Derek Mooney: Real Fear And Fake News

at

From top: Dublin city centre on Saturday; Derek Mooney

Veteran vaudevillian comedian George Burns used to ask:

“why is it the guys who really know how to run the country are cutting hair and driving cabs”?

Whether you call them hurlers on the ditch, Monday quarter-backs or that prick at the end of the bar-counter, there have always been (and will always be) those bolshie, mouthy gits who, in the words of the great Brendan Behan, go about like eunuchs in a harem seeing others doing but knowing they can’t do it themselves.

Most are irritating but essentially harmless nuisances, even the ones who manage to discover how to use social media.

But there are others. Those who go that bit further. Those whose malicious intent is less easy to spot in an online era of nonchalant cynicism and aloof detachment.

The Covid-19 crisis is a god send for them. The constant hunger for information, any information, gives them a golden opportunity to peddle their anonymous, conspiratorial garbage. No claim is too ridiculous or nonsensical for them not to push out there.

We saw several local examples of it online over the weekend.

One was the widespread dissemination of a WhatsApp voicenote purporting to feature a Dublin accented member of the Defence Forces telling fellow soldiers to “be in the barracks” early on Monday morning for an “Status Red” emergency lockdown that would be announced by the Taoiseach at 8am.

I was amazed to be sent the recording by a colleague who sincerely thought it was genuine. Though I immediately knew it was fake, I still had to take a minute to double check before telling my colleague that it was utter bullshit.

Another, even more malicious and nasty hoax was highlighted on Sunday evening by the Infectious Diseases Society of Ireland (IDS). They reported on Twitter that there was a fake message being circulated on WhatsApp which purported to come from IDS consultants in Cork.

While most of the responses praised the IDS account for calling out the hoax and rightly bemoaned the recklessness of those behind it, there were some who wanted to know what the misinformation was and wondered if the hoaxer may have a valid point.

The virtual world is full of willing idiots.

The final example came as I sat down to start writing this column. I was barely two paragraphs into typing this piece when a very good friend in Northern Ireland texted me to ask if I was aware of the fake rumours flying around WhatsApp, Twitter and elsewhere, claiming that the Irish Defence Forces were ready to seal off the border.

I checked online, and there they were, just as he had said. But there was more too. There were claims that a total military enforced lockdown was set to be imposed from 11am. There were also claims, accompanied by photos, of hire-cars and vans being rented by the Gardaí and Defence Forces.

So why would someone go to the effort of putting together these hoaxes and then try to get it to go viral? Are they all just pranks? Are they all just jokes that the bulk of us fail to find funny?

Is the incorrect and warped information being spread the work of malign individuals alone, or should we be looking beyond the cranks and pranksters and checking for the handiwork of more nefarious actors, be they domestic or non-domestic?

Cui Bono? Who gains from this misinformation? Indeed, is it simply misinformation or are we looking at something more serious, more sinister?

Do some of the examples I cite above not better fit the definition of disinformation, or to use the old soviet era term: dezinformatsiya namely, the deliberate dissemination of false reports designed to mislead public opinion and engender public cynicism, uncertainty and distrust?

Suggesting the Irish Defence Forces readying themselves to head to the border runs the risk of enflaming very deep-seated fears and passions within the two communities, unionist and republican, at a time when the border has been a hot button issue, thanks to Brexit.

The notion that Ireland would not be targeted by organised and structured disinformation and trolling campaigns, like those that have hit other EU countries, is frankly naive. Indeed there are increased signs that these campaigns are being expanded.

As I have previously pointed out on Broadsheet. Ireland is already a major target for cyber attackers, why do we think we would be exempt from political attacks, from a range of sources, especially at a time when we are so vulnerable?

The national and international responses needed to deal with the Coronavirus pandemic may see us rediscovering both the necessity and he value of having governments and institutions we can trust to deliver for us.

This is precisely what the disrupters do not want. They need the era of FakeNews to continue. It is in Ireland’s interest to see it end.

When the pandemic passes the State will have to start taking cyber and disinformation threats seriously. That means investing significantly in the building the national defence capacity to block them.

National governments and international institutions must now prove via their handling of Covid19 that they can protect their populations and start to re-establish the trust lost in the global crash. There is nothing certain about this. Our government and governments around Europe face a huge test.

This does not mean a return to the pre-crash order, however. The state capacity that was dismissed as excess by many western governments in the early 2000s is now seen as vital. But that capacity is going to be very difficult to re-instate as we look like facing into a potentially deep post pandemic recession.

The plans and promises made in the GE2020 campaign now seem a long way away and the talks on government formation will need to be based on the economic realities facing us when the pandemic passes, whenever than is.

Right now, it is hard to see how we will have a realistic appraisal of what they may look like before September, though this is not a licence to allow talks to go on that long.

I still believe an all-party national unity government is the best way to go in the immediate term, notwithstanding the ease with which it was dismissed by both Sinn Féin and the Fianna Fáil leadership.

I understand that putting several new ministers in place right now may be complex, especially as many will only hold office for six months, but it is possible to do that and still maintain the continuity of pandemic response.

There is a less complex alternative that consists, in essence, of simply formalising what happened at the beginning of last week when the three main opposition party leaders were brought into government buildings.

The leaders of Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin the Green party, independents and smaller parties are invited to nominate members, under the d’Hondt system, to join the Cabinet Coronavirus subcommittee and participate directly in the government oversight of the crisis.

