The far-right in Ireland is working to exploit the coronavirus crisis to further their own narrative, researchers have warned.
There have been growing concerns that extreme nationalists are taking advantage of COVID-19 conspiracy theories about face masks and vaccines to spread their own message.
Even before the pandemic, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris said the force had seen a rise in far-right extremism - noting that it was "starting to lap upon our shores".
Dr Eileen Culloty, post-doctoral with the DCU Institute for Future Media and Journalism, spoke to The Pat Kenny Show about the trends we've seen in recent times.
She explained: "In Ireland, we've always assumed we've been immune to the far-right. But with social media, and people increasingly get their information online, this content is now far more visible.
"Since COVID began, the far-right internationally and in Ireland have tried to exploit the crisis and people's worries and frustrations with their own narratives.
"A lot of this is infused with extreme nationalism and conspiracy theories."
The rise of politicians such as Donald Trump in the US or Viktor Orban in Hungary has led to increasing attacks on the news media.
Dr Culloty explained that this creates a 'toxic environment' where people reject evidence-based reporting, and instead form their views and opinions through social media.
This allows an 'alternative media' to pop up to drive disinformation stories - exploiting conspiracy theories about the likes of masks and vaccines.
'Drumming up fears'
Dr Culloty said there is a "diverse group" within the far-right, but they are all typically characterised by an extreme nationalism - often encompassing white supremacy and radical conservatism.
She said: "They need to drum up fears about threats to national identity, and present themselves as the patriots who are defending the nation.
"They don't all believe the same thing, but they will opportunistically latch onto whatever is topical at the moment.
"Currently, the frustration with masks and COVID measures is being used as a recruiting and fundraising tool for far-right groups.
"The far-right thrive on polarisation and division - to draw people into their campaigns, they need to provoke fear and anger. Often, it's fear and anger about things that aren't happening."
She explained that incidents such as an electrical fire in Balbriggan were used on social media to create "fake stories about a race war".
Amid such concerns, the Government is currently looking at new hate crime legislation, while there's also a dedicated Garda unit to monitor the likes of far-right extremists.
Dr Culloty also said it's vital that media informs the public about the agendas behind far-right protests, as well as facilitating debate about key issues without giving a platform to extremist views.
She also said her own institution is working on tools that would help people analyse the content they're viewing, to see if it's designed to make them angry or fearful.