LONDON – Soon after three children and a woman were wounded in a knife attack outside a Dublin school Thursday, rumors about the perpetrator’s nationality began to proliferate online.
The Garda Síochána, the Irish police force, declined to comment on the background of the suspect, who was taken into custody after being tackled to the ground by bystanders. Police said only that he is a man in his 50s.
But unconfirmed reports that he was an Algerian migrant quickly began circulating in anti-immigration and far-right groups, according to researchers specializing in extremist movements online.
Alongside those rumors: a call to gather in central Dublin, in what anti-immigrant voices framed as a stand against crime and in defense of Irish children.
What started as online chatter ended with the worst unrest to hit Ireland in decades, as rioters clashed with police, set vehicles alight and looted stores. Some demonstrators carried banners reading “Irish Lives Matter.” Others vandalized hotels and hostels thought to be housing migrants.
Several police officers were hurt, one seriously, and 34 people were arrested, Drew Harris, the police commissioner, told reporters Friday.
“We have not seen a public disorder situation like this before,” he said. A group of people had taken “a thimbleful of facts” and added “a bathful of assumptions – hateful assumptions,” he said.
In an address Friday morning, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar condemned the disorder and said that police would fight back against “waves of ignorance and criminality.”
“Those involved have brought shame on Dublin, brought shame on Ireland and brought shame on their families and themselves,” Varadkar said. “This is not who we are. This is not who we want to be, and this is not who we will ever be.”
Researchers specializing in the spread of online extremism said the riots were an example of how far-right groups were capitalizing on the discontent and disenfranchisement of some Irish people, at a time when many have struggled to keep up with the cost of living and a housing crisis.
Like many parts of Europe, Ireland has received an influx of newcomers in recent years as conflict, economic pressure and climate change have driven migration. In the year leading up to this past April, the number of immigrants to Ireland reached a 16-year high of 141,600, according to official data, including more than 40,000 Ukrainians.
Some of the far-right influencers who called for people to take to the streets Thursday cited a high-profile attack that rocked Ireland last year: the murder of a 23-year-old teacher, Ashling Murphy, who was stabbed while jogging along a canal path. Jozef Puska, a Slovakian citizen who immigrated to Ireland 10 years ago, was found guilty of her murder and sentenced last week.
Jane Suiter, a professor at Dublin City University who studies disinformation, said news of Thursday’s attack quickly spread through anti-immigration and far-right websites and social media spaces.
Gript, a right-wing news platform in Ireland, was one of the first to suggest publicly that the perpetrator was Algerian. That claim on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter, was shared by right-wing leaders including Tommy Robinson, Suiter said, and was amplified further in Telegram channels and social media groups.
“It snowballed,” she said, adding that the protest in central Dublin was small in the beginning. “But then young men started arriving from everywhere and converging.”
The trigger of Thursday’s riot was a knife attack outside a school at 1:30 p.m. in which three students were wounded, along with a child care worker who defended them. One of the children, age 5, remained in critical condition Friday, while the woman was in serious condition.
But the issues underlying the violent disorder stretch back further, said Matthew Donoghue, associate professor in social policy at the University College Dublin.
”People feel insecure, people feel worried, people feel out of control – not because of migration but because of the social and economic conditions in which they have to live,” he said, pointing to an increase in inequality, including in housing that has priced out some long-term Dublin residents. “There have been groups that have become very adept at capitalizing on this.”
Far-right ideology has grown in Ireland because of social media and messaging platforms, said Ciarán O’Connor, a senior analyst with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that researches online hate and disinformation.
Studying 13 million posts on 12 online platforms, the researchers found that groups that originally shared views against vaccinations and COVID-19 lockdowns had evolved to target refugees, asylum-seekers and other minority groups.
Telegram, an encrypted messaging app, is particularly popular with extremists. Messages often started there, O’Connor said, then rippled out to people with larger followings. “Social media platforms are being weaponized by far-right groups and individuals who are exploiting sensitive public and social issues,” he said.
As authorities urged the public Friday to be vigilant against the spread of false information online, Telegram channels used by far-right groups were filled with anti-immigration sentiment. On X, #IrelandisFull was trending.
Telegram did not respond to a request for comment. “Busy now, please check back later,” X said in an automated response to an email seeking comment.
Government officials praised the role of Caio Benicio, a Deliveroo driver from Brazil who intervened in the knife attack by hitting the suspect with his motorcycle helmet.
“It was everything by instinct,” Benicio told national broadcaster RTE. “I was in shock. I didn’t even have time to be scared.”
Benicio moved to Ireland a year ago. Asked about the anti-immigrant sentiment behind the riots, he said: “I am immigrant and I was there, right there to protect Irish people, you know.”
Videos of the city center Friday showed a strong police presence and city workers scraping burned debris off the roads and towing away a damaged tram. Some schools and businesses in Dublin were closed Friday afternoon, RTE reported.
Varadkar said that the country would “modernize” its laws regarding incitement to hatred to cover social media platforms and pass legislation in the coming weeks allowing police to better use the CCTV footage they collected Thursday. Irish Justice Minister Helen McEntee told RTE that those charged with assault of a Garda officer could face up to 12 years in prison.
Police said that the motive for the knife assault was unclear and that they were keeping “an open mind” in the investigation. Harris said that the force would review its tactics on policing public disorder but pushed back at assertions that officers had failed to contain the unrest, saying they could not have anticipated its intensity.
Researchers said the country needed to tackle far-right extremism more seriously and address the underlying issues of inequality and social exclusion.
“This has to be a wake-up call,” said Rory Hearne, an associate professor in social policy at Maynooth University in County Kildare.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.