Eastern European cyber gangs being used to troll Arlene Foster and Stephen Nolan, warns expert

A former NATO intelligence Colonel believes that politicians, journalists and terror victims in NI may have been subjected to organised online attacks by eastern European cyber gangs paid by local paramilitaries.

Wednesday, 11th August 2021, 8:15 pm
Updated Thursday, 12th August 2021, 10:16 am
Former NATO Intelligence Col Philip Ingram from Co Tyrone is now chairman of a cyber security company.

Co Tyrone man Philip Ingram MBE, who now lives in England, served as a UK Army Intelligence Colonel in NATO and is now chair of Global Intelligence Insight, a company which infiltrates ISIS and Al Qaeda social media networks.

Speaking in March, then First Minister Arlene Foster said: “What concerns me more is the growing evidence of online lynch mobs controlled by dark forces who are unleashed on female public figures like a pack of lions to do as much damage as they can to the public figure and the cause that they represent.”

Discussing her comments soon after, broadcaster Stephen Nolan revealed a similar experience. He said that “one of the biggest untold stories in Northern Ireland is the social media sophisticated machines that have been set up with money and organisation behind them in order to achieve political objectives”.

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Mr Nolan added: “I have been threatened by powerful people in Northern Ireland to stop doing particular stories on the Nolan Show or else the tap of social media abuse against me would be turned on.

”I was then contacted and told the circumstances [in which] the tap would be turned off again. And so that you are all very clear, I told that person to go to hell and it didn’t affect one second of our output. But do not be mistaken as to how powerful these machines are.”

Mr Ingram has been following such activities in Northern Ireland closely.

“There are definite signs of trolls from both republican and loyalist organisations attacking different people depending on what they say online,” he said. “And those different people can be politicians journalists public personalities and victims of terrorism. Of the two groupings republican trolls are much more professionally coordinated and organised, compared to loyalist trolls who just seem to be disaffected thugs.”

While some broadcasters might be tough enough to resist such pressures - he commends Stephen Nolan for defying such intimidation - he says other broadcasters may find members of their teams might be more vulnerable to such pressures on them or their families.

Arlene’s testimony sounds very much like she was targeted by professional cybercriminals, he says.

“It does. This is something that could be done through [paid for] ‘trolling-as-a-service’ which is an area of concern and is recognised by a number of different cyber threat actors.”

He says that Mr Nolan appeared to be targeted by “troll farms” of organised criminals either in NI or overseas.

Mr Ingram in part bases his understanding of how cyberwarfare is being used against people in NI from first hand experience.

“You can go and buy trolling services from Russian, Ukranian and other eastern bloc countries that advertise their wares on the dark web and elsewhere,” he says.

“And they will set up trolling campaigns using anonymous accounts on behalf of whatever you want. This has been identified as involved in the US election campaigns and elsewhere.

Such services can pre-plan hundreds of stock disparaging remarks to target individuals they perceive as a threat to their cause.

“You can go to a service provider and say - ‘If this person says something on here I want 500 different people to come in and say this, threaten this and threaten the other’. And 500 different accounts will come in and send lots of nasty messages.”

“Like any cyberattack, this will be done very professionally indeed and all the messages will be varied convincingly. They do have real people at the other end. Real people will set them up, set the accounts up and messaging up and then they just automate it to go at certain times.”

He believes he personally has been targeted by paid for ‘online trolling as a service’ when speaking out on Northern Ireland matters and challenging republicans online.

He adds: “What is interesting here is the link between eastern European organised crime gangs and [Irish] republican organised crime - the old smuggling routes via eastern Europe for cigarettes, fuel, drugs and it has the potential for weapons as well.”

He also finds it “fascinating that there is a link between republican Facebook and social media management and eastern Europe”.

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