What Kellie Harrington Twitter controversy says about Anti-Immigrant rhetoric

Kellie Harrington’s generalised, anti-migrant tweet rests on the cynical assumption that migrants perpetuate a culture of violence against their host countries. Caroline Kelly comments.

In October, Olympic gold medallist Kellie Harrington deleted a post on Twitter regarding an incident in France where a young girl was murdered. Lola Daviet (12), disappeared a few hours before her body was found, mutilated and stuffed in a suitcase in Paris, France. 

In a now deleted tweet, the boxer retweeted a video from GB News speaking to Dutch commentator Eva Vlaardingerbroek about the girl’s death. In the video, Vlaardingerbroek said: “I woke up this morning to see the news of another young European girl who was sacrificed on the altar of mass migration. We have four people in custody, all migrants coming from Algeria.” She continued, “This is the 12th girl I believe in France that has been killed this year by an immigrant and that’s just France.”

Harrington retweeted the post, with the comment: “Very, very sad. A powerful message from Eva Vlaardingerbroek. Our own leaders need to take a listen to this. She believes this is the 12th girl in France this year who has been killed by an immigrant.. And that’s just France.” 

This is one of many recent instances detailing how misinformation about migrants and other minority groups adapts to the shifting news cycle—while also appealing to people’s pre-existing convictions and tapping into current worries, in this case about generalised violence and household incomes struggling to keep up with rising prices. Salient events such as the murder of Lola Daviet act as catalysts, albeit exploitative ones, enabling coordinated misinformation-producing activist groups and extremists to attract attention and stoke fears, in some cases even setting the tone of the political discourse surrounding the management of migratory phenomena and the policies governing them. 

In recent times, anti-immigration rhetoric has intensified in Ireland. Disputes over immigration issues (e.g. the Ukrainian refugee crisis, Direct Provision and the housing crisis in Ireland) have also become more frequent. As a result, both broadcast and social media—the latter often relying on unverified sources and socially provocative content—have frequently framed migrant populations  as a threat. 

Having immigrated to Ireland from the United States, I soon found myself in a position of privilege compared to other immigrants from non-English speaking countries. In Ireland, all non-EU immigrants planning to stay longer than 90 days must register permission to stay (to either work, study or retire). While such demands appear feasible on paper, their feasibility depends on a variety of factors. Having entered the country during COVID times, I faced extreme delays and bureaucratic gridlock during the process of obtaining an Irish Residence Permit (IRP), one of the required documents to live in Ireland as an immigrant. To be granted an IRP requires applying for and securing a PPSN, undergoing an application process (that is only offered in English or Irish) and then awaiting the preliminary approval, which grants the applicant an in-person appointment with an immigration official. 

I completed both the PPSN and IRP application process within a couple of weeks; it took another eighteen months to secure an appointment to officially obtain an IRP, which meant I was a legal resident in Ireland. Typically, an applicant would book an appointment through Immigration Service’s website. However, COVID lockdown brought all government services to a grinding halt, which resulted in a historic amount of backlogged applications. Until then, I had sent dozens of emails, and left hundreds of voicemail messages, to secure an appointment. It was not until UCD International intervened that I made any further progress on the application. 

While waiting in Burgh Quay to be called up for my appointment, I observed a young Eastern European mother carrying a small child, pleading with a security guard outside the front door. Despite never being granted access inside, she seemed to be a regular here, arriving at the building with a packed lunch and addressing the guard by name. She had been waiting for years for an appointment, and was threatened with deportation, which was not a viable option for her. However, she was not alone; there were nearly a dozen people waiting outside the building with the same agenda and the same packed lunch. On any given day, you can find these people arriving in droves outside Burgh Quay from the early morning until nightfall. A simple observation of the waiting area inside revealed a majority of white students and young professionals standing by, waiting to be called forward. It seemed clear to me that this phenomenon was a symptom of something larger, as was Kellie Harrington’s (now-deleted) tweet. 

Mass media is constantly determining the shape of politics and culture. When GB News—a historically right-leaning, British news organisation—uploaded a video to Twitter asserting that “young girls are being sacrificed at the altar of mass migration,” they were not raising awareness of the dangers facing young girls, but the supposed ‘dangers’ of migrant populations. 

In the media, migration appears an ideal framing device for those dispelling lies and manipulated truths to spread fear, indignation or prejudice. It is a complex phenomenon where the facts can be difficult to ascertain or explain, especially through neverending social media threads. It can also be linked to issues with great symbolic meaning, such as religion and identity, or sensitive matters such as jobs and security. Migrant-related misinformation further exploits the voicelessness of the subjects it targets, who are already under-represented in the mass media and political conversation and are often overlooked socioeconomically. 

In an exercise of privilege, Harrington deleted the tweet, later citing the pursuant backlash she received: “Don't need the hate post!” While she made it clear that the focus of her tweet was Lola Daviet, it does not distract from the anti-migrant undertones reflected in the subject of the assailant. Furthermore, to drop the conversation altogether—by deleting the post and commenting that the response was unnecessary—is to dive even further into the depths of ignorance. Challenging ideas on social media and labelling them false, is not enough to convince people to stop sharing them, especially when the broader narrative or claim resonates with individuals’ preceding belief systems. In some cases, calling out inaccuracies and ‘fake news’ can backfire, thereby strengthening misconceptions and further reinforcing prior convictions.

By contrast, media and information literacy programs aim to raise citizens’ agency and enable them to identify misinformation on their own. The authors’ research suggests that individuals’ existing media and information literacy levels can significantly influence the reach and appeal of disinformation. Overall levels of engagement for all anti-migration narrative themes were notably lower in countries with comparably better-developed media and information literacy educational programs, such as Germany, in the 2019-20 period at the height of the so-called infodemic.

Yet, misinformation actors, such as GB News, deliberately exploit the complexity and sensitivity of severe topics, such as a young girl’s murder. In turn, they promote simplistic ideas and stoke fears about migrants and immigrants, polarise public opinion, and influence the views of their audience. To undermine the appeal of misinformation and depolarize the discourse, politicians and public figures, such as Kellie Harrington, also have a particular responsibility to educate themselves on the experiences of migrants, rather than dropping the issue altogether. Moreover, such figures should join the conversation and talk about migration in a truthful and measured way. Unbiased and reputable platforms that acknowledge people’s concerns—without inflating them and infusing them with anti-migrant sentiments—are crucial in reframing the debate away from such divisive misinformation narratives with nativist undertones.