How fast is the influence of the far right in Ireland growing? This question has been on the agenda of public discussion since the assertion of the Garda Commissioner in May 2023 that the far right has failed to grow in Ireland, bucking trends in other European countries. ‘Across Europe,’ he said, ‘we have seen a growth in the far right that hasn’t actually been replicated in Ireland,’ adding that the numbers in the Republic remained small. The Commissioner’s measure of growth was the number of anti-immigrant protests taking place – which went down in the first half of the year. Absent from his analysis was any mention of the far right online ecosystem, where disinformation about immigration and conspiracy theories have been growing at an exponential rate since the Covid 19 pandemic. Mostly out of sight of the mainstream media and the central assumptions of public opinion, this ecosystem has been busy framing refugees as an existential threat to Ireland, herding online communities together to radicalise them and then mobilising them against immigration.
Fast forward six months to November 2023: the dominant policing paradigm is in disarray in the aftermath of riots in Dublin that followed news of a knife attack on children outside their school. The streets were ablaze for hours. A double-decker bus and a Luas tram were burned. Groups of gardaí were attacked and a number of Garda cars set alight. During the riots, smartphones lit up, with far-right groups stridently posting under the hashtags ‘Ireland is full’ and ‘Ireland for the Irish’. Mobs rounded on immigrants and non-white people in general, while blaming the ‘non-Irish’ for the looting of shops.
How had so many rioters been assembled so quickly? By whom? How had so much violence been unleashed in the space of a few hours? How had policing become such a failure? How had the mainstream media, those eager watchdogs of conventional politics, been taken off-guard so completely and the public been so shocked by the suddenness of it all? How did it happen that Irish society could be roiled so deeply by this shocking display of far-right violence in its capital city?
Political scientists scramble to understand the contemporary force field of neofascism. Many explanations have been offered to account for the rising tide of reaction: economic uncertainty, including the failures of market capitalism in Eastern Europe, austerity measures introduced in the West after the financial crisis, and the great inequalities spawned as neoliberal policies gave riser to worsening living standards and sharpened the feeling that liberal democracy had been captured by the rich. In addition to economic factors, there is cultural anxiety, especially evident in the backlash against liberal attitudes to religion and sexuality; and there is the migration crisis on Europe’s borders. No doubt too, historically rooted anti-immigrant sentiment, racism and ethnocentrism play their part in fuelling reaction.
Peter Geoghegan, in his book Democracy for Sale, would also emphasise the role played by global flows of political money and influence in bringing once diffuse nativist movements together into a more coherent far right. Among these sources of money are some American billionaires, who share the libertarian values of politically active industrialists like the Koch brothers. The Koch role in setting up the Tea Party and other ‘astroturf’ organisations during the Obama era was thoroughly explored by New Yorker journalist Jane Meyer in Dark Money: How a Secretive Group of Billionaires is Trying to Buy Political Control in the US.
Here, we dig in to a specific dimension of neofascism: the role of the online conspiracy and disinformation ecosystem in fostering a violent fascist consciousness in Ireland, and how this is linked to the global far-right sphere.
The best current empirical guide to the Irish dimension of neo-fascism is a recent research project funded by the European Media and Information Fund and published by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD): Uisce Faoi Thalamh: An Investigation into the Online Mis- and Disinformation Ecosystem in Ireland. It sets out to investigate how strong belief systems linked to conspiracy theories and previously distinct ideologies have been brought together in the wake of Covid 19. The result is a powerful new amalgam of protest movements: white supremacy, white Christian nationalism, antisemitism, anti-feminism, anti-5G, anti-vaccine, Islamophobia, pandemic denial, anti-LGBTQ+, climate scepticism, anti-government protest, all now converging into a more focused and extreme right-wing discourse. The ISD report shines a much needed light on how a disinformation ecosystem has been co-opted by far-right actors and focused in short time on targeting vulnerable communities and asylum-seekers in particular.
