Fake news, felines — and the far right

Fake news, felines — and the far right

I WOULD not have imagined there was much of a link between cats and the Irish far right or, while we are here, why don’t we drop the current euphemism and just say cats and Irish fascism. But, surprisingly, there is.

I spent a lot of time last week talking to someone who was trying to convince me that a local schoolgirl was identifying as a cat, was supported in this by her parents, was supported in this by her school, and that in response to her making a cat noise a teacher who barked back at her was suspended.

The source of all this seemed to be a parent’s WhatsApp group and I was even treated to the recording of the adult male voice telling everyone about this breaking news. It was, I was told, true. There was little scepticism, little questioning of the source of the story, little wondering about the veracity of the story, and an overwhelming desire, it seemed, that this be God’s own truth.

And, just to emphasise, this was not one lone individual reporting this strange story. Lots and lots of people accepted this as fact just because some random voice on a WhatsApp group had stated it, and so-and-so had sent it on to so-and-so and so on and so on.

Of course it does just sound like a daft story and at first I just laughed it off but on being presented with it again and again as fact I stopped and thought. These adults, these grownups, these people who’ve been on the planet for five, six, seven decades, they don’t actually accept this is true, do they?

I know the pandemic saw a rise in seemingly balanced people believing all kinds of harmful nonsense, but no, surely not. It even got to the stage that the school involved had to release a statement saying the story was entirely untrue and that the gardaí had been informed. So, now after all, it’s not true and it’s not funny.

Ciaran O’Connor, from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue that examines disinformation and extremism, said similar stories had already surfaced in America, Australia and Scotland.

They are usually spread by right wing voices in order to spread fear and mockery about gender and identity. And clearly, if my experience last week is anything to go by, they work.

Another story in Finglas isn’t about a cat but about a sexual assault. An anti-immigrant protest there was inspired by a story about an immigrant sexually assaulting a local woman. Groups gathered outside garda stations, paraded through the streets with tricolours and Ireland’s minuscule fascist parties went to work online spreading their message of hate and fear. The gardaí in response issued an update on the appalling attack that detailed they were looking for a white, Irish male.

Now, of course, the fabricated assailants of the attack weren’t the point they were just the excuse. Irish racists and fascists were more than willing to use that poor woman’s terrible experience for their own ends. And quite clearly racists and fascists did march. But so too did people who were duped by fake stories. Stoked into an anger against immigrants on the basis of something that immigrants didn’t do. Foreigners did not carry out the attack. The gardaí are looking for a white Irishman. They are looking for one of our own.

The bigots, the racists and the fascists, do not, of course, care whether these stories are true. They don’t care who attacked the woman in Finglas and they don’t care that the cat girl in Cork doesn’t exist. All they care about, as they did during the pandemic, is getting gullible, vulnerable, or plain ignorant people to believe things that have no basis in fact.

This is the worrying climate we live in. A climate in which an Irish comedian can tell a racist joke a ten-year-old wouldn’t tell and then claim some kind of unawareness of things like racism and prejudice.

A climate in which grown adults fall for the kind of nonsense you wouldn’t fall for in the playground. A climate in which a country utterly shaped and constructed by the experience of immigration begins to feed itself anti-immigrant lies. A country in which the fascists march, tell lies, and spread hate and division. Céad Míle Fáilte? It’s a little more complex than that. A little more scar