Inside The Telegram Groups Fuelling Anti-Immigrant Sentiment
Words: Izzy Copestake
Image: Gilles Lambert – Unsplash
Telegram has over 700 million monthly users. End-to-end encryption, high anonymity, and lack of affiliation to larger parent companies like Meta, have made it popular for those with privacy concerns. Unsurprisingly, this has also made the messaging service a hub for those who might not want their identity revealed: namely, Ireland’s far right.
On the 23rd of November, ahead of the Dublin riots, an account named ‘Kill All Immigrants’ sent a voice note into a private Telegram group chat titled ‘Enough is Enough’, to incite violence. “They can’t control us all. Let’s have little groups splintering off, doing what we got to do. Seven o’clock, be in town. Everyone bally up, tool up. And any f**king g**o, foreigner, anyone, just kill them. Just f**king kill them. Let’s get this on the news, let’s show the f**king media that we’re not a pushover. That no more foreigners are allowed into this poxy country.” An investigation into the ringleaders was launched, but the spread of false information on Telegram has been growing for years, and with Irish mis and disinformation Telegram channels increasing by 326% since 2020, it isn’t going anywhere fast.
“This mis and disinformation ecosystem has been successfully co-opted by far-right actors who, after pandemic restrictions eased, have diverted attention towards targeting vulnerable communities,”
From an ISD Report: Uisce Faoi Thalamh – An Investigation Into the Online Mis- and Disinformation Ecosystem in Ireland
According to a study by the ISD, immigration is a hot topic when it comes to disinformation online. The study cites it as a primary concern for Irish right-wing extremists, ‘mis and disinformation actors’, and conspiracy theorists as an effective tool for furthering agendas that are often rooted in xenophobia.
Twitter (X) takes the top spot for the number of accounts talking about immigration within the Irish disinformation ecosystem, but the much lesser known and used Telegram comes in second before Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. Under Elon Musk’s thumb, X isn’t big on banning users for their views – but Telegram is even more relaxed, with many Irish far-right actors such as Keith O’Brien, known online as Keith Woods, simply turning to a vast following on Telegram when their accounts get temporarily banned. O’Brien has spoken at a white supremacist conference in Tennessee, and in 2019 described himself as a ‘raging anti-semite’. @OrlaredChan with the display name ‘Late Stage Ireland’ is another far-right Telegram group with 8,814 subscribers. The account has found solace on the app, after being banned from both YouTube and Twitter. Accounts like these then begin to operate within an echo-chamber, with no limit on the extremity of mis-information shared.
One of the rare times you may see members of the Irish far right advocating for women’s safety online is when it concerns white Irish women, and, what they describe, as a ‘foreign’ men. According to the ISD’s report, many of the rumours shared on these groups are falsified or unconfirmed by Garda, but those who plant the stories know exactly the hateful impact it will have. Early last year, accusations began to appear online accusing ‘foreign men’ of targeting women or simply acting suspiciously. This is a common trope amongst anti-immigration activists and the ISD has tracked similar behaviours in both Germany and Sweden. However, the spread of this disinformation has been seen to be extremely effective in mobilising large parts of communities across Ireland into protest, and some into direct violence against asylum seekers.
From January 27 to February 3 last year, Finglas experienced unrest and protests after widespread disinformation appeared online following the report of a sexual assault. Telegram chats exploded with rumours that two migrants or asylum seekers had assaulted a white Irish woman, despite the Gardai’s statement that they were looking for a ‘white Irish male suspect’ and not ‘migrants or refugees’.
Simply from scrolling through these public group chats, this narrative is obviously still there. The angle of ‘it could be your daughter, mother or sister’ is used to engage people against a perceived threat against women. What’s more, attackers are frequently described as ‘foreign’, with no further details given. Tracking 3 Irish anti-immigrant groups on Telegram over the course of just 3 days, District found that a total of 5 posts were shared which documented unconfirmed rumours of ‘foreign men’ targeting women and children. Another post came from an account titled ‘GET THEM OUT’, which encouraged subscribers to print out stickers with slogans such as ‘Will It Be Your Sister Next?’, ‘Ireland Used To Be Safer’ and ‘Illegal Immigrants Stabbing Irish Children’. The stickers featured a QR code which would link people to the Telegram group, while the caption warned: ‘If you’re worried about being identified, then careful where you get such material printed, and be careful where you put them’. The posts like these amounted 10,797 views in total but only scratch the surface on a trend which has been emerging for some time.
District also found a video shared, showing CCTV footage of some men jumping out of the back of a lorry accompanied with the caption: “Eight illegals jumping out of a truck in Ashbourne, Co. Meath. This is the government’s so-called “rules-based immigration system”. The post received 9.3K views, but the Lorry company has since confirmed that the incident took place in the UK, not Ireland.
Another group District monitored was ‘Archiving Irish Diversity (AIDS)’, in which recent posts have centred around the recent protests in Roscrea against the hotel being used to house asylum seekers. Some of the posts expressed annoyance about being labelled as far-right and racist for having concern’s over Ireland’s immigration levels. While the two should not be conflated, many posts within the group expressed annoyance at the people claiming not to be racist. One post urged people to stop “I’m not a racist’ pandering”, because “people who call you a racist are still going to call you a racist” (see full post below). The post went on to instruct members of how to tread this line: “This doesn’t mean beating your chest and saying ‘I’M A RACIST ARGHHH’ because well, we all have jobs.” The post, which received 1.2k views, also referred to the Roscrea Hotel as a ‘Planter centre’ and described the asylum seekers as ‘planters’. Originally, the term ‘Plantations’ was used in the 16th and 17th century to describe the colonial confiscation of Irish owned land by England, which displaced the indigenous Irish population. In this new context, anti-immigrant activists claim the government are deliberately placing asylum seekers within communities to displace locals. The ISD stated that this is ‘a localised Irish conceptualisation of the Great Replacement conspiracy theory’ – a debunked anti-semitic theory which became popular with white supremacists, neo-nazis, and far-right militants in the 2010s.
The issue with Telegram groups like these is that they simply repost content anonymously, aggregating an anti-immigrant narrative while claiming to be a reliable news source. The anonymity the app grants can be used to deliberately share false information with little accountability. In one Telegram group, the pinned message encourages members to repost the groups anonymously shared ‘news’ onto Instagram, Twitter and Facebook to ‘keep the information pumping and circling, especially as I don’t use socials’, the post also referred to the Telegram group ‘Late Stage Ireland’ as ‘the most solid source’ for News. Groups like these are able to position themselves as alternate ‘reliable’ news sources to some with total anonymity. Cyberpsychologist Dr Nicola Fox Hamilton explains that a housing, cost of living, drug and mental health crisis provide the perfect conditions for far-right and anti-immigrant sentiment to thrive in Ireland. “They can protect their own identity, and feel good about themselves by blaming another group.” These Irish Telegram groups work as a dark and dangerous echo-chamber for extreme views and misinformation to go unchecked.