In a giant step beyond the familiar methodologies used by academic media analysis, the ISD approach was able to focus on 13 million posts, spread across twelve online platforms, analysed in the period between January 2020 and April 2023. This large quantum of raw data, impossible to imagine in media studies a decade ago, begins to reveal the role of neofascist communications in today’s world. It is linked to the arrival of new, unfamiliar political groupings, whose tiny off-line profile is completely at odds with their large online presence. By far the biggest number of accounts analysed by ISD were found on Twitter (X), but the analysis also includes other platforms of varying sizes: Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, YouTube, TikTok, Gab, Bitchute, Odysse, Rumble, Dlive and Gettr.
ISD researchers used a data analytical tool to gather basic information from all the accounts and used keyword lists to analyse content. Both automated and qualitative analysis tracked messages as they moved across platforms and were shared widely. A donation analysis was also carried out, to discover which accounts were associated with funding software like Paypal, to monetise key parts of the social media system. The most dynamically engaged-with posts were extracted from the data across each topic and each platform – by retweets, by shares, by likes, by views.
This approach to communication analysis differs substantially from traditional research into the workings of journalism, broadcasting or cinema because of the vast amount of data that can now be scrutinised. It is impressive because it can grapple with the unique type of user behaviour associated with the interactivity of the internet, and also with the algorithm-driven dynamic of social media, which tends to build opinion bubbles, or sealed silos of emotionally charged convictions about perceived trends in society.
The ISD report gives the most comprehensive and up-to-date picture we currently have of how fast the level of activity across all platforms has grown in a short space of time, between 2020 and 2023. Discussions about migration, for instance, remain consistently low for much of 2020 and 2021 but then we can see the conversations explode in volume. At first, discussions across the digital ecosystem were largely concentrated on the Covid 19 pandemic. Then a very large spike in content about immigration takes off near the end of 2022, during a series of protests against the housing of asylum seekers in the East Wall area of Dublin. It spiked yet again early in 2023, coinciding with an anti-immigration protest in Ballymun and the reaction it generated – the large ‘Ireland for All’ counter-demonstration that took place in the centre of Dublin, vigorously opposing racism against refugees.
During this anti-immigration online discussion, six and a half thousand original posts used the word ‘plantation’ alongside ‘invasion’ and ‘replacement’ to frame the arrival of asylum seekers as inherently harmful to the country. The term ‘plantation’ has, of course, strong historical traction in Irish social memory, signifying the sixteenth and seventeenth century colonial campaigns when indigenous Irish communities were systematically removed from their locality by the English crown and their lands redistributed to planters from England and Scotland.
As an effective synonym for Great Replacement, ‘plantation’ serves as a historically resonant dog whistle to promote white nationalist views. It is widely used by several actors in the current disinformation ecosystem, including far-right political parties. The Irish Freedom Party has repeatedly promoted anti-immigration ‘plantation’ claims in online posts and videos made directly outside asylum seekers’ temporary homes, promoting the white nationalist cause in the guise of robust, concerned, eyes-wide-open citizen journalism. The party’s leader, Hermann Kelly, who gained his political organising experience with Nigel Farage in the Brexit Party, claimed in one video that mainstream Irish parties wanted to ‘kill Irish babies and replace them with every nationality’. A video showing the arrival of asylum seekers in Dublin was published in November 2022, which it described as ‘the East Wall plantation with hundreds of military-aged males’. Many of the most shared URLs referring to ‘plantation’ also linked to the ethnonationalist group Síol na hÉireann (Seed of Ireland). It describes itself as a Christian Nationalist party. Other posts include sign-up and donation links to the National Party and the Ireland First group, again warning about ‘the plantation of your country by military-aged, dangerous single males’.
As the immigration topic peaked in early Spring 2023, numerous claims, citing different locations around Ireland, accused asylum seekers of acts of violence and criminality. The threat of sexual violence by male refugees is a popular trope, similar to those that have been tracked by academic researchers in Sweden and Germany, mobilising groups of local people to protest. Claims about sexual violence were further weaponised to accuse the Garda, the media and the government of covering up these alleged crimes and to encourage vigilante-style violence against asylum seekers and migrants.
