Editor’s note: DGR acknowledges that Extinction Rebellion and Extinction Rebellion Ireland are valuable and necessary contributors to a broader ecosystem of activism. The analysis in this article is relevant for many movements and it’s republished from Medium with permission from the author.
Image credit: Truthout.org on Flickr
by Roderick Campbell
Extinction Rebellion Ireland (XRI) is growing at a decent speed and has already hosted a number of public marches and street art performances. The movement currently follows the Extinction Rebellion International principles and policies, which make it a fully decentralised and non-hierarchical movement which is open to anyone who wants to participate. In Ireland they are currently opting for a consensus based approach to decisionmaking rather than a democratic process, and they are experimenting with using “circles” to organise around key issues like finance, tactics, and policies. The community is somewhat divided on the details, especially regarding the ambiguity of some of Extinction Rebellion’s principles and how they should be interpreted. There is also contention around the details of decisionmaking processes and key financial decisions.
This is very much a social experiment, and you can tell the movement is young and raw. Individual participants run the gamut from brand-new activists to seasoned community organisers, from upper class people to significantly underpriveleged people, and from those living in intensely rural settings to those living in the big cities. The diversity of participants is staggering. There seems to be a central division between those who espouse fundamentally capitalist beliefs and call for incremental progress through government lobbying and public relations stunts, to outright socialists who are calling for the abolition of capitalism and profound restructuring of government institions. Likewise, there is a division between those who believe that climate change is a serious concern but a vaguely distant threat, to those who believe climate collapse is actively occurring and poses a risk of near-term extinction. These divisions are obviously exploitable, and will inevitably identified by opposition forces (e.g. fossil fuel industry propaganda teams).
Below I outline some of my most immediate security concerns. Please note that I’m highlighting these concerns in order to help XRI identify and address them before they fall victim to malicious parties. I will approach these concerns from the perspective of an oppositional force in order to highlight the seriousness of these vulnerabilities.
Crippling Through Consensus
Perhaps the most easily exploitable aspect of Extinction Rebellion Ireland (XRI) is that they’re currently using consensus rather than democracy, which means that they only progress on a tactic or solution if everyone agrees. If one participant wishes to block the decision they can grind everything to a halt. There is no process for dealing with people who consistently obstruct decisions, so it would be easy for a member of the opposition to join XRI meetings and simply blockade all decisions while pretending to do so in good faith — though even if they blockaded XRI without pretending to be sincere, there are no existing procedures for dealing with them. A small handful of malicious individuals could easily cripple XRI and prevent most progress.
Scenario: I am the head of a PR (propaganda) agency for the fossil fuel industry and I’ve identified this weakness. I hire a small team of individuals to join XRI Facebook groups, join the XRI Slack, and participate in all key meetings both in person and via Zoom. These individuals do not need to be skilled at all, so I would select them based on their cover stories. I would give preference to older individuals, since they are perceived to be more trustworthy, and I would favour anyone who has a background in “feel good” activism so that they seem credible. Their entire job will be to bring up “legitimate” concerns about every issue and to trade off on blocking decisions, that way it’s not too obvious.
Outcome: XRI decisionmaking is ground to a halt, effectively the only actions which become possible are those which the fossil fuel industry has authorised because all others are blocked by the small team of paid trolls. These blockade participants may arouse some degree of suspicion, but it is impossible to definitively accuse them of maliciousness. This tactic will continue to work so long as consensus decisionmaking is in effect and/or so long as participation is open to the general public.
Consistent, Controlled Conflict
Groups like XRI are highly diverse, and they always include big personalities. There are a handful of especially divisive issues which are guaranteed to generate conflict and endless argument. Some of the prominent issues include:
- Urgently dismantling capitalist systems (“capitalism relies on infinite growth on a finite planet, which is irrational”).
- Emotional violence as violence (“if we hurt someone’s feelings it constitutes violence and is against the XRI policies”)
- Property destruction as nonviolence (“if we sabotage a pipeline it does not directly harm anyone and is therefore nonviolent”)
- Quantifiability of tactics (“we should not pursue tactics which have no quantifiable outcomes”)
- Naming and shaming (“we cannot mention any names” & “no naming and shaming only applies to XR participants and the general public”)
Leveraging these key issues to generate internal conflict would be effective because they all address valid, but generally unresolveable issues. They divide people along key lines: capitalism/socialism, idealist/pragmatist, and analytical/emotional. Each of these groups constitute a large ratio of XRI’s participants and can therefore generate substantial conflict with very little prompting. Most of these debates occur on Facebook and Slack, and can therefore be instigated and sustained by fake accounts.
