The Italian journalist Claudio Gatti has caused controversy this week, with the publication of an article that claims to reveal the true identiy of the celebrated novelist Elena Ferrante. Published in English on the New York Review of Books blog, and simultaneously in German, Italian and French, the article sets out the evidence Gatti has found that points to a particular woman, who he names.1
This quote stuck out, because twice in two weeks, I’ve been quick to share information online which has then been questioned and discredited.
The first was the damning testimony of an “executive of Sony Music UK” who described how Simon Cowell grooms and sexualises young performers, in his quest to find a British Justin Beiber.
Ronan was privately auditioned by SYCO scouts on two more occasions and, as is usual practice on BGT, he was “invited” to audition for the show as a “preferred” contestant. At the same time, Ronan and his parents were “required” to enter into a contract with SYCO. Like all SYCO contracts, it is heavily weighted in favour of the label and are notoriously bad, even in the cut-throat world of the music industry. Simon effectively signed Ronan for life and he’s got little or no chance of ever getting out of it…unless Simon decides to terminate.
Now the improbable perfection of little Ronan Parke has always made me feel uneasy, so I was quick to share the story on my Facebook page. However, the original post quickly disappeared from the website where it was posted and Simon Cowell issued such a strong denial over matters of fact that I felt it rendered the accusatory, anonymous post unreliable. The following day, James Ward posted an excellent analysis of how the attack was propagated by a twitter account @ukLegion, which has also now disappeared from Twitter. I shared James’ link on Facebook too.
I have several things to say about this. The first is that linking to hoax information is clearly embarrassing, no two ways about it. Here’s my worst example, although to be fair it was reminiscent of a real story. As the Literally Unbelievable blog shows with its comments on The Onion articles, other people are much more gullible than I.
The second thing is to say that, nevertheless, the internet can work as a sort of fact-check engine. The act of sharing a link does not and should not imply complete endorsement. In the case of the SyCo smear I, at least, was quick to share the original article and the rebuttals. In this example, one could say that the act of posting/sharing is also an act of verification. When you publicise some text, does it stand up to scrutiny? If not, you have learned a fact about the world, which you also publish. This method is something that bloggers understand innately. However, in formal journalistic and legal circles such a practice would still be lumped in with ‘publish and be damned’ as irresponsible journalism. But it is more akin to open-source fact-checking.
I will also say that internet publishing has the huge advantage over print in that it allows corrections to the original article. In the case of Amina Abdallah Arraf, the three highly reputable news organisations I linked to (Al Jazeera, the New York Times and the Washington Post) were all able to correct the original article. This, I think, lessens the possibility of misinformation spreading.
Finally, this issue puts me in the mind of Ste Curran’s Monica, a play about a fantastic and witty online friend who turns out not to be real.