Confusion of rumours with fact is a dangerous development


THE MINI-BLOG site Twitter has been highly influential in shaping political events in Ireland over the past few years.

In February 2010, the Green Party seemed to offer grudging support to beleaguered Fianna Fáil minister Willie O’Dea in the Dáil. A little later, the party’s chairman Dan Boyle tweeted saying he had no confidence in the minister and that his situation was compromised.

O’Dea was gone within a day.

In September last year, Simon Coveney’s tweet that then taoiseach Brian Cowen sounded half-way between drunk and hungover on a Morning Ireland interview opened the floodgates to overwhelming media scrutiny of Cowen’s alcohol intake at the Fianna Fáil think-in.

And then on Monday night, at a critical moment of the last presidential debate on The Frontline, we had another tweet that was heard around the political world.

Twitter and other forms of social media have come in from the periphery to become part of the mainstream of political discourse. But those who evangelise on behalf of the brave new world of communication are not so quick to point out the shortcomings of the medium. For example, it raises questions of authenticity and credibility. Or in layman’s terms, the use of anonymity to deceive, to spread unfounded rumours and, sometimes, to lie.

Tweeters say that its “community” can quickly self-correct mistakes.

But not quickly enough to prevent a rogue tweet going viral. If something big happens, everybody rushes to be the first there, to get their tweet in, or to retweet something that’s significant.

The tweet that host Pat Kenny read out on The Frontlineon Monday night was a very good example of this phenomenon.

Immediately after an ad break, Kenny said: “[There is] a development which I want to put to Seán Gallagher. On the Martin McGuinness4President twitter account, Sinn Féin say they will produce the man who gave you a cheque for €5,000.

“Do you want to change what you said. Are you still saying it did not happen. Are they up to dirty tricks or what?”

The problem with the tweet was that it was a fake. The twitter account it came from was not the official Martin McGuinness site and had nothing to do with Sinn Féin. It was only after the programme that Sinn Féin said the tweet had nothing to do with the party or with McGuinness’s campaign.

In a statement, RTÉ has defended its decision on the basis there had been a large volume of tweets, and not just this one, suggesting that Mr Morgan would be produced the following day. The “two men in a position to confirm or disprove this story were both live on the programme”. It said the simplest thing to do was to put it to them. “This was particularly true of Mr McGuinness had just raised the issue. Clearly he would be in a position to confirm or deny that such an event was planned,” said the statement.

The problem was it wasn’t put to McGuinness and in any instance he was not in a position to confirm or deny it. For all he knew, while he was on air, colleagues might have persuaded Morgan to appear. The large volume of tweets “confirming” that Morgan would be rolled out by Sinn Féin had one thing in common: They were all wrong.

On live television, decisions have to be made on the spur of the moment. After the tweet was read out, and under pressure from McGuinness, Gallagher changed his story from outright denial to conceding he may have collected an envelope when he delivered a photograph to Morgan. Gallagher later contended he had been “spooked” by the tweet.

Subsequently, it emerged that the money was collected prior to the event making it impossible for him to collect an envelope when delivering the photograph of Morgan and Cowen at the event. By this time, Gallagher’s shifting explanations, allied to Glenna Lynch’s searching questions about his business practices, had created huge doubts about his credibility.

Gallagher’s spokesman Richard Moore has challenged RTÉ’s statement. He intends to make a formal complaint to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.

“There is a serious issue down the line for broadcasters on how to handle tweets and other social media on a live programme. The same rules should apply as for other media. What happened on The Frontlinewas not acceptable as something was put out without any checking or attempting to authenticate material.

“There were Sinn Féin press officers present in RTÉ or else Sinn Féin could have been contacted by mobile phone.

“The tweet was accepted uncritically as from Sinn Féin.”

For its part, RTÉ’s statement also noted that when the tweet was read out, “it was then that the discrepancy between Mr Gallagher’s earlier statement and what he then said became apparent. The next day Mr Morgan released a statement confirming he was the individual,” it concluded.

Moore said that RTÉ was using an “end justifies the means” argument and also contended that as the tweet was from an unidentifiable and anonymous source, the reference to Morgan’s statement was irrelevant.

RTÉ did not state, when asked, if it had a protocol in place for dealing with texts, tweets and other forms of social media during live broadcasts. It should have because it is certain that something similar will happen again.

The tweet came from a site named “@McGuinness4pres” which had the same logo and design as the official Twitter site of Mr McGuinness. It was set up in early October around the time Mr McGuinness announced his candidacy. Most of its tweets were retweets of official tweets from Mr McGuinness and from other Sinn Féin supporters. But was it merely a maverick McGuinness supporter?

Separately, on that night, and earlier than the tweet, the political blogger David Cochrane tweeted: “A SF person has told me they have the person who gave the 5k cheque to Gallagher and are likely to roll him out tomorrow.”

Sinn Féin has denied it said it would produce Morgan.

The need to approach some sources with caution resurfaced two days later when another tweet went viral. This one suggested that Morgan had CCTV stills showing Gallagher arriving at his premises to collect the cheque.

Of course it was an unfounded rumour. It is a characteristic of the social media that rumours can sometimes attain the same status as fact, at least momentarily. And sometimes with damaging results.

Read Harry McGee’s blog post on politics