Bogus Twitter accounts, plausible deniability, and the use of unqualified leads…

As Chris notes, no one in current Sinn Fein will cry any tears over the way the Irish media tripped over itself to gobble up the fake story of Sean Gallagher and the cheque that never was

Update: It seems that the @Martin4Prez2011 (official) & @McGuinness4Pres (bogus) were born on the same day. But, as noted by Stewart below (and missed by me), the official account begins to tweet *2 days after* the parody. Which is odd.

Update to the Update: The fake Twitter account was withdrawn during the course of this conversation, which is odder still..

UPdate to the Update to… It’s back again… which may or may not be odd…

Anyway, the original post continues…

Harry McGee rightly notes that there should be a massive health warning attached to anything emanating from Twitter or Facebook… But the incident tells us about more than the problems that come with the digital revolution, but also the problem with the way news is gathered and opinion formed within the mainstream media.

It’s the one defined by Guardian journalist Nick Davies as Flat Earth News…

Yet, whilst we knew within hours that the Twitter account was false and that Martin McGuinness himself was either speaking without appraising himself with the facts or deliberately spinning a falsehood to damage a political opponent… the press, way beyond RTE, continued to run opinion on Gallagher which presumed good provenance still attached to what turns out to have been little more than an unsubstantiated rumour…

The real investigation ought to have been focused on the false account and the dirty tricks involved… For one, both the ‘fake’ and the Sinn Fein official account where established on the same day (17th September) within a very short time of one another…

And for another, David Cochrane of Politics.ie shared with Twitterati last Monday night, that a senior member of Sinn Fein had told him (ie one to one) that they were ‘likely to roll him out tomorrow…’

There are questions to be asked (and unlikely to be answered) by Sinn Fein, but in fact the greater questions are those the Press themselves must ask themselves… In this new age of lightening fast communications, how well equipped are they to qualify digital leads?

Magee isolates the problem:

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.

It may be true some digital evangelists are not exactly telling the whole truth about the new rules of their newly adopted world. In particular, that wise crowds require diversity to become a reliable mob. Even James Surowieki sounds a warning bell at the beginning of his seminal Wisdom of Crowds, Charles Mackay in a much earlier age:

Men, it has been well said, think in herds. It will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.

As noted here previously:

Sean Gallagher’s a big boy, he can look after himself, the real problem may be that we have conformist/confirmist press which is long on collective hysteria and short on independent judgement.

Last word to Gallagher’s spokesman, who makes the decidedly non Twitter point that:

“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 Frontline was 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.”

Unqualified leads have always been the curse of reliable journalism, digital or no digital. It’s not Twitter’s (or even Sinn Fein’s) fault if the press believe everything appealing they read on t’Internet.

To declare an interest, Mick’s agency, Slugger Consults is currently working in the area of Digital Strategy. If you want to get in touch please do so through that site.

If you are in Dublin next week, he’ll be touching on this and other issues in a short presentation to the Cleraun Media Forum in some pretty elevated company…

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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