Elon Musk’s X platform fueled far-right riots in Ireland, experts say

Elon Musk’s social media platform X has fueled far-right disinformation in Ireland and played a key role in riots last month in the country’s capital Dublin, experts tell CBS News. The violent clashes erupted on Nov. 23 between about 200 civilians and riot police in central Dublin as demonstrators vented rage after a stabbing incident that left multiple people wounded earlier in the day, including a 5-year-old girl who was hospitalized with serious injuries. 

False reports circulating on social media had suggested the stabbings were carried out by an illegal immigrant. The alleged assailant was in fact a naturalized Irish citizen originally from Algeria, the Irish Times reported.

The violence, which saw a tram and a bus set on fire and stores looted, was partially incited by far-right local actors with significant followings on X, which was called Twitter before Musk bought the platform. 

Police in Dublin clash with violent rioters in the city center Police at the scene in Dublin as riots broke out following a stabbing incident in which five people were injured, including three young children, Nov. 23, 2023.  Brian Lawless/PA Images via Getty Images

“What we saw at the beginning of the riot was what started out to be a protest, you know, either organized by the far-right or if it wasn’t organized by the far-right, the far-right wasn’t far behind,” Matthew Donoghue, an assistant professor in social policy at University College Dublin, told CBS News. 

“The fact that we saw attacks on the [police] cordon and the crime scene, these are clearly organized and orchestrated activities which need quite a lot of background organization… this is where we see the far-right’s use of X,” he said. “They were able to get a lot of people there very quickly to basically take control of that situation, direct it.” 

Eileen Culloty, a deputy director of the Institute for Media, Democracy and Society at Dublin City University, told CBS News the riots had been plotted by “a core group” of prominent right-wing influencers on X who “have a relatively high profile within that kind of alternative, right-wing world. Some of them will be alternative media outlets, some of them are right-wing anti-immigration activists.”

“They went into overdrive in the lead-up to the riots,” Culloty told CBS News. “They were posting lots of public messages on Twitter [X], but also on Telegram and other platforms from lunchtime onwards and urging people to act. A lot of the hashtags they used were promoting this ethno-nationalist idea that Ireland is full, that Ireland belongs to the Irish.” 

A study conducted by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, an independent nonprofit think-tank that studies and offers policy advice on extremism and disinformation, just days before the riots in Ireland had also found that Twitter (X) is “used by virtually all of the most prominent actors in the Irish mis- and disinformation ecosystem.”

The study focused on the growing online influence of the far-right in Ireland over the past three years, analyzing 13,180,820 posts from 1,640 accounts across 12 online platforms. X had the highest number of far-right accounts of those analyzed by the researchers.

Following his October 2022 takeover of the platform, tech billionaire Musk has dismantled core features of the platform  — including its verification system and its Trust and Safety advisory group, as well as broader content moderation and hate speech enforcement.

As the Associated Press reported in October, experts who study disinformation have said that X has deteriorated under Musk to the point that it’s not merely failing to detect and remove misinformation, but is favoring posts by accounts that pay for the platform’s blue-check subscription service, regardless of who’s running them.

Crucially, according to Culloty, with respect to the violence in Dublin, the core group of far-right accounts suspected of inciting the violence had previously been removed from the platform for violating the company’s safety policies, but were reinstated following Musk’s takeover of the company.

“They were able to move back to X and a lot of people who had been banned were able to come back,” she said. “It’s notable that there are more people not trying to conceal their identity [in the aftermath of Musk’s takeover.] So they now feel quite comfortable making these incendiary statements.” 

In the aftermath of the riots, other prominent figures from the right-wing of American politics have pushed a conspiratorial, anti-immigration narrative on X in an attempt to vindicate the violence in Ireland.

Former Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson, who now streams his own show on X, told his millions of followers last week that “the Irish government is trying to replace the population of Ireland with people from the third world.”

Carlson’s interviewee on the show, former White House adviser and Trump ally Steve Bannon, called Ireland “a powder keg.” 

Musk himself has weighed in on the violence in Ireland on X and took aim at the Irish government last month. 

In a post the day after the scenes played out in Dublin, Musk said Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, “hates the Irish people,” after the Irish government announced that it would aim to pass new laws against hate crimes and hate speech in response to the riots. 

Speaking to the Irish parliament last week, Justice Minister Helen McEntee said X had refused to comply with requests from the Garda Síochána, Ireland’s national police force, to take down inflammatory posts in real time as violence flared in Dublin. 

McEntee said she’d spoken with a detective “who was actively engaged with the social media companies” throughout the evening of the riots, Irish state broadcaster RTÉ reported. 

Other social media companies including TikTok and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, “were responding, they were engaging with gardaí and they were taking down these vile posts as they came up,” McEntee said. “X were not. They didn’t engage. They did not fulfill their own community standards.” 

Elon Musk  X owner Elon Musk speaks during the New York Times annual DealBook summit on Nov. 29, 2023 in New York City.  Michael M Santiago/Getty

Musk and X are facing a major advertising withdrawal as brands like Disney, Apple, Coca Cola, CBS News parent company Paramount Global and other large companies have removed paid ads from the platform after Musk endorsed an antisemitic post on X that claimed Jews fomented hatred against White people. Musk’s comment on the post called it “the actual truth.” 

While the controversial billionaire has subsequently apologized for his comment, he’s criticized companies who have suspended advertising on X. 

At the 2023 DealBook Summit in New York on Wednesday, Musk told the audience: “If somebody’s going to try to blackmail me with advertising? Blackmail me with money? Go f— yourself. Go. F— yourself. Is that clear?” 

The decline in advertising could deprive X of up to $75 million in revenue, according to a New York Times report.

Responding to Musk’s comments, X CEO Linda Yaccarino said in a post on X last week that Musk’s remarks were an “explicit point of view about our position” and added: “We’re a platform that allows people to make their own decisions… And here’s my perspective when it comes to advertising: X is standing at a unique and amazing intersection of Free Speech and Main Street — and the X community is powerful and is here to welcome you.”

CBS News has reached out to X for comment but had not received a response at the time of publication.

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