Category: Vaccines

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:

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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.

If this is what the collapse of centrism looks like, then PLEASE give me more centrism

All the “worst people in Ireland” are running for election at the same time. We’re talking your racists, we’re talking your sexists, we’re talking your anti-vaxxers, your anti-fluoriders, your anti-Semites. The anti-5G brigade are in there. The anti-feminists too. And the anti-LGBT folks.

Not all of them are so negative. Some of them are actually pro stuff. For example, we have pro-lifers. We have pro-gun people. We even have pro-Illuminati Conspiracy theorists.

Pro or anti, there is something for everybody.

Conall McCallig has made a list (check out his original blog post for hyperlinks):

[Edit: The list has since been updated to include Allan Brennan (Independent) – Anti-5G, Anti-Vaxxer, Diarmaid Mulcahy (Independent) – Anti-Vaxxer, Anti-Fluoride, and James Miller (Independent) – Anti-5G, Anti-Vaxxer, Anti-Semitic, Anti-Muslim]

Is it just me, or are there rather a lot of names on that list?

In Ireland, 59 candidates are running in this year’s European Parliament elections. The above list accounts for a quarter of the field. But as Conall himself points out, there were other candidates about which he could source no information. These off-grid people could be even more fringe than the horribles he did manage to track down. In other words, we could be talking about close to a third of the slate holding extremist, esoteric, or, shall we say, eccentric views on social issues.

In the Irish part of the Euro elections, thirteen seats are up for grabs (two of which may be re-allocated back to Britain if the UK eventually decides not to leave the European Union). In other words, there are more kooky candidates than there are seats to be filled.

It seems to me that some of these folks are more sinister than others. If anything, the anti-Illuminati, anti-5G, or anti-GMO candidates are very much the lesser of evils. In fact their worst influence might not be to actually get elected. Rather, their damage would be to facilitate the seriously shady ones — the real bigots — to hide behind the crazy bush.

In other words, there’s a danger that the wackos who think that 5G internet is a deep-state conspiracy to line the pockets of Big Telecom while causing cellphone brain cancer in the masses will make the de facto racists come across as serious politicians.

But they’re not. The racists are…well…they are racists. And there are several of them. And this is precisely their opportunity to capitalize on a global trend of chaos to push xenophobic agendas through to the middle-class mainstreams of the Western world, including in our own little backwater here in grand old Ireland.

I mean, they are already setting fire to asylum centres.

This is far from a comedy election.

Ten years on and, quelle surprise, that child-abusing EU dystopia hasn’t happened (yet)

Project Fear has been ongoing for some time now. Here’s a poster urging the plain people of Ireland to vote ‘No’ to the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty back in 2008:

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Pic: Michael McCarthy/Flickr

I suppose you don’t really need me to tell you what happened next. The Lisbon Treaty was eventually passed, after which EU paratroopers stormed into Ireland forcibly injecting our crying children with microchips (except not).

Simon McGarr has been tweeting about the way reactionary activists deploy paranoid messaging in referendum propaganda. Here’s his thread:

The idea that the deep state wants to infect your kids and make them cry is a very old trope, and has been popular among Luddites literally for centuries. For example, anti-vaccination scaremongering emerged almost within days of the first mass vaccination programmes, replete with baby-eating vaccination monsters:

vaccinemonster

In Ireland, social conservatives — well let’s admit it, Catholic conservatives — have long been concerned about foreign influence over our laws. The EU particularly frightened them because European countries tend to have ordinary basic human values. This of course clashes with the more Medieval misogynistic approach to law-making preferred by the Irish church.

The EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights — with its protection for gays, women, and secularists — was a definite bugbear. After all, if the EU force you to respect some of the rights of your non-coreligionist fellow citizens, then the next thing you know, they’ll force you to respect all of their rights. And then where would we be? Surrounded by wall-to-wall abortions, euthanasia, and gay marriage, of course.

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Pic: Free Stater/Flickr

Unsurprisingly, the microchipping of children wasn’t in the Lisbon Treaty, and I don’t think it’s mentioned in the Bible (I wouldn’t know).

That was used just to frighten people into voting ‘No’.

You see, when it comes to driving non-Catholic snakes out of Ireland, the religious right will throw everything into the mix.

In 1995 they claimed that legalizing divorce (yes, legalizing it, look it up) would immediately drive fathers out of the family home, making the kids of Ireland cry and go hungry. Their legendary slogan was: Hello Divorce, Bye Bye Daddy! Because, you know, men bad.

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Pic: Newstalk.com

And in 2015 they claimed that gay marriage would lead to an increase in surrogacy and adoption, creating a new age of male-parent families. The precise negative consequences of this were left to our imaginations, but the implied child-welfare risk was clear. (Would it be fair to mention that the church probably know a paedophile when they see one? Maybe not. I won’t mention it.)

Anyway, this time their slogan was the snappy: She Needs Her Mother for Life, Not Just For Nine Months. Because, you know, gay men very bad.

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Source: Broadsheet.ie

So this year, Ireland is gearing up for a referendum on abortion, that pièce de résistance of hot button Catholic-maddening causes. If you consider that something as boring as the EU can give religio-conservative paternalist cranks the heebie-jeebies, well let’s just say that the prospect of legalized abortion has gone down pretty badly with them.

One of their delightful tactics has been to assert that people with Down Syndrome will be prime target number one when those godless abortionists launch their inevitable nationwide purge of the unborn. Down Syndrome Ireland, a charity, called on the campaign to stop using pictures of persons with Down Syndrome on their posters.

Anti-abortion campaigners be like, nope, we good here:

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Pic: Irish Times

In some ways, the anti-abortion campaign has been something of a car crash. Many of their campaign initiatives have been debunked and ridiculed. But maybe that doesn’t matter.

Because we live in the new world now. Alternative facts and all that. If anything, making ludicrous claims and tooting incendiary fact-free dog-whistles makes you more likely to attract voters, rather than less…

This isn’t a time to sit idly by, people. Get up off your backsides and do something.

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