Why the GAA must be wary of social media skullduggery

Eventually the dust settled on what had become known as the Great All-Ireland Social Media Scandal of 2018. In the end the gardaí were unable to find the perpetrators and the DPP refused to take proceedings. It was unclear what laws, if indeed any, had been broken.

But this much emerged through the fog. In the run-up to the All-Ireland final, a bunch of shadowy, tech-savvy supporters of one of the teams had embarked on an attempt to destabilise the other county — the hot favourites — by means of an insidious social media campaign.

It began on Twitter on the Thursday week before the final, with murmurings about disharmony in the reigning champions’ camp.

The rumours were initiated not by established Twitter users but by new users with no followers. They continued on Friday and Saturday, now advancing claims that the manager had had a row with his star forward after Wednesday night’s training session. Sunday’s newspapers contained passing references to “reports of trouble” in the county.

On the Monday the cabal, who would become known as GAA Anonymous, played their ace. They mocked up and circulated what purported to be screenshots from the team’s WhatsApp group conversation. The screenshots contained references to the alleged row after training the previous week and also had two prominent players accusing teammates of having affairs with their girlfriends.

By Tuesday half the country had seen the screenshots. By Wednesday the whole county had seen them. On Thursday the county board chairman demanded that the gardaí take action. On Friday the local TDs were screaming blue murder. On Saturday the Minister for Sport issued a statement condemning the actions of the agitators.

And on Sunday the hot favourites were beaten by four points after barely raising a gallop.

“The controversy got to us,” their manager admitted afterwards. “We weren’t able to focus at all.”

The subsequent garda investigation discovered that the plotters had met on one of their county’s GAA message boards and, tiring of long hours of Minecraft and playing with their joysticks alone in their bedrooms, decided to amuse themselves by seeing if the outcome of an All-Ireland final could be affected by social media.

They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

WOULD that we were back in the far-off and comparatively innocent days of the mid-noughties.

Granted, it wasn’t all wine and roses. A late-night game of naked snooker in a hotel turned out badly for the Roscommon footballers. A Dublin footballer was branded a “love rat” by one of the tabloids on the morning of a Leinster football final, as if the nation was supposed to be interested, never mind to care. And DJ Carey, with his marriage on the rocks, had a bad few days in the week of the 2003 All-Ireland hurling final.

At the time Ger Colleran, then editor of the Star, offered a robust defence of what were being seen as growing tabloid excesses.

If, Colleran asserted, a GAA player was happy to parade his family — ie his private life — for the benefit of the media in good times, he had abjured the right to privacy in bad times. The argument wasn’t elegantly phrased but it had at least some sort of logic to it.

In any case there was a sense back then that newspaper intrusion into the lives of GAA players could only go so far. Newspapers, after all, can always be sued, ignored, boycotted or taken to task in some way. Little did we know that much worse was to come, and that a medium in which sports people could be abused and attacked with impunity was not far off.

It would be called Twitter, and it would put a weapon in the hands of every mean-minded idiot who up to this would have found no audience beyond the lads seated alongside him at the counter of his local pub.

So we have Cyrus Christie suffering vile racial abuse after his own goal against Denmark, and Ruby Walsh coming in for opprobrium after he had the temerity to break his leg.

And today St Patrick’s of Ballyragget take on Glenealy from Wicklow in the Leinster intermediate hurling championship final.

Yes, Ballyragget. Relax: we’re not going there, metaphorically speaking. But you’ve heard all about Ballyragget, and the reason you did so was because of social media.

Back in 1984, the village of Granard in Longford became engraved on the national consciousness and has remained there ever since.

This year Ballyragget became engraved on the national consciousness, not because an appalling event took place there but because of WhatsApp.

There’s also been fun and games on the Beara peninsula, where some malcontent got hold of the local GAA club’s Twitter device and began lashing out on foot of their departure from the Cork U21 championship following a failure to fulfil a fixture against Douglas. The tweets may be deemed to have brought the Association into disrepute under Rule 7.2. The county board have, rightly, demanded an explanation.

One wonders if the GAA will sooner or later organise a weekend think-in about these matters and be moved to amend their outlook on social media, which encourages “all members” to take part but acknowledges that situations involving inappropriate use should not be underestimated.

“Once material is released into the online world, it cannot be easily retrieved, if at all. The internet is forever.”

Even the past week has demonstrated how easily Twitter can be manipulated. Last Monday the former Ulster Unionist MP John Taylor, one of those enthusiastic Brexiteers who are now busy blaming other people for refusing to help pick up the toys Taylor et al threw out of the pram, released something uncomplimentary (and inaccurate) about Simon Coveney. The tweet was issued under the handle of Lord John Kilclooney, his official title.

The following day he appeared to issue another tweet, this one calling for the possible use of the British army. Closer inspection showed that the name of the account was Lord John Kilcooley. In other words, it was a fake account created by somebody keen to stir the pot further and it fooled a number of people for a few hours.

In an age when Russian interference on social media has been declared to have swung the outcome of both the US presidential election and the Brexit referendum, the scenario outlined above — a group of malicious techies come together to try and destabilise their county’s opponents in the run-up to an All Ireland final — is hardly beyond the bounds of possibility.

The day when someone is prosecuted for racial abuse on Twitter cannot come soon enough. Neither can the day when a successful defamation case is taken following a libellous tweet — and no, crude and vulgar abuse on Twitter is not the same as defamation.

But those joyous days are some way off yet.

Think before you tweet? Too many people can’t and too many people won’t. Perhaps that is Twitter’s greatest failing.

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