Recent media reports have highlighted claims that the number of racist incidents reported has increased this year in the wake of widespread protests against the Government’s policies on migration and asylum seekers.
Those reports have largely relied upon the work of a single Irish NGO, which receives substantial state funding, to support those claims. Whilst the NGO’s claims have been covered by the media for years, the Irish media has never, to my knowledge, looked at the methodology of the reports released by that NGO to see if they actually hold up to scrutiny; an unfortunate situation given that the reports have, and have had for years, systemic methodological weaknesses which render their results largely meaningless.
Since 2013 the Irish Network Against Racism (INAR), or as it used to be known ENAR Ireland, has been publishing what they call the iReport. Again, anytime you see or hear a media piece saying that racism is increasing in the country, or things of that nature, the likelihood is that those statements are based upon the iReport rather than a more official source.
That, in and of itself, is an object of concern, as INAR is an advocacy and campaigning group. That is not to say that their work should be immediately discounted, based on that fact alone, but it is to say that it is important for me to highlight, and for readers to understand, that INAR is not a disinterested party here and they have financial and reputational interests in this area.
The iReport, according to INAR, compiles information on “racist incidents” in Ireland from reports submitted “by people who have been subjected to racism, by frontline antiracist organisations and other organisations that are committed to combating racism, and by the general public.”
INAR collects reports through an online portal/app, called iReport, or through one of the 42 “iReport.ie Racism Reporting Centres” which are spread throughout the country. Those centres appear to be physical locations, run by organisations that have partnered with INAR, where a person can go and be helped to complete the online iReport form.
The data gathered by INAR from these sources is, they say, “used to inform the public, support lobbying submissions, and contribute to a broader national conversation on racism.” This is actually a significant problem as the failure of the Irish media to critically examine INAR’s reports, whilst happily using INAR’s reports as sources for their own stories, has given INAR considerable cultural and political legitimacy; legitimacy which substantially outstrips what would have been appropriate to grant INAR given the quality of INAR’s work.
Basically, the iReport is an online survey that anyone can access. And that, combined with the fact that iReport does not require you to log your personal details, or a contact method, before allowing you to submit a report, is actually a rather big problem. There doesn’t appear to be any security or verification system in place which would catch false reports or stop a single bad actor from submitting multiple spurious reports.
Whilst those making a report can give detailed information to INAR those sections of the iReport can be left entirely blank. The only information you need to give to submit a completed report is to select the type of racist incident which you believe occurred, from a choice of three types, and to agree that you consent to the report being stored and processed. You do not need to give a date, you do not need to give a location, and you don’t need to say why you actually thought the incident was racist.
Now INAR, when publishing their annual roundup of racist incidents, could simply disregard reported incidents in which there is too little information provided for verification to be possible, to any degree, but there is no mention of them doing so in their annual roundup.
It would appear unlikely that INAR has this sort of quality control in place given that they state the survey is explicitly designed to maximise responses and, on a broader level, conducting this sort of clean-up would likely conflict with the fact that INAR’s definition of a racist incident is “any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person [emphasis added].” It would seem extremely difficult, if not impossible, for INAR to fairly disregard complaints from the system given the limitation of the survey’s design and INAR’s own ideological position.
The definition above, which comes from the McPherson Inquiry, has been widely adopted by NGOs and other organisations, but it has also long been criticised for its exceptionally broad scope and the fact that its reliance on ‘perception’ makes claims that a racist incident took place effectively unfalsifiable.
Given this, it would appear to be trivial for any interested party to manipulate the results of the iReport to suit their own political views. A left-wing/far-left group, concerned with the ‘growth of the far-right in Ireland,’ could, for instance, submit multiple manufactured incidents to iReport, knowing that those reports would then be carried by INAR into the media, which would likely broadcast them given their uncritical acceptance of INAR’s legitimacy as a source of information.
Once the reporting is carried by the media other sources will reference the media, on the exceptionally naive assumption the media will have examined the study before reporting it, and INAR’s claims will come to have the feeling of fact. Media reports of increased racist incidents due to the far-right could then be used to influence public opinion or to argue for increased power or funding for left-wing NGOs to combat the newly acknowledged threat.
INAR seems to have no safeguards in place to safeguard against such bad faith actors and INAR’s annual roundup of iReport data, “Data from iReport.ie Reports of racism in Ireland,” would be effectively useless to external researchers attempting to discern if such manipulation had taken place.
To give you an idea of how little information these reports convey – a review of the last five years of iReport reports shows that the word ‘methodology’ was mentioned only once, and that was in a statement, in the 2019 report, that the far-right was using “internationally tested resources and methodologies.” Given that the reports contain no discussion of their methodology it is therefore impossible to tell what processing INAR does to submitted reports, if any, at least using the information they make available in their report – as it stands the iReport is simply a black box out of which numbers appears. Those numbers may be legitimate and give a fair representation of racist incidents that have occurred in Ireland, but you have no way of knowing that, and frankly neither does the INAR.
An additional issue arises from the opt-in nature of the iReport survey. As the migration issue comes into greater focus, and more reporting is devoted to the issue, and the NGOs active in the issue, we would naturally expect awareness of INAR amongst the public to increase. Awareness amongst particular sections of the public could also raise due to awareness campaigns or greater outreach by NGOs. The increased awareness, in addition to the increased salience of race related issues amongst the public, could directly lead to an increase in the number of reports of racist incidents being made. However, this increase would not necessarily indicate that the rate at which racist incidents happen is increasing, and so INAR has no way of knowing, with certainty, if increases, or decreases, in the number of incidents reported to them actually reflect any change in the number of incidents which occoured.
The iReport also routinely contains statements of fact which are entirely unreferenced and/or unexplained. The 2021 report, for instance, says that “Institutional racism is evident in the policies and processes of a range of public sector organisations reporting in this period, and in a significant number of cases in 2021 and previous years, staff have openly and illegally discriminated against people on the basis of their ethnicity or nationality.” That is an exceptionally serious charge, and probably one which INAR could have bothered to attempt to prove.
Similarly, INAR reports move from discussing reported incidents to discussing ‘cases of illegal discrimination.’ The 2021 report, for instance, says that “thirty-five cases of illegal discrimination were in the public sector.” But it’s unclear if that means 35 reports of potentially illegal discrimination involving the public sector were reported to INAR and INAR is presuming the accuracy of all those reports; that INAR had a legal professional examine the complaints and found that 35 of the reports involving the public sector met the criteria to likely have been illegal; or if 35 cases which had been later found to have been illegal were reported to INAR. It appears the former, but that does not seem like a terribly solid foundation to begin accusing public sector entities of illegally discriminating against minorities and of being riven with institutional racism.
I did write to Shane O’Curry, the current director of INAR, asking him to discuss the methodology used in the reports and to explain if there was any sort of quality control, but I have yet to hear back from him. Should he respond with anything material I will update this piece to include that response.