On the surface it’s a fairly simple app. Boring even. A basic messaging service that doesn’t really compare with Twitter or Instagram or Facebook in terms of features.
But in many ways this simple little app has emerged as a one of our main sources of sports news and information. Whether it’s direct via a friend or indirect via the infamous forwarded message, WhatsApp pumps a never-ending stream of sports-related truths, half-truths and bare-faced lies onto our screens. The problem is: how do we tell our fact from our fiction?
Well, in this age of misinformation, it’s probably wise to start off by assuming that its false and then work backwards from there. By this stage we all know that forwarded messages (i.e. messages from another chat, now rendered anonymous, that have been passed on hundreds or thousands of times before reaching our phone) are notoriously untrustworthy.
Recently, rumours surrounding the Kerry football manager Peter Keane – specifically that he was facing a player coup – spread like wildfire on WhatsApp, forcing the county board as well as present and former players to clarify that there was no truth whatsoever in the speculation.
“The erroneous WhatsApp messages and subsequent social media furore that emerged in the weeks following our defeat (to Cork) had, in our opinion, the aim of damaging the reputation of players and management, and it has to be said that the prevalence of fake news has increased with the rise of social media,” Kerry GAA Chairman Tim Murphy said.
In the past, videos and images that supposedly showed intercounty players fighting or misbehaving in some other way have been debunked, but not before they have been dispatched to the four corners of the country. A photo popped up recently of a well-known player apparently holding an illegal substance. It turned out the picture had been photoshopped. In the original version, he was holding a pin in support of a charitable foundation.
That’s the dangerous side of WhatsApp, the side that can damage reputations for the sake of a “joke”.
Teams and individuals have also gotten into trouble when things they actually did were shared widely via the app. Who could forget the Ballyragget hurlers? In 2017, the Kilkenny club, who had won the intermediate championship a couple of days earlier, earned national headlines for all the wrong reasons when footage of some of their players cavorting with strippers leaked via Snapchat to WhatsApp. What a fuss that particular episode caused.
Local club Kilcummin also had to deal with a bit of a media storm last year when a video of one of their training sessions left the team group chat and found its way into the pockets of half the country. The clip showed a coach shouting profanities at his players as they wrestled on the ground, and it drew plenty of tut-tutting from the Gaelic football purists. It all blew over pretty quickly but it wasn’t much craic for the club at the time.
Leaks are common enough when it comes to classified team information (which, admittedly, is great from a journalistic standpoint). Maybe it’s to be expected: when you have 40 odd fellas in a group, what are the chances that at least one of them isn’t as wedded to the vow of secrecy as the rest? All it takes is for one person to share it in one external group. Once that happens, you’re done. Even professional outfits like the Irish national soccer team have had issues with this kind of thing in the past.
There are some funny stories to come out of WhatsApp, though. One of my favourites is the time a local player, disillusioned with not getting a run in a certain game, went home and posted a picture in the group chat. It showed his bin – with his football boots sticking out of it.
Getting your hands on someone else’s phone can also lead to some amusing WhatsApp episodes, as I found out first-hand (from the wrong side of the joke) a couple of years ago. I started training with the Legion again (one of my many failed comeback attempts) and one night, not long after I had returned, I was out with a few of my teammates. I was standing at the bar with my phone in my hand and next thing it was gone, snatched by a thief who disappeared into the crowd.
When it came back into my possession, I discovered that the assailant (a teammate) had sent a heartfelt WhatsApp message to our manager, Stephen Stack, saying how glad I was to be back and how I was looking forward to working with him for the rest of the year. Bear in mind that this was around 2am on a Saturday night. On a scale of one to Ballyragget it wasn’t that bad, but it was still fairly embarrassing.
I suppose like all of these new technologies, we’re still finding out how to use WhatsApp and how to take and process the information that we receive. Really the best advice is to take everything you read on WhatsApp with a pinch of salt. (Especially if you’re a manager and you get an emotional message from a player you barely know very late on a Saturday night.)