A case study of protest in the Dublin suburb of Finglas during the last week of January 2023, analysed by ISD, shows the remarkable swiftness with which information morphs and multiplies online and the influential role played by far-right figures in amplifying calls for violence against migrants. According to a newspaper report in the Irish Sun on Saturday January 28th, a woman was sexually assaulted the previous night in Finglas. Following the routine journalistic practice of news organisations not publishing details about suspects before the police release information, the newspaper made no mention of a suspect. At which point social media exploded into life, insisting that there was a cover-up and that immigrants were involved: ‘News of a young girl raped in Finglas by two foreign nationals last night … why is it not in the news or media?’
Later that evening, a local organiser of anti-immigrant protests with a previous history of promoting far-right ideologies, published a video linking asylum-seekers to the attack and stating that an influx of refugees to the area made it ‘prime hunting ground for these predators … the Irish ain’t gonna like it, they’re gonna kill someone.’ He blamed the Garda for the attack, repeatedly referring to them as ‘pigs’, and said ‘when we get ye, the uniform is getting ripped off your back. That’s what’s gonna happen to the Gardai.’ (He was arrested three days later and charged with incitement to hatred.) The social media platform Telegram in particular played a central role in circulating accusations against ‘non-nationals’. Over the course of a week, 2,586 posts were published referencing Finglas.
Then the protests began. On the evening of the Irish Sun article, protesters gathered outside Finglas Garda station. Video footage from the protest was used by far-right news media, including TheLiberal.ie, to promote fears about asylum-seekers in the area. This fuelled perceptions that mainstream media were consistently withholding information, in an orchestrated plan involving the media and the state. The information vacuum about suspects thus ramps up suspicion and anger in cases like this. As Hermann Kelly noted when sharing the original article with his Irish Freedom Party followers on Twitter (X): ‘No description of the perpetrators. No wonder the local community is upset and angry.’
In crises like the Finglas event, aggregator accounts play a major role in boosting content that is misleading or completely false, taking on the role of a very effective amplification machine. The most prominent example is RM.tv (or Real Message Eire) which is active on Twitter (X), Facebook, Instagram and Telegram, with a combined following of 50,000. During the week-long Finglas event, RM.tv video footage from the scene alleged that ‘a young woman was raped by two male migrants repeatedly’, and made frequent calls for protests. These Finglas posts achieved a total reach of 489,126 views within a few days. International figures like Tommy Robinson, founder of the English Defence League and former member of the British National Party, play a pivotal role in amplifying disinformation during a crisis. And the Internet knows no bounds. The Finglas attack was used further afield, by Hindu nationalist groups, framing it as an Irish police investigation of a ‘Muslim Jihadi suspect’ for the sexual assault of a woman, which sparked protests across Ireland ‘against the Muslim migrant plantation’.
The international propagation of what was a very local event was matched later in 2023 by the global amplification of the November riots in central Dublin, helped along its explosively expanding digital footprint by the prominent right-wing Twitter (X) billionaire Elon Musk. Irish MAA fighter Conor McGregor, one of the highest paid athletes in the world, plunged in to the maelstrom of online activity, posting to his followers in the tense hours before the riots broke out: ‘Ireland, we are at war … we are not backing down, we are only warming up. We are not losing any more of our women and children to sick and twisted people who should not be in Ireland in the first place.’
McGregor was reportedly one of many online influencers investigated by the police for their possible role in stoking the tensions that sparked the street riots. McGregor mused online with his followers that he might fancy becoming president of Ireland some time, and Elon Musk tweeted ‘not a bad idea’. According to The Guardian, McGregor has 58 million followers on social media; Musk has 164 million, eye-watering numbers for any election campaign manager.
The political economy of the far-right digital ecosystem went through a major change in the wake of several violent events that happened during the Trump presidency. Following a series of violent attacks associated with a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, an assault on a Pittsburgh synagogue in the following year, the Christchurch, New Zealand massacre in 2019 and the insurrection at the US Capitol in 2021, public outcry resulted in spasms in the advertising industry, ever cautious about where its ads are placed, and a tightening of ‘community rules’ on social platforms. A number of far-right channels and personalities were banned, or ‘deplatformed’. These activists then began to identify themselves with the moniker alt-right and included Richard Spencer of Unite the Right group, Alex Jones of InfoWars and Andrew Torba, founder of Gab. This was becoming a new platform which from the outset refused to employ content moderators to monitor hateful speech.
