9 February 2023
This Dispatch explores the role of TikTok in spreading anti-migrant videos in Ireland amidst the ongoing anti-immigration protests.
Since the beginning of November 2022, Ireland has witnessed an unprecedented wave of protests against asylum seekers and refugees coming to the country. Fuelled in part by a chronic housing shortage and a lack of action by government to increase basic services in certain areas, rumours and racially-charged fears percolating through social media platforms have given rise to a series of worrying new trends culminating in real-life harm. This includes the doxxing, harassment and vigilante-style assault of migrants.
Although until recently TikTok has been a platform mostly ignored by Irish extremist and disinformation actors, ISD has identified a growing number of new accounts that have been posting almost exclusively videos from the anti-immigration protests and general anti-migrant videos. New trends on the platform include harassing and doxxing migrants in public places, as well as the spread of unverified claims of crimes allegedly committed by migrants.
ISD analysed a sample of 20 videos that are going viral on TikTok in Ireland where migrants are confronted in public spaces, harassed, doxxed and in some cases eventually attacked.
- Nine of the videos identified make unverified claims of attacks and sexual assaults against women, men and children allegedly perpetrated by migrants;
- Of these, five videos claim that migrants had tried to harass or sexually assault children;
- In 10 videos, migrants are directly confronted by the person filming and their faces are clearly recognisable in the footage;
- Of these, three target Ukrainian refugees specifically;
- Although the videos identified have been posted by accounts with a limited number of followers (between 15 and 10K), the videos have amassed a viewership that ranges from 4K to 1.2M.
Trends and narratives against migrants
As with any other offline movement, the anti-immigration protests in Ireland has sparked a new series of viral hashtags from #Irelandisfull, #IrelandSaysNO, #IrelandForTheIrish to #MakeIrelandSafeAgain. Content circulating with these hashtags on TikTok includes a series of problematic new trends aimed at further aggravating anti-immigrant sentiment in the country.
A key tactic in anti-migrant discourse is in making accusations of sexual assault against refugees and migrants, often claiming that they have attempted to assault children. These claims are deeply emotive, and tap into fears of a foreign ‘other’ seeking to corrode the purity or innocence of the nation’s women and children. They also play on racialised stereotypes about non-white, non-European populations as inherently more violent or less ‘civilised’ than the people of their host country. These factors, along with the general societal condemnation of sexual violence, combine to make this a highly effective tactic for turning populations against migrants.
Claims that asylum seekers or migrants were behind the sexual assault of a woman in Finglas started spreading at the end of January and sparked a wave of unverified claims and accusations against migrants in Ireland. Although claims that migrants were involved in the attack proved to be unfounded, the story sparked a proliferation of similar allegations. In total, ISD identified nine different videos where immigrants were accused of chasing, harassing, and/or sexually assaulting children, women, or men. Although the claims were unverified, seven of these videos included close-ups of the alleged perpetrators putting them at risk of real-life harm.
On Tuesday, 31 January, a migrant who had entered Temple Street Children’s Hospital in Dublin was brutally attacked on the streets after footage featuring his face was widely spread across TikTok and other social media platforms. Videos from that day with overlaid text accuse the man of having entered the hospital to rape children, and to have sexually assaulted staff and parents who confronted him. The man appears to have been filmed during an interaction with the Gardaí and after having been released from the Garda station. Two videos of the man being attacked were filmed and widely spread online. This doxxing and subsequent attacks, based on unverified rumours spread online, represent a concerning new trend of online incitement leading to offline harm.
Eight other videos that have been shared across TikTok, Twitter and Telegram from January 2023 include similar incidents. Seven similarly include close-ups of the alleged perpetrators; another features a distressed man running and stating that he has been raped. Besides a lack of evidence and reporting on the case, this latter video has been widely shared together with allegations that the man had been raped by five migrants. Notably, screenshots of comments on the video made on Facebook were also later spread as evidence that the information was confirmed.
Claims that migrants have sexually assaulted, raped or attacked women, children and men have also been widely spread on Twitter. ISD identified 877 unique tweets posted by 545 authors that mentioned rapes and/or sexual assaults supposedly carried out in Ireland by migrants between 1 December 2022 and 5 February 2023. Most of these tweets were posted between mid-January and early February and received a total of over 21K mentions by 18K unique users, with a prominent spike on 4 February of over 7K mentions in a single day.
In other TikTok videos, footage of migrants filmed in public places is accompanied by text spreading fear about an “invasion”, and a “plantation”, a term used by the far-right in Ireland which plays on historical atrocities committed on the Irish people by the English. In 10 of these videos, migrants are directly confronted by the person filming and their faces are clearly recognisable in the footage.
Three videos target Ukrainian refugees specifically. In one, a man appears to ask a couple why they don’t go back and protect their country; another, filmed during a demonstration in support of Ukraine, shows two people who confronted the person filming being harassed. The two people were then doxxed and mocked in following videos. One video features the full names and Facebook accounts of the two Ukrainian refugees and accuses the woman of having “assaulted” the person filming. In the third video, which was filmed at the Ukrainian Refugees Processing Area, some refugees are accused of not being Ukrainian. Although the three accounts that have posted these videos have only 8K, 2K and 110 followers, their videos targeting Ukrainian refugees have received 1.1M, 1.2M, and 30.5K views respectively. The disproportionate outreach of these videos raises questions on how TikTok’s algorithms have been pushing controversial and problematic content.
ISD analysts have identified eleven accounts created since the start of the anti-immigration protests in November 2022 that have posted almost exclusively anti-migrant videos and footage from the protests, garnering millions of views. Of these accounts, four appear to be no longer available on TikTok; however, it is unclear whether their disappearance is linked to TikTok’s moderation efforts.
TikTok’s community guidelines prohibit content that abuses, degrades, mocks, humiliates, embarrasses, intimidates, or hurts an individual. Content that harasses individuals with unfounded accusations and fear mongering undoubtedly contravenes these guidelines. However, it has not been tackled consistently. The spread of videos doxxing and intimidating migrants in Ireland has already resulted in real-life harm and the proliferation of fear and stigmatisation of migrants. The platform’s opaque practices currently make it impossible for researchers to quantify the spread of such videos on TikTok, but an analysis of the viewership of problematic content suggests that the platform’s algorithm bears some responsibility for spotlighting problematic content. It is worth noting that the spread of this content is not unique to TikTok. Increasingly it is proliferating across platforms, with material often copied and pasted from one to another, then used in these new contexts to further incite hatred against migrants.