Last week, the Sunday Independent broke the story that a former parliamentary colleague of mine, Chris Andrews, was the person behind several hundred anonymous tweets attacking Fianna Fail.
To say I was taken aback by this news is an understatement, not least because I was one of the people he attacked. While I am used to the odd barb and outburst from Fine Gael, Labour and Sinn Fein, it was an unusual and somewhat unpleasant feeling to find that I was also on Chris’s hit list, or at least on his clandestine one.
I wasn’t alone on that list. His fake Twitter personality targeted many other party colleagues, though mainly from his local constituency organisation. The comments Chris made about me and others via his alter ego were so counter to what he said via his real one that they almost had a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde quality to them.
I won’t attempt to speculate on why I was selected for attack, for the very good reason that I have absolutely no idea why. Chris and I had a good relationship during his time in the Dail. I found him affable and approachable. I had presumed that my regard for his work and contribution to the party was reciprocated. It seems I was wrong.
What is interesting about the whole sorry saga on the much broader scale, however, is the increasing part the online social media, and Twitter in particular, is playing in daily Irish political life.
For the most part it is a good one: encouraging more people to follow and participate in political debate. But this debacle, along with the fake Sinn Fein tweet during the Frontline Presidential debate last year, does show how political discourse can be skewed and careers damaged by individuals with mischievous and malign intent acting from the shadows.
Up to recently I would have called these characters “trolls” but I have now discovered that the correct term is sockpuppet. A sockpuppet is someone who adopts a seemingly real, though fake, persona for deceptive purposes. This is distinct from those obviously fake and satirical profiles where the person behind it retains anonymity but their motives and intent are clear.
With a sockpuppet, the deception is on the double. The fake persona is not meant to merely hide the person’s true identity, it is to create the impression that these fake comments are coming from someone you would never suspect held these views and thus increase the damage they inflict.
It is not a new phenomenon; it certainly wasn’t invented or pioneered by Chris Andrews. In the more severe cases in the United States, where reputations have been damaged and people hurt, individuals have been charged and prosecutions taken for internet fraud and identity theft.
But there is a paradox here. Digital technology and instant communications have made it easier for some people to deceive us with fake personalities and fraudulent and malicious claims. Yet, the very characteristics that make it easy to deceive us, its accessibility, seeming anonymity and instant reach, have also made it easier for others to expose these fakers and frauds.
This was the case in the 2004 US presidential election when some groups opposed to the Democratic candidate, Senator John Kerry, claimed that they had a report from the early Seventies which showed that his impressive military record was fictitious.
They put the report online in order to damage him, but this backfired as posting it on the web allowed various experts to examine it and prove that it was the document which was fake as it was written on a typewriter that didn’t exist at the time.
As Chris has just discovered, internet anonymity does not really exist. While I would not even pretend to understand the intricacies and mechanics of how he was caught out, it would seem that the very technology that allowed him to snipe at others also enabled them to trace his digital steps and track him down.
As someone said on Twitter the day after the story broke: the golden rule is never say anything online about someone you would not be prepared to say to their face. It is a good rule. By ignoring it, Chris’s sockpuppetry turned into muppetry and he ultimately succeeded in only damaging himself.