Government officials concerned about ‘disinformation’ from foreign states influencing security forum

Social media companies asked to keep watch for attempts to influence debate with false information

The weekend interview by President Michael D Higgins in which he warned about the country sliding into Nato membership and appeared to criticise some EU countries has caused the Government significant diplomatic embarrassment, according to several high-ranking sources. Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins

Government officials have asked social media companies to be watchful for attempts by foreign states to spread disinformation regarding the forthcoming forum on international security.

Departments have also consulted EU experts and DCU’s Digital Media Observatory Ireland Hub which has extensive expertise in the area.

It comes as the Government prepares to host a public consultative forum on international security policy which will run this week and next week in locations across the State.

The forum will examine issues such as the Republic’s co-operation with Nato and EU defence bodies, the future of peacekeeping and definitions of Irish neutrality.

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In a briefing with journalists in advance of the forum, one official noted that Finland decided not to have a formal public debate last year in advance of its decision to join Nato due to fears Russia would attempt to influence it through disinformation. Polls showed more than 75 per cent of Finns were in favour of Nato membership before a formal decision was taken to apply.

The official stressed that the Republic is in a different position as it is not considering joining Nato. They added that no instances of state-sponsored disinformation have been detected to date.

However, it remains a concern. “We’ve been in touch with all of the social media companies to ask them to support us in watching for that,” the official said.

Those organising the forum also rejected accusations that the speakers are biased in favour of Nato membership. There is only one panel dealing with Nato and its primary purpose is to “educate the citizen on what our engagement with Nato currently is and what the options are going forward,” officials said.

Meanwhile, the weekend interview by President Michael D Higgins in which he warned about the country sliding into Nato membership and appeared to criticise some EU countries has caused the Government significant diplomatic embarrassment, according to several high-ranking sources.

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The President made a number of comments about specific European countries and more generally about “previous empires within the European Union”.

His comments have been widely criticised in discussions among EU diplomats based here and have been the subject of reports to their home governments.

Several diplomats from a variety of countries who spoke to The Irish Times on condition of anonymity confirmed that they had been discussing the President’s comments. All were critical of what Mr Higgins, though none wished to comment on the record.

Irish officials said that the President’s interview was noticed everywhere and they have been keen to convey the message that it does not represent the Government’s views, downplaying the importance of the President’s intervention.

None of the embassies whose countries were mentioned by Mr Higgins in negative terms – Latvia, Lithuania or France – wished to comment. Nor was there any comment from the Department of Foreign Affairs, or Áras an Uachtaráin.

Nor did Áras an Uachtaráin comment on the President’s assertion that France had “seriously undermined” an Irish motion on climate action at the United Nations Security Council, though it is understood that Mr Higgins was referring to the fact that France was the only EU country which did not co-sponsor the motion. UN records show that France voted in favour of the Irish motion, however, and it is understood that the Department of Foreign Affairs did not share the President’s view on the matter.

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There is also continuing anger in Government at what is seen as a deliberate entry into political debate by the President, though despite ubiquitous discussion around Government circles since the weekend, Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting did not touch on the controversy, a spokesman confirmed.

Mr Higgins also criticised the security forum as being comprised of “the admirals, the generals, the air force, the rest of it”, comments which have been rejected by several of the speakers.

“I can’t find an admiral on the programme or an air force officer,” said Edward Burke, a UCD lecturer and panellist at the forum.

“It seems that he has not read the programme or has heard something about it that is not accurate. It would be helpful to read the programme and perhaps even correct that statement.”

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times