Saturday 15 December 2018

Beware the Twitter Guardians of Truth

Decades of establishment falsehoods have created a deep pool of public scepticism

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Click to enlarge
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Inevitably, when The Irish Times poll showed Leo Varadkar hitting 60pc approval, the alternative media struck back.

Hey, said the Twitter Guardians of Truth - let's have our own poll and test that Irish Times rubbish.

"Retweet to get a big sample!"

And the Twitter "poll" was retweeted repeatedly and the last time I looked there was a sample even bigger than the sample used in most professional polls.

In this Twitter poll the choice was stark: you could vote that Varadkar was the best Taoiseach ever; or you could vote that he's a waste of space.

And the poll concluded that 80pc of those voting believe we'd be better off without Varadkar.

So, 80pc against him on Twitter, versus 60pc for him in The Irish Times.

Just shows, say the Twitter Guardians of Truth, the mainstream media can't be trusted. The Irish Times story was denounced: "Fake Poll!!!"

I'm not sure which is worse - A) that the Twitter Guardians of Truth are cynically creating nonsensical polls; or, B) that they actually believe this stuff.

(Is it necessary to explain why the Twitter Guardians of Truth are about as reliable as Eoghan Murphy's housing statistics? I suppose, after all the codswallop that's been poured on to us, such an explanation is indeed necessary.)

The sample used in a professional poll is weighted to reflect the voting population.

This does not mean that such polls are accurate. They can be thrown off by the wording of a question or the blinkered perceptions of the pollsters.

However, professional pollsters make most of their money doing private surveys for commercial bodies, so it's in their interest that the poll is as accurate as they can make it. A reputation for inaccuracy is bad for business.

On the other hand, the Twitter Guardians of Truth "poll" is a self-selecting sample of like-minded "followers". The result, regardless of the size of the sample, will echo the views of whoever sets up such a poll.

Trouble is: no one believes anything these days.

Last week, Simon Coveney answered a Dail question, explaining that a commission of investigation that the Government promised will have to be postponed. It will go ahead, he said, but only when it doesn't risk compromising any criminal charges that may be made.

Social media was instantly ablaze with outrage. I read it and felt outraged myself, until I read Coveney's Dail remarks. Either they're true, or they'll come back and bite him.

It's the Billy Kenneally case. Kenneally got 14 years for a series of crimes against children.

I didn't cover the case and know little about it, but Coveney's explanation seemed reasonable - until proven otherwise.

There's a problem, of course.

The Kenneally case is one of those in which a criminal was allegedly protected by a range of establishment people. Might be true, might not - I don't know.

What I do know is that the Kenneally case is not the only one in which an unholy alliance of gardai, Catholic clerics and politicians allegedly came together to protect someone. I covered one of those cases, the Father Molloy killing.

I attended the trial, heard all the evidence, and attended the Coroner's Court and read a lot of documents, and I have no doubt that the trial was a travesty. Pillars of the community, in my view, told unbelievable stories on the witness stand and the judge disgraced himself.

The coroner's inquiry, however, was well run and, I believe, made a truthful, accurate finding.

The priest's family, honourable people who didn't want to let down their dead relative, struggled for years to establish the truth, but the pillars of the community muddied the waters.

Latterly, all kinds of conspiracy theories have been draped across the case - gardai, bishops and government ministers are said to be involved in a cover-up.

I haven't seen the slightest evidence of this, but it's now repeated as though it's established fact.

Genuinely disgraceful behaviour by the establishment is now buried under some capricious notions.

Social media makes a solid, permanent and growing record of what once was nothing more than pub talk, forgotten before the hangover wore off.

Now, speculation becomes evidence, two and two are added and they emerge as 76.

If a Fianna Fail former town councillor was "said" to be present when something did or didn't happen it becomes the basis for fatuous claims of a conspiracy that goes all the way up to Micheal Martin.

Standards of evidence matter. They matter to those who might be accused of something - they also matter to the victim, and the victim's relatives, who are entitled to truth unburdened by the obsessions of others.

Hardly a week goes by without politicians threatening to put manners on social media.

But politicians haven't earned the right to this sense of victimhood.

Social media allows us to chat and joke and make arguments, it allows us to alert each other to facts, books, articles and theories we otherwise would never see. But alongside this, there's a deep pool of scepticism. Within it, there's a vein of suspicion merging into paranoia. Some troubled individuals respond with spasms of anger and supposed "death threats". And the anonymity of social media is made for that kind of thing.

In the USA and UK a similar scepticism about a smug establishment brought us Trump and Brexit. Here, there hasn't been a unifying rallying point.

But that deep pool of scepticism didn't just happen.

For decades, we've been subjected to a cynical stream of crap from the establishment. In the 1990s, FF knew that after an election it would renege on its promises on health, but it made them anyway.

In 2006 the FF Government declared a state of emergency in the hospitals. The following year, FG solemnly pledged to end the trolley scandal.

In 2011, dealing with the health chaos was a feature of FG's "five-point plan".

Today, nothing any of them say about health means anything.

Today, we listen to Government ministers sermonising on homelessness and we know it's bulls**t. We know they simply won't do anything.

Housing, and the speculation involved, is now part of the "recovery". And if evictions are another part, with people sleeping on relatives' sofas, in hubs, hotels or in shop doorways, that's just too bad.

We saw the hard evidence, on the Irish Water website, of the plan for privatisation of the water supply. We fought back, and the politicians told us to deny the evidence of our own eyes.

I could fill this paper with similar instances. We have earned our scepticism the hard way.

Establishment lies are the father of social media paranoia.

But, the answer to falsehood is not a bigger falsehood. And the answer to falsehood is not a "truth" that feels like it should be true, despite the lack of evidence.

The answer to falsehood is stating what we know to be true, and suggesting what we believe to be true, and noting that what the establishment tell us might or might not be true.

As for that Irish Times poll - it's entirely plausible. About a quarter of the electorate would back Fine Gael in anything, up to and including dictatorship and unpaid work camps for those on the dole.

Another 10pc or so would baulk at that but believe the Government is doing a good job otherwise. Somewhat fewer have similar opinions on Fianna Fail. Many think Varadkar is "standing up to the Brits". Others are doing quite well at the moment. So, 60pc giving him the nod is plausible.

When you spend €5m of our money on PR, it pays off.

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