The Tweet that was heard all round the world
I have an ambiguous relationship with Twitter. For those who follow politics, like me, on a day like today – during a presidential election count – it is peerless. It is the modern equivalent of tickertape. You are updated on events and figures that haven’t even happened yet!
They can be good too at other key moments, like during the televised debates.
It struck me as I followed the Frontline debate on Monday night that tweeters have replaced the role of the knitters watching the vanquished get guillotined after the French revolution. Difference is that they are no longer knitting purls , rather (they hope!) knitting pearls of sardonic humour etc.
At other times, I go right off it. If you’re following too many tweets, it can all get to be a little Babelesque… too many voices talking about too many things too many of them an insult to the concept of trivia. For my own part, I dont’ tweet unless I have something significant to say or have randomly come up with an ingenious quip. It can sometimes take a long time to come up with so little!
My huge problem with the medium is to do with authenticity and credibility.
And also the raging torrent effect of the medium. If there’s something big happens, everybody rushes to be the first there, to get their tweet in, or to retweet something that’s significant. To make something viral.
And that creates difficulty.
There were a number of problems about the tweet that appeared on Frontline on Monday night.
Firstly, it came from a fake account. I tried to trace back its origins. The first tweet is from October 1 having a lash at Michael McDowell. It contains lots of retweets. It’s clear that the person, (or group) is a true green SFer who follows all SF tweets. The branding of the twitter along with the reference to Martin McGuinness’s website makes it look authenitic. As Naoise Nunn commented this twitter (@McGuinness4Pres) sounds more legitimate than the real one (@martin4prez2011).
So to the second point. It wasn’t the official Twitter site. Yet it duped lots of tweeters who once they saw it retweeted,. And some claimed SF had “confirmed” a press conference with Hugh Morgan the next day.
So they essentially authenticaed a fake.
The third point was that the Frontline team decided that Pat Kenny would read it out live on air on Monday night.
That for me was the most serious implication, and worrying development.
I have been on to RTE about this and they didn’t come back with any offical, or satisfactory, response. It seems that the broadcaster has no protocol for handling tweets. But it’s my contention that they should. And it would be dangerous for the broadcaster to allow an incident like this to be repeated.
I know it’s live television and some decisions have to be made on the spur of the moment. But this one was wrong. One of the defences that it might proffer that it wasn’t presented as a fact but as a question and put to Martin McGuinness to authenticate it.
But McGuinness was in no position to authenticate it. He didn’t have a clue where this came from. If that defence was to succeed, he would have had to reply: That is untrue and that is a fake. Instead, he used it as another opportuntiy to attack Gallagher.
Instead, the tweet was presented to Sean Gallagher as a fact and he was thrown by it.
Now, there have been lots of arguments that the end justifies the means and false and all as the tweet was, it exposed Gallagher as being economical with the verite about his involvement with Fianna Fail.
In general, I believe Gallagher’s line about being a footsoldier was a load of phooey. And actually Colm Keena’s story about his director’s loan in Beach House raised very serious questions about his credibility, that he failed to answer. He did not convince people that he could live up to the very high standards we should expect of a president.
But on this one particular point, I actually believe Gallagher on the one net point, that he didn’t collect €5,000 off Hugh Morgan. A lot of my colleagues have been saying, ah sure it doesn’t matter, he had his fingerprints all over that Fianna Fail fundraiser.
He might have had. But the central claim made by McGuinness was that Gallagher had personally collected the five grand. That’s what really did the damage. As well as Gallagher’s idiotic phraseology and his reference to an ‘envelope’. But it emerged the following day that the money was collected before the event, so McGuinness’s claim could not stand up. He then said that he made a mistake, and that Gallagher had gone to Morgan not once but twice, once before and once after. Gallagher never denied he gave the photo to Morgan but always denied taking money. The ‘envelope’ reference was forced on the back of the false tweet, when he was momentarily thrown by a new allegation that he collected the money afterwards, not before.
Some of my colleagues say, ah he was collecting money so often he couldn’t remember. But that’s jumping to conclusions, in my humble opinion. You have to stick with the evidence.
So he got pincered by the dark power that is Martin McGuinness and a false tweet. So a straw man was erected so they could knock it down.
Was it Provo dirty tricks or just a coincidence?
Whatever, RTE should not have bought into it. There is no reason why other parties or dishonest individuals could come up with similar strategies to down other parties or candidates in the future.
They could set up proxy accounts, and enjoying the anonymity conferred by Twitter, publish false information about another candidate at a critical moment, knowing it can go viral. With a chance that it will be read out during a live broadcast.
And then when it comes to the crunch, the party which benefitted can also deny any knowledge.
It’s not going to happen too often. And RTE will probably be a bit more vigilant. But that said, reading out a tweet like that is akin to asking the ‘you are a spouse-beater’ question.
Defenders of Twitter say it is a self-policing medium, as others in the ‘community’ will force the falsehoods out. Yep, but sometimes long after the damage has been done. And it’s not that quick at correcting falsehoods. Yesterday, there was a tweet that must have been retweeted a million times that Hugh Morgan was going to release stilll CCTV images of Gallagher arriving at his business.
That was untrue. And the images never materialised.
Incidentally, the supreme irony of the whole thing was that for a guy who gives motivational talks and is in the communications business, Gallagher is a poor communicator. He did not understand the medium, was never comfortable when talking live, struggled to explain things, and did it very badly. He had neither the composure or hyper-articulacy to withstand the barrage.
In contrast was Glenna Lynch. When I saw her and heard her really pointed question, the first thing that came into my head was ‘plant’. But she wasn’t. She was an ordinary member of the public (albeit one that was now going to vote for Michael D) with no party connections, but one who was very critical, very hostile and very disdainful of Gallagher. Which is fair enough. (Well, unfair enough – there’s nothing fair about election campaigns!) She really filleted him, although with perfectly legitimate and correct questions about his business.
The truth is this. Gallagher’s business affairs had to be completely and utterly above suspicion. There could not even be a smidgen of doubt that there was anything untoward and not correct. And he failed to do that.
And boy, what a natural she was when it came to putting her point across.
Incidentally 2. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a great article in the New Yorker several months ago describing how its evangelists have oversold the scope and influence of Twitter, especially during protests in Iran and elsewhere. It’s worth checking out… just for a bit of balance of course!