A special office, with civil servants, could be established within the Department of the Taoiseach to support them in this work. Though it would be a big ask, TDs from across the parties could also try to agree, as happened in the first Dáil, a Dáil political program to broadly guide the government from now till October.

In the meantime, political leaders here should reflect on what the W.H.O. Executive Director Dr Michael J Ryan had to say yesterday:

If you need to be right before you move, you will never win! Perfection is the enemy of the good when it comes to emergency management! Speed trumps perfection! The greatest error is not to move; to be paralysed by the fear of failure!’

While he remarks were about the Covid19 pandemic, they could just as easily be applied to so many other situations.

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010.  His column appears here every Monday.Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

Rollingnews

16 thoughts on “Derek Mooney: Real Fear And Fake News

  1. scottser

    Should we not hold the Chinese ambassador to ransom until we get the vaccine? We know that they have one. Send a toe per day sort of thing until they capitulate.

  2. White Dove

    Thanks Derek, perhaps you could also deal with scaremongering by the media.

    For example, still waiting for an update on Philip Boucher Hayes’ tweet a person in their 20s with no pre-existing conditions being admitted to ICU of a hospital seriously ill with corona virus. The medic who admitted them (possibly a friend of P-B?) came into the discussion too. It transpired it was suspected CV only and from my reading of the discussion there was no confirmation by the medic that the person was in ICU, just that they had been admitted to hospital.

    Elderly people may be reluctant to ask for help from younger people if they feel they are putting them at risk. We need accuracy and clarification from everyone – perhaps Philip could update?

    1. White Dove

      Not to mention Conor McGregor’s tweet about his aunt’s death which gives the impression she may have died of coronavirus without definitively stating this. A lot of people could be alarmed by this.

      Journalists and celebrities bear a particular responsibility not to mislead and to clarify any ambiguity.

  3. f_lawless

    This is such a confused piece. Despite the IDS message not being authentic, some online commenters where still seeking clarification on whether anti-inflammatories may aggravate Covid-19. Doesn’t seem unreasonable -after all, articles had appeared in the likes of the New York Times and the Guardian entitled “Anti-inflammatories may aggravate Covid-19, France advises “. The French health minister has tweeted about it. Nevertheless Mooney labels these people “willing idiots”.

    Then he moves into the realms of irrational conspiratorial thinking, (which ironically social media is plagued by) . Are these fake stories part of a planned foreign plot to attack us at this vulnerable time? To back up this notion he links to a Guardian article penned by none other than fake news purveyor extraordinaire, Luke Harding. It doesn’t matter what level of dreadful pieces Harding writes as long as it’s Russia-related, it will get printed without consequences. The most notorious example was probably Harding’s front page Guardian article on how Paul Manafort had met with Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy which somehow proved “Russian collusion” with Trump. But the meeting never even happened. See https://theintercept.com/2019/01/02/five-weeks-after-the-guardians-viral-blockbuster-assangemanafort-scoop-no-evidence-has-emerged-just-stonewalling/

  4. White Dove

    Perhaps he’s trying to tell us in a roundabout way that ‘fake news’ can be found in newspapers too?

    These are strange times and have been for some time!

    In relation to advice as to how to prevent/treat Coronavirus, I would stick to State/HSE sources and disregard social media and official media alike.

    Regarding what is really behind this very strange series of events, I would question everything I read or hear!

    I don’t think anyone really knows the percentage death rate anywhere because that would depend not on how many were admitted but how many had it in the community (which is unknown). Possibly some of the elderly who died may have picked up other bugs in hospital? Hospital visits for elderly can be very risky. Re ICU doctors, maybe the treatment they are administering to patients puts them particularly at risk to receive a high dose of the virus over and above ordinary community transmission? Research and make up your own mind while observing recommendations from the State and HSE.

    As for the number of celebrities claiming to have it… I’m still researching that myself!

  5. D

    > Is the incorrect and warped information being spread the work of malign individuals alone, or should we be looking beyond the cranks and pranksters and checking for the handiwork of more nefarious actors, be they domestic or non-domestic?

    you’ve just fallen on your own sword here, not everything is a conspiracy.

    I write that as an tin foil hat wearing absolute died in the wool crank, I don’t think there is malice very often, most often times it’s just straightforward stupidity.

  6. A Person

    “I still believe an all-party national unity government is the best way to go in the immediate term, notwithstanding the ease with which it was dismissed by both Sinn Féin and the Fianna Fáil leadership.”

    Ah seriously, the shinners don’t want to lead? But surely they won the election and how a mandate to lead? Oh no, they can’t just like in NI and Westminster. Let’s just hurl from the ditch.

  7. italia'90

    “There were also claims, accompanied by photos, of hire-cars and vans being rented by the Gardaí and Defence Forces.

    So why would someone go to the effort of putting together these hoaxes and then try to get it to go viral? Are they all just pranks? Are they all just jokes that the bulk of us fail to find funny?

    Is the incorrect and warped information being spread the work of malign individuals alone, or should we be looking beyond the cranks and pranksters and checking for the handiwork of more nefarious actors, be they domestic or non-domestic?”

    Oh Dear!
    https://www.breakingnews.ie/ireland/gardai-to-hire-extra-vehicles-to-help-vulnerable-during-covid-19-outbreak-988282.html

    Who are these nefarious actors, be they domestic or non-domestic?

Comments are closed.