Scenario: I am a member of a prominent opposition party and my objective is to cause enough sustained dissent within XRI to cripple an upcoming national strike. I coordinate a dozen party volunteers via Facebook. Each volunteer sets up 2–3 fake Facebook accounts and email addresses, primarily using images of attractive young women to ensure they are inundated with incoming friend requests, which significantly reduces the amount of work needed to create a realistic looking account. Once the accounts have several dozen friends the volunteers are prompted to add them to prominent XRI groups on Facebook, where each fake account regularly initiates arguments about one of the key issues outlined above. The volunteer trolls also engage with each others’ content in order to make the arguments appear authentic and lively. Once the accounts have become regonisable in the community they request to be added to the XRI Slack where they continue baiting arguments.
Outcome: XRI participants end up wasting time and energy on divisive arguments rather than working on actions or making progress toward resolving organisational gaps. Moreover, individuals who engage in arguments will be likely to form cliques and grudges until active members leave out of frustration and emotional exhaustion. XRI currently has no process for resolving these disputes or making critical interpretive decisions, so this tactic would work indefinitely.
Extinction Rebellion and XRI have significant access to funding. The International account generally holds between €500,000 and €1,000,000 in cash and they are beginning to allocate relatively large amounts of funding to individual Extinction Rebellion groups. For example, XRI has been offered €10,000 without strings attached, and an additional €40,000 with minimal strings attached.
The biggest financial obstacle facing XRI and other regional XR groups is accessing funds, because they are often used for illegal activities. Under normal circumstances, XRI members would join forces and create a legal entity (e.g. limited company) to receive and process the funds; this approach requires individual XRI members to sign their name to the company and take on significant legal liabilities. Conversely, individual XR members could be directly paid out the funds as wages, which carries slightly less legal liability but lacks transparency, creates infighting, and makes resource purchases difficult. Another option is to set up an out-of-country legal entity, which provides significant legal protection but requires a trustworthy foreign national. The last option is to receive payment in bitcoin and withdraw cash from bitcoin ATMs, which provides the most legal protection but lacks transparency and requires several trustworthy individuals.
XRI is open to anyone and operates on a consensus model, which means that a dedicated group of thieves could potentially steal tens of thousands of euro by infiltrating the XRI community, driving financial decisions toward methods they can control, and working as a group to mask their actions and mitigate any risk of being caught.
Scenario: A group of 10 friends hear that XRI will soon receive €40,000 in funding. They join XRI groups, the Slack platform, and begin attending all meetings in order to build rapport. These individuals understand the logistical challenges facing XRI and they advise XRI to leverage bitcoin to receive the funds in order to take advantage of its many benefits, namely its anonymity and significantly reduced legal liability. XRI participants express concern about ensuring the funds are safely handled and can be transparently accounted. The group of thieves suggest a best practice: a “circle” of designated people should all have access to the bitcoin wallet in order to monitor the funds and keep each other honest. All 10 of the friends join the circle and insist that many people should have access in order to avoid centralisation and hierarchy. Once the funds are in the bitcoin wallet, they almost immediately disappear into another wallet and are then laundered through one of many services. The funds are eventually divided among the friends and nobody can identify who took the bitcoins.
Outcome: XRI loses €40,000 in funding and has a reduced likelihood of receiving additional funds. The Extinction Rebellion brand is tarnished and media coverage is diverted away from actions and toward the robbery. Extinction Rebellion funders are globally disenfranchised and become less likely to provide financial resources in the future.
By compiling this analysis I hope to highlight several significant security risks, which can be exploited by malicious third parties with minimal resources or expertise to cripple the Extinction Rebellion movement in Ireland. These approaches are not new, they have been used before to undermine movements, but they have not yet been used against Extinction Rebellion. My hope is that, by highlighting them, Extinction Rebellion can resolve the issues before oppositional parties exploit them or, at the very least, Extinction Rebellion participants will be more likely to identify them before they cause critical damage to the movement.
All of these weaknesses can be effectively counteracted, but only if we’re aware of them before we fall victim to them.