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Padraig Belton: Photoshopped screenshots and doctored tweets ... how the world isn’t always what it seems





MUCH of the last week, Twitter and Facebook overflowed with a screenshot of Fox News at its worst, misspelling Toulouse as 'Toolooz', placing France in Turkey, misnaming its president and suggesting a 'Crazy Buddhist' was responsible for a week's terrible killings; 'President' Claude Guéant had apologised to the 'Asian' community.

The only problem is, the screen-shot is photoshopped; the actual image of anchor Shannon Bream (here, before and after alteration) dates from a year ago, 5th June 2011; but it was too good not to be true.

This isn't rare. Begin typing Brian Cowen into Google, and instantly you are offered 'Brian Cowen drunk'. In September 2010, The Guardian circulated a clipping of, indeed, an Offaly man's wrist-slicingly slow slurs; the clipping lasts an unendurable 10 minutes, 35 seconds. The only problem is, the interview as broadcast on RTÉ's Morning Ireland lasted 9 minutes, 25 seconds. The Guardian were duped, by a Tesco Basic forgery; wrongly embedding (in their own words) 'a parody of the interview … in the original article'.

In both cases, social media and citizen-journalism – not long prior heralded engines of a new democratic dispensation - were manipulated in political hatchet jobs. Both times, the distortions, so quickly and virally passed on, reinforced people's worse prejudices - Americans are thick, the Irish are drunkards.

Who needs evidence, when we're being fed what everyone knows—'pas étonnante de la part de nos amis yankees, non?' ('unsurprising from our Yank friends', as per one French website.) Come our own downturn, the stereotypes which once comforted a Victorian middle class at their tea have returned in droves. What matter if the academic literature tells us, in the country of Father Mathew and the pledge, that Ireland's got a higher abstinence rate than Britain?

Over in Canada, it's taken the form of Vikileaks; staffers in Capitol Hill have taken to rewriting their foes' Wikipedia pages. And China's 50-cent party are paid just that much for each comment they leave attacking those who attack the government. Don't fancy someone's arguments? No need to rebut them; just knock their page or profile off the internet.

Enter, now, a press drunk with the colours sweeping before it. Last 26th September, a network aired a documentary on links between Colonel Gadaffi and the republican movement. Actually finding footage of The Boys using Libyan weaponry to shoot down The Brits is difficult; but just labelling 'IRA film 1988' over footage from the shoot-em game called ArmA II, on the other hand, is a doddle. Such a good lark that this month, the Sunday Times has done it.

And lest you right now nurse a fledgling smugness about Those Silly Brits, think about this. Doctored Twitter has already swung an election to the highest office in this State.

Broadcasters— not just the RTÉ—and print pages have clasped to social media in nighttime anxiety over their heft in a declining news bazaar. Meanwhile Twitter, whose cloud thinking was meant to possess an autocorrective feature, instead proves the braying voice of a herd galloping to be first and loudest. And thus a rogue tweet by 'McGuinness4Pres' goes viral, with the full weight of RTÉ's moral outrage falling upon Mr Gallagher, who struggled before us to recollect a cheque he had never been sent to collect, and a brown envelope that never was. (With a carefully coached audience member asking a question written by our state broadcaster's production team, just for safes.)

Says blogger Mick Fealty, asked for his thoughts, 'Twitter and social media more generally are driven by networks of individuals who “believe” in each other—and just like more traditional forms of belief, this is apt to shatter on contact with reality. In the case of the bogus tweet, the huge numbers of retweets suggested not that it actually had any real provenance, but that it was widely believed to be the official Sinn Féin account.'

In trusting environs like this, when unquestioning netizens hover quick to outrage or to mock a drunken taoiseach or a-geographical American (and, coincidentally, blonde female), Harry McGee has accurately perceived the inevitability of the 'use of anonymity to deceive, to spread unfounded rumours and, sometimes, to lie.'

Doctored Twitter: it's our age's dirty tricks, hotting up not-yet-cold stereotypes in a dish which once brimmed with idealism and promise. Against it, quality journalism, employing social media like Dorian's portrait to preserve the likeness of vitality, is too quick to abandon its fact-checking traditions.

Oscar's character, for all his Faustian bargain, was capable of caution.