The big platforms, however, like Facebook and Twitter (X), had to take note, albeit in a superficial and cursory way, of the vitriolic, violent, racist and politically repressive ideology pouring out of the extreme content being shared by the far right on their platforms. There was no major clean-up on the big platforms but enough noise to make many of the key far-right personalities feel threatened with ‘deplatforming’. So the movement regrouped and the digital celebrities and influencers consolidated their identity on new platforms, under the banner of alt-tech. This move was enabled by a digital infrastructure of connected ‘ports’ which allowed the easy portability of far-right content from one platform to another. The new infrastructure was a tactical innovation by political alt-tech leaders, in effect deepening an already converging culture of connectivity. It brought benefits: more effective recruitment, tighter organising, continuous engagement with supporters and, crucially, the ability to better monetise this more focused, censorship-free, networked communication system.
Gab became central to the new alt-tech movement, bringing together different factions of technologists, free speech fundamentalists and far-right provocateurs. Gab proudly announced in 2017: ‘The Free Speech Tech Alliance is a group of brave engineers, product managers, investors and others who are tired of the status quo in the technology industry. We are the defenders of free speech, individual liberty, and truth.’ A major goal of the alt-tech movement was to rebrand the white supremacist movement as one with a youthful and rebellious vision, a clear break from the iconic image of hooded Klansmen holding silent vigil around burning crosses in the Deep South.
The new alt-tech platform Bitchute is a model of how the far-right will very likely evolve on the Internet. As Eugenia Siapera of UCD points out, Bitchute provides a base for what some call ‘ideological entrepreneurs’ who have been deplatformed by the behemoths Twitter (X) and Facebook because their contents have become unwelcome. Some far-right entrepreneurs, like Alex Jones of InfoWars, earn considerable amounts of money from creating and disseminating political ideas. Jones, who had become very wealthy peddling lurid conspiracies for some years, was banned by all the big platforms plus YouTube, Apple iTunes, Spotify and Google Play. His hubris reached a peak when he claimed that the Sandy Hook School mass shooting of 2012 was a false operation perpetrated by gun control advocates spurred on by Obama, that ‘no one died’ in this giant hoax and that the entire event was staged, complete with fake trickery and actors. The parents of the slaughtered children sued Jones and won their lawsuit, plus compensation of $1.5 billion. InfoWars, the parent company for his many outlets, filed for bankruptcy in December 2022.
Increasingly, ideological entrepreneurs like Jones operate in a competitive environment, adopting distinct branding strategies to distinguish themselves from other political microcelebrities working for profit in the same space. Alt-tech platforms such as Bitchute are structured to support such entrepreneurs, who are enticed by the absence of moderation to create ever more vitriolic content and to monetise it with appropriate funding tools, like Paypal. In summary, political microcelebrities originally emerged on mainstream platforms after 2010 but deplatforming soon led them to alt-tech platforms, where they developed more extreme content to vie with renewed vigour for attention and money. This trend looks set to continue as a new chapter in the evolution of what Shoshana Zuboff was the first to label ‘surveillance capitalism’.
Over the last twenty years in the development of the Internet, most Silicon Valley founding companies followed the lines of the so-called ‘California ideology’, a mix of technological determinism and a ‘hippy’ sense of libertarian individualism, though they pushed back strongly against the idea of state involvement in economic and social life. Now mainstream platforms feel the pressure to clear their environments of extreme content but they also express horror at any talk of government regulation.
Alt-tech rhetoric and values, however, have now begun to bring this California paradigm to a new level, with much more strident resistance emerging to what is seen as state surveillance, in the form of regulation. This is blended with an ultra-conservative rhetoric about a return to family values, as defined by the Christian right. The alt-right aggressive campaign for ethno-racial purity is grounded in a masculinist, white supremacist mindset, embedded in the assertive context of neoliberal, free-market assumptions. Steve Bannon, one-time chief adviser to Donald Trump, would exemplify this new ideological alt-right. His current vision is a strengthened far-right organisation in Europe. His academy for the protection of Judaeo-Christian values, assisted by the British Catholic conservative Benjamin Harnwell, with the support of ultra-conservative American cardinal Raymond Burke, was until recently based in Trisulti, a thirteenth century Carthusian monastery near Rome. Meanwhile, Bannon keeps his populist credentials burnished with sporadic public calls for the execution of Anthony Fauci and FBI director Christopher Wray.
