Can fake views influence real votes in the Stormont election?

Mark Devenport
Political editor, Northern Ireland
@markdevenporton Twitter

image source, Pacemaker
image captionThe UUP's Danny Kennedy claims he was the victim of a fake election leaflet

The other day I was chatting to one of my editors who was dutifully framing a response to a letter of complaint from a viewer exercised about my colleague Mark Carruthers' handling of an interview with Arlene Foster on "The View".

I peered over her shoulder and was surprised to realise I'd read the letter already - in that morning's News Letter.

It was word for word the same, but the BBC's missive was signed by a different individual with a different address from the one on the bottom of the News Letter's version.


Of course "pro forma" letters are not unknown, but what made this coincidence even more intriguing was that a web search could not verify the existence of either individual or either address.

Our viewer got his reply anyway, whether he exists or not.

If the letter does turn out to be less than authentic it would not be the only example of fakery we have had during this campaign.

The Ulster Unionist, Danny Kennedy has complained he has been the victim of a bogus handout, which appeared to have him stridently criticising his DUP opponent William Irwin.

Attacking your opponents

You might wonder what the problem would be with a hand out ostensibly attacking your opponents.

But Mr Kennedy has been to the forefront in telling his supporters to transfer to other unionists - in contrast to his leader Mike Nesbitt's declaration that he plans to give the SDLP his number two vote.

So it is obvious that someone is seeking to make mischief by seeking to jemmy open a crack between unionists in Newry and Armagh.

In Mr Kennedy's case it is unclear who might be behind the fake.

image source, Press Eye
image captionNaomi Long's Alliance Party was caught red-handed

However, one party, Alliance, did get caught red-handed discussing how to try to manipulate a BBC phone-in during exchanges on a closed Facebook page.

The fact that people will go to such lengths shows how high the stakes are in any election.

Hard to fake your vote

But, given the days of "voting early and voting often" are now behind us, one thing it is extremely hard to fake is your vote.

Turnout in May last year was just under 55%.

That is part of a falling trend in voter numbers since Stormont's halcyon days when 69% took part in the 1998 election.

There is undoubtedly a lot of public anger stirred by the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, but will that translate into people queuing outside our polling stations or wishing a plague on all Stormont's houses?

image source, Presseye
image captionLeaders' debates are one of the great campaign set-pieces

Fake handouts and other tactics may have an impact on the margins, but their influence is nothing like campaign set pieces such as Tuesday night's BBC leaders' debate when voters could see for themselves how the parties handled issues like the RHI saga, voting transfers, Brexit, direct rule and same sex marriage.

And, to be honest, other factors will come into play in determining turnout.

These include how organised the parties are in transporting their supporters to polling stations, and the mundane but all important matter of how wet and windy, or dry and sunny a polling day in early March turns out to be.

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