29 November 2023

The Dublin riots and the dangers of weaponised information


Lack of information can be as bad as disinformation. This is one of the major lessons from last week’s riots in Dublin following the stabbing of three children outside a school. In the hours that followed and despite the attacker being apprehended at the scene, the Garda resolutely avoided describing him. Instead it fell to online platforms, Twitter and alternative media, who speculated that the knifeman was an Algerian immigrant. Hooligans descended on the area, and Dublin faced its worst night of rioting in decades. 

The case is horrific and it’s clear the Irish authorities thought that silence was their best option given the attacker’s rumoured ethnicity and immigration status. However, the Garda’s silence appears to have created a vacuum which made a fraught situation even worse. 

No doubt there were sound operational and judicial reasons for doing so, but to a public who are well-versed in how these media stories play out, and the vagaries of how officials choose to share or withhold information, it must have looked as though those in authority were shielding the knifeman while high-handedly viewing the Irish public as a racist pogrom waiting to happen. 

This does not make for good community relations. If you feel your government is forcing unchecked immigration on your country without any public scrutiny, one sure way to reinforce this impression is for those in authority to become evasive when children are being attacked on the street.

Responsibility for the ensuing violence destruction rests with the rioters themselves, and some might say the fact the destruction wasn’t even worse justifies the Garda’s determination to ignore the attacker’s identity in their public statements. In fact, the opposite lesson should be drawn. Authorities need to get ahead of the narrative and this often requires more communication not less, even when the truth is unpalatable.

What last week’s events demonstrate is just how quickly the information space can be weaponised and the immediate and real world consequences this can lead to. In this case the rumours and outrage appear to have been achieved via existing networks rather than a malign foreign actor, but what Dublin saw last week was information warfare in real time and the subsequent wreckage shows just why governments are so concerned about this low-cost, high-reward battlefield which has opened up in cyberspace. 

The EU and the UK have spent considerable time trying to work out how to protect themselves and their citizens from the consequences of weaponised information. The UK’s RESIST toolkit, developed to counter some of the sophisticated media campaigns waged by Isis and in the wake of state-sponsored campaigns by Russia and China, has some very good guidelines. It emphasises the importance of accuracy in government responses and timeliness in proportion to the threat posed by the information being dispensed into the public domain. 

The focus is on providing accurate content to trusted sources. It is a realistic response to countering disinformation and is worth quoting at length, ‘Government and public sector communications must exemplify the values we seek to uphold: truthfulness, openness, fairness and accuracy. Communicating in this way will enable us to build and maintain trust with our audiences.’ The same lesson needs to be applied across all communications in fluid and provocative circumstances.

Conspiratorial mindsets depend on a feeling of powerlessness in the face of an almighty state. No doubt the vast majority of the rioters in Dublin were the far-right hooligans being described by Irish politicians. But at root is also a distrust of authority, one that the Garda’s response failed to check. While politicians in the UK unite to condemn what happened in Ireland and the Garda move on to investigating ‘alleged incitement’ on Twitter, this might also be a good time for reflection. A little more honesty and directness from those in positions of power would go a long way to taking some of the fuel out of this fire. 

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Henry Williams is Head of Investigations at Themis.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.