The alt-right rhetoric of Gab resonates in Ireland through a number of local Irish influencers, including Dolores Cahill and Gemma O’Doherty. Cahill, once chairperson of the Irish Freedom Party, was fired from her job at UCD in 2021 as professor of Translational Science, where she built her reputation as an international figure in the Covid-sceptic movement. Deplatformed by Facebook, she then moved to Telegram. O’Doherty, a former journalist, who gained notoriety by confronting gardaí during Covid lockdowns and broadcasting videos of these encounters, has a long history of promoting anti-immigrant narratives, Holocaust denial and vitriolic antisemitism. She attempted to stand in the 2018 presidential election, but her campaign was plagued by controversy when she claimed there was state collusion in the assassination of the journalist Veronica Guerin by a drug gangster and she failed to make it onto the ballot paper. O’Doherty has a high profile on Gab, benefiting from the lack of rules on hate speech.
The ISD report also discovered a very active group of Irish supporters of Nazism, which has the highest interactive rate of all groups studied on Gab. Shared content includes not only Holocaust denial but also Nazi propaganda films, Hitler speeches, antisemitic hate and conspiracy theories about immigration. Soon after its founding, Gab experienced a surge in new users after the insurrection at the US Capitol in 2021, as other social media platforms began to crack down on dissemination of false information about the 2020 election in the US. The other new alt-tech platform in the Irish far-right ecosystem is Gettr, which was launched by a former aide to Donald Trump in July 2021. It received a huge increase in registrations early in 2022 when US Congresswoman and QAnon advocate Marjorie Taylor Greene was suspended from Twitter (X) and moved to Gettr. Gemma O’Doherty, among other Irish influencers, has a high profile on Gettr, which like Gab foregrounds a substantial amount of antisemitism and Holocaust denial content.
Internet reformers often lament the direction the internet has taken over the last two decades, as it moved relentlessly away from the early heady utopian vision, often associated with the ‘hippy’ thinker Stuart Brand, of offering equal opportunities to everyone to communicate across a benign global public sphere. What we have been looking at here, of course, is evidence of a dystopian internet, the failure of content moderation and self-regulation and the surging flood of obscene anger and hatred across all social platforms but especially those associated with alt-tech. Some academics, like Christian Fuchs, are still campaigning for a public service internet – the road not taken back in the 1980s – as an alternative to the commercial model which has very quickly cohered around a neoliberal, free market, surveillance-based, ad-driven paradigm. In the meantime, moves to implement some form of state regulation of the existing internet, in the interest of social protection from hate speech and other threats, are slowly emerging, at least in Europe and Australia.
The Digital Services Act is part of a broader effort by the EU to regulate what is regarded as an increasingly chaotic and dangerous online sphere. To address this, each national capital is expected by 2024 to have established a Digital Services Coordinator to oversee what is hoped will be more robust policing of tech platforms. Companies that breach the rules could face a fine of up to 6 per cent of global turnover or be banned from operating across the EU. The goal is to ensure that disinformation and incitement to violence do not make a public security crisis worse. The legislation is designed to make it easier for users to flag material that is potentially harmful or illegal and for national regulators to decide if laws have been broken and take swift action in response.
One of the tasks of the new Irish regulator, Coimisiún na Meán, operating under the Online Safety and Media Regulation Act (2022), is to assemble expertise in data analytics to investigate platforms in depth, including the algorithms used to guide patterns of viewing and sharing. The regulator got its first taste of action during the November riots in Dublin when it triggered an alert mechanism with officials in DG CONNECT in Brussels, the arm of the European Commission running the new EU regulation. For the first time, the Irish regulator was empowered to discuss with tech companies in Dublin the danger of spreading disinformation especially at times of civil unrest. A dramatic example of this during the riots was the false story, complete with fake video, that the Army had been deployed onto the streets of the capital. One of the less obvious issues that emerged from early discussions with the regulator was the lack of Irish-speaking content moderators working in Twitter (X), TikTok or YouTube.
