vilification of myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome patients as just yet another form of 21st-century hate speech.

But won’t somebody please think of those poor scientists?

Who are they, exactly? Well, here’s an old group photo that contains some of them:

A group of people who were definitely *not* trolling anybody.
(Pic: Adapted from @BenMcNevis via Twitter)

Yep, there they are, attending a meeting on “Malingering and Illness Deception” way back in 2001 (and yes, I edited the image to blur their faces and remove their names, as a courtesy).

For 20 years, they have promoted a psychogenic model of ME/CFS. Their theory dismisses sufferers as psychiatric patients whose condition is all in the mind, rather than persons debilitated by authentic physical illness or disease.

But those terms though. “Malingering“? “Illness Deception“? Seriously? Even if the psychogenic theory were true, such labels are not very nice ways to describe patients. You might even consider them, well, abusive.

As it happens, the psychogenic theory is in fact highly unlikely to be true. The theory is defended by an ever dwindling (predominantly British) cohort of professionally interconnected psychomedical practitioners, and stands in increasing contrast to, say, the scientifically informed positions listed by the ME International Consensus Panel, the US National Academy of of Medicine and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization.

As I have written about before (here, here, here, here, and here), ME/CFS is a chronic, inflammatory, physically and neurologically disabling and likely immune-mediated disease, involving disruption and dysfunction of multiple bodily systems.

That is, unless you are in the UK’s crazy ME/CFS psycho-vortex. In that topsy-turvy place, ME/CFS is an example of “malingering” or “illness deception”. Basically, the disease is just an opinion. An idea the patient dreamed up in their free time. After all, patients have so much free time — you would too, if you were restricted to lying in your bed, unable to move, for several decades.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Note that the “Malingering and Illness Deception” conference pre-dated, by several years, the much beleaguered PACE Trial, which is so often held up as providing key evidence to support the use of psychosocial therapies for ME/CFS. According to Reuters,

…[the PACE trial] sought to evaluate the effectiveness of different types of therapy in CFS/ME patients…the results found that cognitive behavioural therapy – designed to help patients change their thinking and behaviour – and graded exercise therapy – in which patients are encouraged to start from very low levels of daily activity and then incrementally raise them – are safe and moderately effective treatments for some people.

It is striking how the Reuters reporter so readily accepts that the PACE Trial simply “found” what it said it found, just because the authors said so in the original research report. In reality, the PACE Trial has been described as flawed by several high-profile authoritative reviews, and is extensively described as such in subsequent scientific and medical literature (although not, it seems, extensively enough for the Reuters reporter to find it using, I don’t know, maybe the internet? Perhaps their broadband was down that day…).

Pro-tip: Next time, try PubMed.
(Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com)

It is notable that most of the high-profile figures who promote the PACE Trial held their views long before the PACE Trial was ever conducted. They wrote papers about their views, authored books about their views, designed therapies based on their views, developed psychometric instruments drawing on their views, and — yes — organised conferences among themselves in order to discuss their views. These views are core to their professional identities. For many, these views are the only reason they have professional identities.

Rather than providing evidence to support a new understanding of ME/CFS, the PACE Trial was conducted long after the investigators’ conclusions were formed. PACE was not the source from which insights were sprung. It was practically the last act in the play. And according to one of its authors, the PACE Trial pretty much amounts to the very last thing he will have to do with ME/CFS:

[He] no longer conducts research into CFS/ME treatments, focusing instead on helping severely ill cancer patients. “It’s just too toxic,” he explained. Of more than 20 leading research groups who were publishing treatment studies in high-quality journals 10 years ago, [he] said, only one or two continue to do so.

(Of course, an alternative view could be that research prospects are drying up because the field of psychogenic treatments for ME/CFS is scientifically unsustainable. The model is proving to be anachronistic; it is increasingly hard to get research funding for the stuff.)

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It is absolutely true that much of the discourse surrounding ME/CFS is deeply fraught and highly contentious. There is a lot of anger. There is serious pressure. There is extensive name-calling and criticism that targets individuals. Things can get messy. No doubt about it.

That said, though, we should remember what is going on here.

Namely: patients with serious physical disabilities are being told, by a small coterie of academic health professionals, that their illness is a figment of their imaginations. That’s pretty incendiary. But then they are told that, as a consequence of their “illness deception”, they must be treated effectively as psychiatric cases. They must be given psychological and behavioural therapy, instead of biophysical medicine.

It is quite the double-whammy. Many of these patients are bed-ridden for decades, emaciated and debilitated, unable to study or work or hold down a normal family life. And yet they are told: “We do not believe you are really ill. You are malingering. And precisely because you are malingering, you now will be prevented from receiving proper treatment.

I don’t know about you, but that pretty much sounds like trolling to me.

These practitioners have basically been gaslighting their patients for twenty years.

All of which makes it just a little pathetic to watch them now leverage their press contacts to publicly complain that they are the ones being insulted by, ugh, mere sick people.

A final word: We have all been trolled on the internet. I have been trolled on the internet. In fact, just about every time I write about ME/CFS, I get trolled, sometimes on Twitter, sometimes by email. And I can tell you this. The folks who troll me are far from critics of the PACE Trial.

Very far indeed.

%d bloggers like this: