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Review – Web of Lies by Aoife Gallagher

Web of Lies, the new book from Aoife Gallagher of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), is now out. The book promises to be a “far-reaching examination of the rising threat of far-right extremist thought in Ireland and internationally,” although the book is focused nearly entirely on the English-speaking world, particularly America. It is also apparently designed to demonstrate “that we are all susceptible to conspiracy thinking and at risk of falling down the rabbit hole.” We’ll come back to that latter claim later, but I’ll ruin the surprise up front and let you know now that that’s not an objective the book achieves. Honestly, it’s not an objective the book appears to even attempt to achieve.

Given that this is a book looking at political extremism we do need to  first briefly touch on the author’s own political views. Gallagher is very much of the left, which is fine in isolation, we all have our own biases and there are a great deal of fine scholars on the left.  However, there is an open question of how Gallagher sees her work, and if she sees herself as a researcher/scholar or a left-wing activist.

in 2020 students at the Burkean recorded a phone call with Gallagher in which they presented themselves as anti-fascist activists who wanted help from Gallagher. The entire call is below, it’s about 14 minutes long, but I wanted to highlight one response in particular – Gallagher was asked if she was willing to pass on personal details of people she came across in her work, and who she suspected of being far-right, so that those people could be added to a database of fascist sympathisers which left-wing activists would have access to. Gallagher’s initial answer was “Yeah, yeah, of course.”

There is a certain level of humour to that entire exchange, as making lists of your political opponents is historically not something that has ended with a better society, and it’s something someone ‘on the right side of history’ should probably be wary of, but it also raises a serious question about Gallagher and about this book – is this a serious attempt to understand far-right extremism or is this a work of activism in which Gallagher is attempting to convince readers of the correctness of her own views whilst hurting those she dislikes?

There is a section of the book, titled Only Whites Need Apply, which I believe answers that question rather resoundingly. In this section Gallagher references a quote from Hermann Kelly, of the Irish Freedom Party, stating that the IFP was “encouraging and helping young couples to get married, have children and raise them up in their own Irish culture.” This is following by Gallagher referencing the neo-Nazi / white supremacist slogan “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children,” and then asking “Is there an echo in here? I swear I can hear an echo…”

This seems like a clear insinuation that Hermann Kelly is a neo-Nazi, a white supremacist, and God knows what else. That seems to be a serious enough charge that, should you believe it to be accurate, and if you’re going to make the claim in a book like this you should damn well believe it to be accurate, you should be willing to explicitly state it, and provide evidence for your claim, rather than dancing it around it like a bully taunting a child. It’s underhanded, it’s nasty, and frankly it should have been beneath Gallagher if she were dedicated to a book based on facts rather insinuation and half-truth. It should at least have been beneath Gill Books, the publisher of Web of Lies.

Unfortunately, Gallagher’s inability to fairly present the facts when presented with an opportunity to score points is a weakness that runs through the book from start to finish. And, ultimately, it’s not just the subjects of left-wing and far-left conspiratorial thinking that Gallagher leaves out of the book – it’s pretty much anything that would weaken her arguments or complicate matters. The overwhelming sense I got, when reading through the book, was that Gallagher is either relatively uninformed about a lot of the topics she is discussing, and the sources she is using, or tremendously willing to deliberately omit information that complicates her arguments. Certain parts of the book give one the feeling that references are being thrown at you not because Gallagher has studied an area deeply and selected the most high-quality sources, but rather because Gallagher has researched the area only in-so-far as is required to find references which support what she herself believes, quality be damned.

For instance, there is an unreferenced section which details supposed quotes from the Republican Party about the UN’s Agenda 21. When I checked some of the quotes, to see if they were accurate, it led me to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Centre. Gallagher appears to have lifted a small section of that report into her book, without attribution. There are three quotes in this section which I think came directly from that report rather than from the primary sources they are attributed to.

Gill Books, in response to a media query I sent them, told me that there had been “a reference missing, in error,” and that it would be “rectified immediately.” They told me the sections flagged are clearly presented as quotes and that there was “no question of plagiarism.”

The problem there is that: a) Gallagher didn’t just take the quotes from the report, she took the passage bridging the quotes from the report as well; b) neither quotes actually came from the Republican Party, they’re both based on statements from the Republican National Committee (RNC); c) one of the quotes used by Gallagher/the SPLC isn’t actually correct, which Gallagher would have known if she had examined the actual statements of the RNC, which leads to d) the quotes are represented as the words of the Republican Party, when they are actually the words of either the RNC or the SPLC.

On point b) above – the RNC is not the same thing as the Republican Party, although they are very closely linked. They are in fact so closely linked that many people who aren’t familiar with the area don’t even realise that the RNC is a standalone organisation, or that there is a corresponding DNC. Gallagher appears to have been insufficiently familiar with the American political system to realise that the distinction was meaningful.

Similarly, there is a quote attributed to Ted Cruz which seems to have also come directly from the SPLC rather than a review of the original material. This quote is correct, albeit presented without reference, context, and in the most unfavourable light possible, but the presentation/editing of the quote seen in Web of Lies is identical to that used in the SPLC report.

What we have here appears to be the author taking quotes from a third-party, and attributing them incorrectly to the Republican Party, without bothering to check if the quotes were accurate. This is basic stuff, and one would question if there are other, similar, issues that a more comprehensive reading of the book would find.

Similarly, when talking about the harm conspiratorial thinking can cause, Gallagher says research has shown that “people with curable cancer who used alternative medical treatments were twice as likely to die than those who didn’t use alternative treatments.”

When I checked the paper that claim is attributed to, I saw that the letter pages of the journal in which it was published had had a full and frank discussion of issues within the paper, with numerous academics pointing out impactful methodological flaws in the research. The authors themselves, in response to this discussion, stated “we likely undercounted the patients who used CM and that some patients in the non-CM group likely used some form of CM.” CM in that quote refers to alternative medicine. None of that manages to make it into Web of Lies.

For those who aren’t used to looking at academic papers I should note that Pubmed, where I went to look at the paper, helpfully also displays the articles and comments, letters, etc, that have been submitted in response to a paper, on the same page as the paper itself.  The second comment on this paper’s page is a letter titled “Methodology Flaws and Implications of a Complementary Medicine Study.” The following six letters all relate to methodological flaws in the study. Gallagher either missed all of that or saw it and then decided it wasn’t worth mentioning to the reader.

In another instance Gallagher refers to an Economist/YouGov poll which found that “46 per cent of Trump voters believe ‘somewhat’ in the core tenets of Pizzagate.” Pizzagate, for those who are blessedly unaware, refers to a belief that high-ranking democrats involved with the Clinton campaign were running what was effectively a child-trafficking and paedophilia ring.

What the reader is not told is that only 29% of all those polled said Pizzagate was “definitely” not true, and more than a third of Americans said they believed it was either probably or definitely true. That included 17% of Clinton voters. In fact, only 57% of Clinton voters said it was “definitely not true.”

That information doesn’t fit with the point Gallagher is trying to make, but those unreported results are legitimately fascinating findings which, one would have thought, would have been something a serious researcher into extremism could have used to more deeply explore the nature of conspiratorial thinking.

Incidentally this poll also found that 50% of Clinton voters “think Russia even hacked the Election Day votes.” This is again something you would think might be worth mentioning in a book which is explicitly dedicated to demonstrating “that we are all susceptible to conspiracy thinking and at risk of falling down the rabbit hole.”

Over the course of the book Gallagher jumps from topic-to-topic at speed, covering everything from McCarthyism to Waco to gender critical feminists and trans issues to Gamergate to vague statements on what the most important part of science is – the answer the author gives for that last question, interestingly enough, changes depending on the argument the author is making. This leads to one of the core problems of the book – interesting topics are gone in the space of a paragraph, and there are interesting parts of this book, whilst minutely detailed nonsense just goes on and on as if Gallagher is entirely unable to tell pertinent information from trivia. Web of Lies is not a short book, the Kindle edition is 330 pages long; there was enough space here to do better, and a firmer editorial hand could have really helped improve the book.

One of the worst offenders here is the section on Waco. A single paragraph of the book covers the ATF/FBI siege of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco in 1993. The book says that the siege ended “in a huge fire, in which 76 Branch Davidian members, including 25 children, were killed.” This, Gallagher says, “showed how unprepared law enforcement was for dealing with groups holding such beliefs,” and led to a feeling amongst the American Patriot movement “that the government was out to get them.”

What the book does not say is how that fire started or why exactly the militia groups, and a broad range of other groups, looked at how the siege was conducted and came away with a pretty dim view of the Government’s actions.

Now, the exact cause of the fire is disputed, and the FBI claim the Branch Davidians set the fire themselves, but the view amongst a pretty significant amount of Americans, according to polling, is that the FBI either accidentally or deliberately started the fire after flooding the compound with an incendiary tear gas. The FBI initially absolutely denied incendiary devices had been used during the siege, but in 1999 that was shown to have been, shall we say, not entirely true.

