Logo Cover Cover Cover

The Fake Football Reporter

Craig Silverman (@craigsilverman) is an entrepreneurial journalist and a leading expert on media errors, accuracy and verification. He is currently a fellow with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, and recently launched Emergent.info, a real-time rumor tracker. Craig edited the Verification Handbook from the European Journalism Center and is the founder and editor of Regret the Error, a blog about media accuracy and the discipline of verification. It is now part of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, where Craig serves as adjunct faculty. He previously served as director of content for Spundge and helped launch OpenFile, an online local news startup that delivered community-driven reporting in six Canadian cities. Craig is also the former managing editor of PBS MediaShift and has been a columnist for The Globe And Mail, Toronto Star, and Columbia Journalism Review. He is the author of two award-winning non-fiction books, Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech and Mafiaboy: A Portrait of the Hacker as a Young Man.

Samuel Rhodes was a blonde, square-jawed football insider who lit up Twitter with rumors of player transfers and other scoops.

Rhodes tweeted rumors and predictions about what players and managers were up to, and was right often enough to attract over 20,000 followers. His bio described him as a freelance writer for The Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times. His tweets kept the rumors and scoops coming:

One of Rhodes’ biggest coups came when he tweeted that Chelsea was going to fire its manager, Roberto Di Matteo, the next day.

He was right.

But things unraveled a few months later. A social media editor at The Daily Telegraph spoke out to say there was no one by the name of Samuel Rhodes writing for them, not now or ever. The FT disclaimed any knowledge or relationship with Rhodes.

Soon, the Twitter account was suspended. Then, in January 2014, the Financial Times revealed that Samuel Rhodes was Sam Gardiner, a teenaged British schoolboy.

“He devised a target of 50,000 Twitter followers and a strategy of propagating rumour,” reported the FT.

Gardiner said he created the account, and a previous fake, because he wanted people to listen to his views about football. No one had paid much attention to him when he tweeted as himself.

"My motive wasn't to deliberately mislead people, my motive was to air my opinions on the biggest possible platform, and to flood them around the world," he told BBC Trending radio.

Gardiner’s efforts reveal some of the tactics used by Twitter hoax accounts to draw in real people, and to push out rumors and fake information.

Rumor Strategy

One key to the success of the account was that Gardiner played on the insatiable desire for transfer rumors, and for exclusives about which players and managers were being signed or released.

“It was the only way to get big,” Gardiner told the FT. “Everyone has opinions, not everyone has access to the transfer market.”

Offering information that was exclusive and that fed into the desires of people is a common strategy for social media hoaxsters. It’s a fast way to gain attention.

He also followed real football journalists on Twitter, and copied them.

“He studied how journalists who are successful on Twitter tweet - a mix of wit, opinion, rumor and statistics, he says - and emulated this. He would tweet at peak times, send out teasers 30 minutes ahead of time and engage with his most high-profile followers,” the BBC reported. xw The FT also noted that “Gardiner interspersed his rumors with genuine tidbits from newspapers to lend his Twitter account more authority.”

This is a common deception tactic. In the world of espionage double agents would intersperse misinformation and deceptions with verifiable (and even mundane) information. Hoax propagators also try to give their falsehoods the trappings of veracity by combining real images and information with fakes.

If Gardiner had only tweeted rumors and scoops, he would have stood out from the other, credible football journalists due to his strange behavior, and the fact that he didn't have any real exclusive information to share. By not only tweeting rumors, he was able to build up credibility, and therefore make his rumors all the more believable.



Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.