Social media has become an important source for news stories; the combination of 24hrs communication, direct access to sources and the ever-present risk of a gaffe or mistake makes it a great asset for the clued-in newsroom. But the growth in sources and channels, not to mention the prevalence of Photoshop and its like, means that hoaxes and misinformation compete for attention with genuine and useful content. Thus, verification is an ever-expanding problem for those who want to draw on social media as an information source.
Thankfully however, just as information is getting crowdsourced, so is verification becoming a collective endeavour. Irish politics recently saw the confusion and embarrassment that can be caused by a social media hoax, as well as the power of crowd-sourced debunking to expose the hoaxers.
The weekend of the 11th and 12th October saw Paul Murphy of the Socialist Party win a closely-fought by-election in the Dublin South-East constituency. Murphy beat the favourite, Sinn Fein’s Cathal King, to win the seat, focusing on water charges as the core political issue.
Although Sinn Fein has emerged as the leading opposition party in recent months, it was challenged on its left flank by the Socialist candidate. Sinn Fein has successfully positioned itself as the primary opposition to the Government, but, as analysts have argued, left itself open to criticism from the left in doing so. While the parties to the left of Sinn Fein are significantly smaller, they have achieved limited success by advocating strong resistance to unpopular policies, such as the incoming water taxes.
Murphy’s election campaign focused heavy criticism on Sinn Fein for what he sees as half-hearted opposition to water taxes, a big issue in the working class district. Sinn Fein have promised to abolish the charges if they are elected to Government, but have not committed to supporting the non-payment strategy that the Socialist Party champions. Sinn Fein representatives have angrily rejected this criticism and accused the Socialist Party of being dishonest.
It was therefore with great delight that prominent Sinn Fein representatives, such as Deputy Leader Mary Lou McDonald, shared an image that showed Murphy admitting that his criticisms were dishonest and that he was just playing politics.
But others found the image less easy to believe. Many questioned its authenticity and called for more information. Paul Murphy quickly used Facebook to disclaim the conversation, saying:
“A fake screengrab of a conversation that I supposedly had with a SFer is being circulated at the moment by prominent SF members, including Lynn Boylan.
It is a fake, appears to be a photoshop. Extremely low dirty tricks that should be withdrawn immediately. Please share widely.”
Some quick searches by interested social media users found that the source of the image, Jason Roe, was almost certainly a Sinn Fein member or supporter; his Cover Image on Facebook featured a mural of party leader Gerry Adams, as well as comments complaining about Socialist Party leaflets. Amidst the searches, it was also clear that he was in the middle of deactivating or changing the privacy settings on his Facebook as the account became temporarily, and later permanently, unavailable.
There was no response for requests for the original image to be made available so it could be checked to see if it had been altered (Facebook removes information from images that can be useful for finding evidence of manipulation in programs like Photoshop). Most tellingly of all, it was clear that the ‘conversation’ did not come from either of Paul Murphy’s personal or political accounts, as it featured the name ‘Paul Murphy’ of his personal account and the profile image of his political account, ‘Paul Murphy, Socialist Party’.
When curious members of the public identified these issues, Murphy’s side drew on their work and took the fight to Sinn Fein representatives, demanding that they admit the mistake. Eventually the representatives deleted the photo and comment threads from their Facebook profiles. Jason Roe, the source of the hoax, responded to Paul Murphy, admitting that the conversation was fake and claiming that it came from a fake profile of Murphy. He further claimed that he had deleted the image and the conversation, and that the fake profile had disappeared.
Regardless of whether it was Photoshopped or a hoax account as claimed above, it was clearly a shoddy smear attempt. By the evening, the party representatives who had shared the image apologised and Murphy was given plenty of chances to recapitulate his criticisms of Sinn Fein on air and in print.
In this case, the hoax was exposed before it could even get to the mass media, but journalists would do well not to count on a social media ‘self-correction’ effect occurring so rapidly. As this example shows, information coming from social media has to be vetted carefully, looking at both the information content and the originating source. In this case, attention to both of these aspects led to the screenshot’s rapid discrediting and embarrassment for those drawn in by it. In general, it’s worth remembering that if something seems too good to be true, it might well be false.