The first major test of Europe’s regulatory system kicked off just before Christmas 2023, when the European Commission announced it had launched formal proceedings to investigate if Twitter (X) has breached the Digital Services Act. Among the areas for investigation it listed were the functioning of the ‘notice and action’ mechanism for illegal content, which involves responding to a police order to quickly take down content in specific circumstances like street riots; advertising transparency and data access for researchers; whether Twitter’s (X)’s own policies are being implemented to ‘mitigate risk to civic discourse and electoral processes’; whether the company has invested enough in content moderation in all European languages (reports indicate it has just one moderator working in Dutch, two in Italian and none in Irish.) The context of at least some of these questions is causing concern in Brussels about the integrity of the European Parliament elections in 2024 and the threat of far-right disruption.
Welcoming the interest of the Commission in the affairs of Twitter (X), the Irish Council for Civil Liberties argued that more needs to be done, such as to stop video platforms from building profiles of children and to force Big Tech in general to turn off their toxic algorithms and return to a system where users themselves, not algorithms based on user surveillance, should be free to decide what to see and to share online.
There is a serious concern, however, that some of the smaller alt-tech platforms will escape the net of regulatory oversight entirely, while their algorithms continue the headlong rush to vitriolic extremism and the continuous feeding of violent content. The smaller platforms are not presently designated as Very Large Online Platforms (VLOPS) because they have fewer than 45 million users per month in the EU. Only VLOPS are currently subject to EU compliance regulations. The issues are both national and international, as we saw after the Dublin riots, when far-right groups in France were sharing Irish videos highlighting what they said was the alleged knife attacker’s Algerian origin. The French context for this was an outbreak of far-right attacks in the wake of the recent murder of a French teenager in the southeastern village of Crépol, allegedly by attackers of Arab origin.
It remains to be seen how ready the large platforms will be to accept the findings of inspectors from national regulators. American internet companies are accustomed to operating in the US under the cover of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act 1996. This allows them to claim they cannot be held liable for the hate and disinformation that they push out to billions of people. Learning to operate in a different legal environment in Europe may therefore be a slow process. The current litigation between Twitter (X ) and the non-profit Centre for Countering Digital Hate illustrates the problem.
In July 2023, the platform sued the CCDH, claiming that in doing its research, CCDH improperly ‘scraped’ data that violated its terms of service in data collection, when it investigated a recent surge in online hate and extremism on Twitter (X), which radically relaxed its content moderation when it was taken over by Elon Musk. This cost the company, it claimed, ‘tens of millions of dollars in lost advertising revenues’. Reacting to what it perceived as bullying from Musk, CCDH filed an anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) response under California law. SLAPP was designed to offer protection from wealthy companies trying to silence critics by ‘slapping’ them with a costly lawsuit.
A similar attempt was made to ‘slap’ the Anti-Defamation League. Both non-profits accused Twitter (X) of continuing to host, even after receiving warnings, messages promoting antisemitism, anti-Black racism, neo-Nazism, Holocaust denial and white supremacy, and placing these messages next to ads for household brands. All this was done despite the company’s own promise to increase brand safety, improve content moderation and abide by its own policies on incitement to hatred. Imran Ahmed, founder of CCDH, summed up the frustration of those fighting the proliferation of hate speech: ‘Impunity for loud bigots creates a hostile environment for the victim of abuse and most folks don’t want to venture into a cesspit of hatred every day.’
The resurgence of far-right activism is a much bigger phenomenon than the ecosystem of online hate speech. Across Europe, neo-fascist parties have already gained power or are moving steadily in that direction. Concern around immigration has become prominent and several right-wing parties have gained electoral support on the back of anxieties about immigration. But the changing political economy of information and increasing ubiquity of online communication on smartphones is undoubtedly a major contributing factor in the proliferation of anti-immigrant attitudes and the increase in social polarisation.
