Last week the people of Ireland went to the polls and elected Michael D Higgins, a 70 year old former Minister for the Arts and poet, as their ninth president. Just a week earlier Higgins had been trailing by 15 percentage points in the polls to the frontrunner Seán Gallagher, an entrepreneur and star of Irish reality TV show Dragon’s Den. Gallagher’s 40 per cent support in the polls had imploded in the dying days of the campaign, largely as a result of his performance during the final televised debate. The spark for that implosion? A single tweet sent from a fake Twitter account.
During that debate Martin McGuinness, the candidate for the republican Sinn Fein party, launched a stunning attack on the frontrunner, accusing him of having collected a €5,000 cheque from a businessman, Hugh Morgan, on behalf of the Fianna Fáil party. Fianna Fáil were the political party in power during the Celtic Tiger boom in Ireland. Their perceived mishandling of that boom and the crash that followed it are roundly blamed by the people of Ireland for the painful recession that the country is now experiencing. In a general election earlier this year they were savaged by the electorate, suffering heavy losses throughout the country. They’re currently so unpopular they didn’t even enter a candidate in the presidential election, surmising he or she wouldn’t stand a chance.
The €5000 cheque was payment for a fundraiser that Mr. Morgan had attended, where along with other local businessman he had been granted a private audience with the Taoiseach (the Irish Prime Minister) at the time, Brian Cowen.
Mr. Gallagher was known to have been a longstanding member of the Fianna Fáil National Executive, and had admitted occasionally fundraising for the party. However, he had run for the presidency as an an independent candidate, and throughout his campaign he had sought to distance himself from the Fianna Fáil party, which he officially left early in 2011.
Allegations about financial impropriety within his companies had also been leveled at Gallagher during the campaign, but had not appeared to have damaged him greatly. On the eve of the debate his support appeared solid and if anything to be growing.
When the allegation was made during the debate Gallagher initially denied it, lamenting the “negative campaigning” that was distracting from the substantive issues of the election. But returning from an ad break (starting at 5.12 in the video above), the moderator read out a tweet he had been informed had been sent from Martin McGuinness’ official Twitter account:
Asked if he would like to change his story, Gallagher was visibly rattled. He now admitted he knew Mr. Morgan, who he described as a convicted criminal, but denied any memory of collecting the cheque. Then, to audible gasps and laughter from the audience, Gallagher admitted he may have picked up an “envelope”. After decades of revelations about cronyism and corruption amongst the Irish political elite, the phrase “brown envelope” is something of a safe word for the Irish electorate. In an instant, Gallagher had painted himself amongst that tradition of political dishonesty and corruption, and in so doing had effectively killed his campaign.
Gallagher took to the airwaves the next day to again deny handling the cheque, but the damage had been done. An opinion poll carried out on the day of the election found that 55% of voters were influenced by the final debate. Of those that had changed their first preference following the debate, 58% ditched Gallagher in favor of Mr. Higgins. Meanwhile, the now infamous tweet was revealed to be from a fake account set up by a McGuinness supporter. The fallout from that particular revelation continues in Ireland, where the value and reliability of breaking news on social media is now a hot media topic.
While the tweet that ended Gallagher’s hopes was perhaps a lesson in the power of social media, the election also illustrated some of the limits of that power. Of all the candidates Mr. Gallagher had by far the highest number of fans on his Facebook page, some 40,191, along with 9,885 followers on Twitter. The 22,664 Twitter followers of Senator David Norris dwarfed other the candidates’ following. Norris finished a distant fourth after an erratic campaign dogged by controversy. Michael D Higgins, who will be sworn in as president on November 11, had 7,447 fans on Facebook and just 6,243 Twitter followers.