A loyalist convicted over his role in the Belfast flag protests has been credited with helping Donald Trump win the US presidential election.
According to the New York Times, Jim Dowson – a regular speaker at rallies protesting against the decision to restrict the flying of the Union Flag at Belfast City Hall in 2012 – bombarded millions of Americans with “fake news” demonising Trump’s rival Hillary Clinton.
An outspoken loyalist, anti-abortion and anti-immigration activist for a number of years, Mr Dowson set up a business offering advice on social media campaigns.
Recently, the influential American newspaper named the 52-year-old as being typical of the “far-right agitators in Europe” who were “incredibly influential in shaping people’s views” during the presidential election campaign.
In the article, published alongside a photograph of the former Protestant preacher with a megaphone during a flag protest in Belfast, the NYT report also described Mr Dowson as “a fan of President Vladimir Putin of Russia”.
Under the headline ‘How a Putin fan overseas pushed pro-Trump propaganda to Americans,’ it said: “Social media can amplify even the most obscure voices, giving them a stage from which to broadcast a distorted message to credulous audiences.”
I would say I played a significant role in mobilising disaffected voters, absolutely
Speaking to the News Letter, Mr Dowson seemed pleased that the American press had shown such an interest in his political activities, but was angry at allegations he published false information about Hillary Clinton.
The father-of-nine also said he was confident he had contributed to Trump’s victory.
“There’s no doubt about it. I would say me and my marketing company played a very, very significant role in mobilising disaffected voters, absolutely. But at no time have I ever – because I’m a professional and I take my profession very seriously – at no time have I ever made up a fake story,” he said.
“If any of my staff did it they would be sacked immediately. I have never produced a fake story in my life. It’s immoral – I’m a Christian.”
Mr Dowson described himself as a “marketing expert” who has worked with a large number of organisations “to help them with their social media reach”.
He said: “The people who I deal with, and the companies I deal with, are maybe running 100 websites each and I am maybe dealing with 20 of these companies ... and there are maybe half a million people feeding into each one of those sites.
“So within seconds nowadays a good meme (snappy internet phrase or video) can get 50 or 60 million hits. I was producing memes – good memes, no lies – and if you do a really dramatic picture, and you frame it right and you get it out there, memes like that get 10 million hits in a day.”
Mr Dowson added: “I would say I was far more influential in the Brexit vote than the Trump vote. I can assure you, we were out-stripping the [Nigel] Farage campaign in terms of memes and in terms of reach, we were miles ahead of them. Forget content, forget cerebral arguments, go for raw emotions, go for memes. Don’t put up any policies, just put up pictures ... even a dog staring at you with big weepy eyes.”
Nowadays spending much of his time between offices he runs in Budapest and Belgrade, Mr Dowson said he rejects claims he is a racist, and says he is totally disillusioned with Northern Ireland politics.
“I really hate racism and I hate when people connect me with neo-Nazis – I’m a Christian and God made all men, we’re all human beings. It just sickens me,” he said.
“The whole thing is disgusting. What angers me is that I was one of the wee guys in my younger day who was standing out protesting with Mr Paisley against the Ulster Unionist Party, and against the Presbyterian Church, yes I was sold on all that stuff but what an eejit I was. This DUP mob have turned out to be even worse than the ‘big house’ unionists.
“Loyalists now have to move on. Flying a flag and saying ‘we want it back to the way it used to be, no surrender’ ... it’s not going to happen.”
Written by journalist Mike McIntire, the New York Times article states: “James Dowson, a far-right political activist, ran a constellation of websites out of the United Kingdom.
“The Patriot News Agency website popped up in July, soon after it became clear that Donald J Trump would win the Republican presidential nomination. Tucked away on a corner of the site, is a link to another social media platform that most Americans have never heard of: VKontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook.
“A vocal proponent of Christian nationalist, anti-immigrant movements in Europe, Mr Dowson, 52, has spoken at a conference of far-right leaders in Russia and makes no secret of his hope that Mr Trump will usher in an era of rapprochement with Mr Putin. While it is easy to overstate the influence of fringe elements whose overall numbers remain very small, the explosion of fake news and propaganda sites and their possible impact on the presidential election have ignited alarm across the American political spectrum.
“A recent study found that most people who read fabricated stories on Facebook – such as a widely circulated hoax about Pope Francis endorsing Mr Trump – were inclined to believe them.
“Then there is the added element of Russian meddling. The CIA has concluded that Moscow put its thumb on the scale for Mr Trump through the release of hacked Democratic emails, which provided fodder for many of the most pernicious false attacks on Mrs Clinton on social media.”
• In April 2015, Jim Dowson pleaded guilty to three counts of participating in un-notified public processions and was handed a three-month suspended prison sentence in Belfast.
The offences, during January and February 2013, occurred at demonstrations against the decision to restrict the flying of the Union Flag at Belfast City Hall to designated days only.
In a letter to the News Letter in 2013 Mr Dowson said he wished to make it “crystal clear” that he had never been a member of the British National Party.
He acknowledged that he once worked for a company involved in “contract work” with the party, but added: “My own political and Christian ethos has and always would prevent me from ever being a member of the BNP.”