To this day members of militia groups, amongst others, are of the view that the government either deliberately or accidentally burnt children alive in the course of the siege. ATF agents still get called child murderers because of it, although the gun community has generally moved on to mocking the ATF for their tendency to kill dogs at this point.

You would think that that would all be pertinent information given that Gallagher is trying to explain the influence the siege had on the militia movement in America. But we only get a single paragraph to explain the siege and its aftermath, which is frankly bizarre given how important it is to understand the development of the militia movement. The book doesn’t even mention Ruby Ridge, which had seen a similar siege in 1992.

In other instances, the mad dash to get through certain sections appears to have led to the removal of contextual information which, whilst not strictly necessary, would have been good to include to better inform the reader. In the section “Reds under the bed” there is a single sentence in which readers are told that the Soviets test-fired a nuclear weapon in 1949 and that, “two years after that, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were tried and sentenced to death in a New York court for spying for the Soviets.” Now some readers will already know that the Rosenbergs were arrested because they were suspected of heading a spy ring which had passed information about the US’s atomic weapon program to the Soviets, and that Ethel’s brother, who himself admitted that he had provided information about the atomic weapons programme to the USSR, testified against the Rosenbergs, but the book never bothers to actually tell you that.

The book also suffers from Gallagher’s tendency to routinely make grand, sweeping, statements without any attempt to back them up or really explain them at all. We are told, for instance, that the American reaction to the “communist threat” in the 1940s and 50s was “greatly exaggerated,” although Gallagher is kind enough to state that the threat “was not entirely fictitious.” No evidence is provided to back up this claim, nor is an argument presented for why Gallagher thinks it is correct.

Similarly, we’re told that the rise of the Nazi party in Germany is due to the country being humiliated by The Treaty of Versailles. This humiliation, Gallagher says, led right-wing circles to claim that Germany’s defeat was due to betrayal by elements of the country, the ‘stab in the back.’ That is a view which is popular with certain historians who tend to argue that the severity of the sanctions against Germany at the end of WW1 made WW2 effectively inevitable. But there is an alternative explanation here – that the power and popularity of the idea that Germany had been betrayed was due primarily to the Allies allowing Germans, particularly members of the Imperial Army, to believe that they had not been fully beaten and conquered. Gallagher never mentions this alternative explanation, which is largely unsurprising as a key theme of the book is the idea that conspiratorial thinking is a response to unmet emotional needs. Gallagher once again simply provides the reader with the unvarnished, and unreferenced, ‘truth.’

And this happens over, and over, and over, again. Complex matters are boiled down to a single sentence in which Gallagher gives you ‘the truth.’ Sometimes these are wide-ranging and important points, and other times they’re small, trivial things. And this presents a substantial problem with reviewing this book – it’s filled with questionable statements and unreferenced, half-true, unexplained, or decontextualised information to the point that dealing with it all in a review is just not possible. When deciding to review this book I set a target number of claims that I would check to see if they held up –every single claim I checked had some proviso to it I had to note. I’m not saying that’s an objective test or that every claim was absolutely or even majorly untrue, and I primarily checked the claims I thought were a bit off on an initial reading, which is obviously going to skew the results, but it was not an experience that built confidence in Gallagher’s research capabilities. In fact, the hardest part of this review has been trying to determine which problem is worth focusing on.

On Gallagher’s approach to research, as it is of relevance to this book and how much trust you should put in it, it is worth noting an article I published earlier in the year. It relates to an ISD presentation on LGBT issues in Leinster House, which I reported had contained inaccurate information. I didn’t report it at the time, as my focus was on ISD, and to be honest it felt unfair to target an individual rather than the organisation unnecessarily, but the ISD employee who gave out that inaccurate information was Aoife Gallagher, the author of this book.

Gallagher touches on LGBT, primarily the T, causes in this book as well, and she references a study I had brought up against the ISD in that article, although sadly I am not acknowledged as having contributed to the book. What follows is a wonderful encapsulation of Gallagher’s approach, which is an approach I struggle to regard as either fair or honest to her readers. She presents two studies on the subject of detransitioning, but only critiques the one she doesn’t agree with, whilst not providing any argument against the source she agrees with.

The point she brings up about the study I brought into the conversation, the impact of external pressure on transgender individuals detransitioning, is an absolute legitimate point to bring up. But she can’t seem to bring herself to bring that level of attention, and basic scepticism, to anything that supports her. This is honestly a great shame as if she had shown that same kind of critical engagement with the sources she agrees with as she displays here this would have been a book worth reading.

