#SportMediaExcellence: Debunking fake news about Messi and the cancelled Israel-Argentina friendly

by Martin Mazur

Today, exactly one week before their opening World Cup game in Moscow against Iceland, Argentina should have faced Israel in West Jerusalem. The game, which was surely going to be a sold out, was cancelled just four days ago, sparking all kind of versions, political reactions and even risking a diplomatic row between countries.

What is new, however, is that some of these reactions were a direct result of fake news and fabricated quotes that have proven, once again, the weak fact-checking process of the media industry.

The Higuain case

One of the first players to speak after the decision was Argentinian striker Gonzalo Higuain, in an exclusive interview with ESPN Argentina. He briefly discussed the issue, getting questions about Argentina’s chances in the World Cup, fatherhood and his personal future. His only quote about the cancellation was as follows: “Finally, the correct thing has been made. As you said, it’s water under the bridge now, first of all comes health and common sense, and we believe that the correct thing was not to go”.

The friendly game, so close before the World Cup, involved travelling to Israel rather than taking advantage of the training sessions in Barcelona. The players and the coaching staff led by Jorge Sampaoli had internally criticised the AFA decision, based on the 2-million-dollar deal. Higuain did not mention safety, neither he made a remark about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He spoke about health and common sense, for a team that has now two out of their 23 players (Romero and Lanzini) ruled out for knee injuries, and four more (Aguero, Biglia, Mercado and Banega) with fitness worries.

But with Twitter as perfect ecosystem for spreading a fake quote, a user tweeted a reported Higuain quote: “There was uncertainty around but our decision was final when Messi asked us how we could play with a calm mind with so many Palestinians suffering.”

The user @Away234_, whose account is now suspended, stole the picture and the name of a well-known British journalist, Sid Lowe, in order to spread the fabricated quote. He succeeded. An account that follows Messi, @Infosmessi, took this and credited him. Over 5,000 users liked and retweeted this, prompting journalists to publish the quotes inside their chronicles and thousands of more retweets.

The tweet that credited a user that no longer exists and a different TV channel than the screenshot.

However, it was very easy to detect the fake, even for those non-Spanish speakers.

1) The screenshot was from ESPN, but the reported quotes credited TyC Sports channel.

2) The original interview was online in the ESPN website.

3) Higuain did not talk to TyC Sports, whose portal, of course, was running no content about Higuain.

4) The user who spread the news was not a journalist, and his account was quickly suspended.

The Messi case

Another example that earned over 250,000 shares and was published in several websites, was a supposed Messi quote who was framed as a screenshot of Messi’s page on Facebook. The quote read: “Lionel Messi on TyC Sport: ‘As a UNICEF ambassador, I cannot play against people who kill innocent Palestinian children. We had to cancel the game because we are humans before footballers’.”

Over 13,000 retweets and 24,000 likes in just one tweet. Not true.

Again, it was very easy to check the authenticity.

1) TyC Sports had not interviewed Messi.

2) Messi didn’t give personal interviews in the World Cup preparation.

3) There were no Argentinian journalists tweeting this, everything started with posts in English.

4) The vocabulary was evidently different from Messi’s respectful and neutral position towards conflict zones.

AFP was one of the first global sport media players to publish it was a fake, in order to prevent the damaging content to keep spreading, but still, the virus was impossible to contain.

Fact-checking remains the first and most effective way. Before retweeting and commenting, sport journalists must evaluate thoroughly the circumstances and the sources. Accuracy always must prevail against speed.

This content about #SportMediaExcellence is presented by AIPS Sport Media Awards, a bridge to the future of sport journalism. Divided in 6 main categories, the Awards are a celebration of the best sport storytellers from around the world. Submissions for professionals are free and open until September 17, 2018. Find more and submit your work in www.aipsawards.com

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