It is worth keeping a historical perspective on these developments. White supremacists have long used the internet to organise and share information. The Aryan Nation and the Ku Klux Klan were early adopters of email and bulletin board technology to circumvent social and legal restrictions on the expression of racism. And as Fintan O’Toole recently reminded us about fascism in Ireland, it was here long before immigration became an issue and long before the internet. Groups that included the Saint Patrick’s Anti-Communist League, the Blueshirts, the Irish Christian Front, Maria Duce and Ailtirí na hAiséirghe (Architects of the Resurrection) were actually far larger and more mainstream than their far-right spiritual heirs today who aim to build a large-scale ethnonationalist movement for the twenty-first century.
But there are major differences between those fascist movements of the past and what is developing today. As Peter Geoghegan reminds us, there is often a temptation to believe that our country is immune, or at least inoculated, from the worst authoritarian excesses. He suggests that scattered outposts of far-right beliefs in any country can be pulled together into a coherent political force under the influence of clever digital strategy, anonymous online funding and ‘dark money’. This is the core idea of digital political parties that are in essence private companies.
Nigel Farage learned from Gianroberto Casaleggio, founder of the Five Star movement in Milan, the importance of controlling a digital party’s internal machinery and amassing data from its voting platform to hone its political strategy. Five Star was micro-managed in Milan by Casaleggio and his son, who had full control over the party’s data, so that it was almost impossible to say where the party ended and the private company began. Certainly, Five Star did not begin as a spontaneous protest movement welling up from the streets, like the Solidarity movement that transformed Poland at the end of the communist era.
Farage liked what he saw in Milan. The Brexit Party was also, as he put it, ‘a company, not a political party’. In this innovative elision of political party and private business, the Silicon Valley rhetoric of engagement and empowerment masks the concentration of total power at the top. Decisions taken on high are rubber-stamped by a pliant movement that does not have the same rights and powers as members of a traditional party. Private enterprises and political parties become structurally inseparable, financed by digital membership fees and untraceable ‘dark money’. There is no opportunity for supporters to interact with the party in any meaningful way, much less vote on policies. The small group running the digital party has mastered the tabloid art of manipulating fear as the main driver of member engagement. What is offered is an almost hermetically sealed worldview of good and evil, delivered with flashy visuals and tabloid, all-caps headlines.
Colin Crouch and other political scientists have been warning for some time about post-democracy, a political malaise linked to pessimistic nostalgia, where a manipulative, top-down minority pretends to speak for a ‘people’ defined so vaguely that it can be held to want whatever the leaders believe it wants. This is the ultimate ‘hollowing out’ of democracy. What we see now developing on the far right may well be the seedbed for future digital post-democratic parties. They take a populist message, fronted by a strong leader, and mix it with the best organisational and user-surveillance techniques of the Internet age. Supporters register online and pay a membership fee. They watch party videos on their smartphones and share party messages across social media. As with the Internet itself, the digital party is disaggregated and fluid. There are few structures or hierarchies. Everyone can participate.
The last generation of politicians (Blair, Clinton, Bush, Cameron, Obama) needed to appear always plausible in front of television cameras. The leaders who thrive today, however, are those who can best control a fragmented and disoriented legacy media landscape – as Steve Bannon did supremely well at Breitbart News – and harness the power of social networks to push us towards extremes. As Geoghegan puts it, it is this well-organised and -funded misinformation revolution, taking advantage of the declining power of traditional media, opening new routes for political influence, like the ‘sham democracy’ of the Brexit Party and Five Star, that could have the biggest impact of all on the future of democracy. Or on whether we have a democracy at all.
Colin Crouch: Post-Democracy – After the Crises, Polity Press, 2020
Aoife Gallagher: Web of Lies – the Lure and Danger of Conspiracy Theories, Gill Books, 2022
Aoife Gallagher, Ciaran O’Connor & Francesca Visser: Uisce Faoi Thalamh: An Investigation into Online Mis- and Disinformation, Institute for Strategic Dialogue, 2023
Peter Geoghegan: Democracy for Sale – Dark Money and Dirty Politics, Head of Zeus, 2020
Jane Meyer: Dark Money: How a Secretive Group of Billionaires is Trying to Buy Political Control in the US, Scribe Publications, 2016
Farrel Corcoran is professor emeritus, School of Communications, Dublin City University. He is a former chairman of RTÉ.