The generosity towards people who are ‘on side’ is a crippling flaw of the book. You can see it in the description of the Red Scare; in the failure to provide information that the Rosenbergs provided atomic secrets to the Soviets; in the entirety of the section on Gamergate, because of course there is a section on Gamergate; you can see it in the book’s treatment of Peter Tatchell, the veteran LGBT campaigner; you can see it damn near everywhere.

On Tatchell she writes that he was criticised for comments he made “regarding age of consent laws” which he “repeatedly clarified were taken out of context.” So mistakes were made, comments were taken out of context by bad people, case closed, nothing to see here, no need to go beyond this at all.

What actually happened is that Tatchell was criticised for writing a letter to the Guardian in which he defended a book called Dares to Speak – that book was edited by Joseph Geraci, who was the editor of a magazine called Paidika: The Journal of Paedophilia. The letter Tatchell wrote contained the following sentence “Whilst it may be impossible to condone paedophilia it is time society acknowledged the truth that not all sex involving children is unwanted, abusive and harmful.”

It subsequently became known that Tatchell had himself written a chapter in a book, called Betrayal of Youth (BOY), titled “Questioning Ages of Majority and Ages of Consent.” The book was edited by a former vice-chairman of the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE). I wrote a long analysis of this situation, PIE, and Tatchell’s views on consent more generally, which includes two interviews with Peter Tatchell and which you can read here, but suffice to say that Gallagher doesn’t really give a very good overview of what happened here, or exactly how clarifying those clarifications were. I couldn’t say I was surprised by this as by this point of the book I had long left behind the view that Gallagher was operating in good faith or seeking to present matters impartially or fairly.

The YouGov / Economist poll discussed earlier is also not appropriately referenced but is instead simply noted as a poll from “the end of 2016. This is a consistent problem throughout the book, Gallagher makes wide ranging claims that are regularly not referenced at all, whilst, for some reason, bothering to reference trivial points. I, frankly, cannot make sense of how it was decided which material needed support; it’s like the book was referenced by pinning its pages to a wall and throwing darts at them.

Sometimes the lack of referencing is relatively harmless – on page 36 Gallagher claims that people refer to natural disasters as ‘acts of God’ because “a common belief amongst major religions is that events on earth happen as a result of interventions from a God.” – but Gallagher mixes fact and opinion continuously throughout the book, and the lack of referencing serves to camouflage where one becomes the other.

Ultimately the book is a mostly rotten curate’s egg. Gallagher is a perfectly fine writer, and one who can occasionally touch on an interesting topic, but she’s undone because she allows her own biases and limitations to shape her writing. A firmer editorial hand, and perhaps a co-writer who gently disagreed with her, could have led to this book being something worth reading. Sadly, that was not the case here and, on that basis, I can’t say the book is worth reading, certainly not for those who want a trustworthy volume they can read without having to work to extract the fact from the fiction.

None of this, of course, will stop the book from receiving glowing reviews from mainstream news publications. Gallagher is well linked to Irish journalists, unsurprisingly given her current occupation and her previous employment with Storyful and association with Irish media doyens like Mark Little. It is in fact entirely possible that this review will itself be used, by comparison against those more glowing reviews, as a demonstration that Gallagher is ‘doing the work’ and my dislike of the book shows that it is actually a deeply researched and important tome. That may even work if we all agree never to mention that the book was released less than a day before the publisher told us it had an issue that needed to be rectified immediately.

As a final note the last line of the introduction reads “to everyone reading this because they believe I’m a propaganda arm from British Intelligence / Bill Gates / George Soros, thanks for reading.” That line is worth explaining, for those of you not familiar with the ISD, because, whilst it is clearly a joke, it’s also a way to poison the well against those who have concerns about the ISD’s connections to other organisations. The ISD has long been rumoured to have links to British and Israeli military intelligence, and they themselves state they work with numerous governments, although I have never seen any material which proves those connections to be beyond the normal scope one would expect from an anti-extremist think-tank co-founded by an exceptionally well-connected Zionist with close links to the British government.

In relation to Bill Gates and George Soros, both are discussed in the book, although the mentions of Gates are generally made more in passing. Page 165 discloses that George Soros has given money to ISD, but what is not disclosed is that the ISD has also received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It’s a minor omission, particularly given that Gallagher discloses the fact that Soros is a funder of her organisation, but, given that a major part of this book is about the nature of trust, and given that staff at the ISD are mentioned repeatedly throughout the book, it’s a sloppy omission in a book that has more than enough sloppy work, and it would have seemed wise for Gallagher to have been upfront with readers about all potential conflicts of interest rather than wasting her time goading her critics.

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