Isle of Man TT: Rumour control

This year’s TT has been particularly enjoyable, mostly because I have been
able to take some time off and watch the racing. Until changing my employment, I
would have been involved in the publishing of the live timings over the internet
on the iomtt.com site. I would be in the middle of it all (physically and
metaphorically) and see very little of it.

Last night’s unfortunate incident involving Nick Crowe and Dan Cox reminded me of the problems involved with managing rumour control, particularly when potential injuries (or worse) may have been sustained. The racing and practice sessions were subject to delay due to typically bizarre Manx weather which included the sun “cracking the flags” in Douglas but the West of the island awash with severe rain, which included hailstones at one point. This resulted in quickly rescheduled sessions, the Sure Sidecar 2 race being moved to 18:15.

During the session, in the continuing and exciting competition between Dave
Molyneux and Dan Sayle’s outfit and Nick Crowe/Mark Cox’ outfit, Crowe fell
victim to more bad luck when first he appeared to disappear off the live timings
and then news came through that his outfit had caught fire. The exact details of
how this occurred are as yet unknown but may be linked to the poor reliability
of the outfit during the TT fortnight (and previous). Clearly, a fire on the
course is a serious issue and the Marshals were quick to red flag the race, that
segment of the track was sealed off and outfits sent back to the Granstand in
both directions (an interesting site for sure). No word came until later about
the condition of the two men, so rumour grew based on the actions of the Clerk
of the Course, helicopter dispatch and the ensuing “radio silence”.

Consider the timeline of events:

18:15: Race starts. Crowe and Cox are first off in #1, followed 10 seconds later by Molyneux and Sayle in #2.

18:28 (approx): Molyneux and Sayle appear at Ballaugh Bridge timings, ahead of Crowe and Cox. Crowe and Cox do not pass through Ballaugh Bridge. Clearly, something is wrong at this point. Live timings show a “disappeared” outfit which leads one to suspect further reliability problems (though this is not highlighted, you need to keep an eye out).

18:30: Red Flag is shown, terminating the race. So something serious has occured which may have caused or may cause harm to riders.

18:33: The cause of the red flag is confirmed to be a machine on fire at Ballacob (shortly before Ballaugh). Although no confirmation of which machine, it would be clear which one it would be most likely to be, that of Crowe and Cox in #1.

19:24: Helicopter carries riders to Nobles Hospital.

19:37: Sure Sidecar 2 race is confirmed to have been abandoned and will not re-run this year.

Rumour then started to get out of control, with speculation on the cause and
injuries sustained by the riders becoming uncontrollable. Traditionally, this
had started on the iomtt.com forums. Severe results were claimed, death/injuries, all of which were unsubstantiated. This post has now been removed, by a (ex)colleague who knows more on this than me and is very good at dealing with these issues. In previous years, particularly during the aftermath of the fatal incident on the final lap of the Senior race of 2007, this resulted in whoever was covering the race and the administration team for the forums to clamp down on the forums and attempt to control rumour.

The controlling of rumour tended to be clarification of actions and deletion
of posts which speculated or claimed to be aware of the aftermath of an
incident, which would include relatives or friends of the victims, even if they
were aware of the details. This would understandably create resentment that we
were “preventing discussion” and “being difficult” in wishing the affected
individuals well. What we were actually doing was working to prevent rumour
affecting the affected parties, those close to the affected parties and the
event and organisations attached to the event. I do remember in 2007 that posts
were posted that frequently claimed knowledge of the effects of the incident
which I had to delete using my mobile phone while inbetween internet
connections.

The interesting difference this year, however, was the Twitter effect.
Whereas a forum can be controlled by a moderation team, which may provide an
opportunity to provide some information to the users based on established fact,
Twitter is impossible to moderate, let alone control. At about 9pm, Twitter was
already carrying rumours from the iomtt.com site, which then started to create
another wave of unsubstantiated gossip. I then started to receive text messages
on my mobile from people telling me the riders were in a Liverpool Hospital
(this morning, news came that they were actually in Nobles).

Whereas previously, press agencies and “rumour control” could control the
channels of communication, publishing news only when they were confident
affected parties would not be offended or unnecassarily upset, the modern web
has moved away from this. From forums to Twitter to Live Timings, information is
being published and understood faster than ever before. The Live Timings service
is controlled, but the lack of times for Ballaugh and no news on the condition
of the riders only contributes to rumour. (That said, the person who updates the
news is very qualified and able – but it is a difficult job)

The iomtt.com site currently has this update.

By embracing new media such as web sites and live timing services, the
authorities need to consider that news travels much faster than ever before and
rumour can grow beyond established fact. This rumour needs to be controlled and
the only way to control rumour is to be up front and honest on the facts as soon
as possible. This puts the PR people in the driving seat by focussing attention
on an official source of information, which itself discredits claims of fact
from other sources. Maintaining a professional radio silence is not the answer.
Fans of motorsport follow their favoured riders religiously, particularly at the
TT where many fans know riders directly. Feeding correct information in a timely
fashion, even if in a drip-drip fashion, is essential to reducing the
opportunity for rumour to get beyond realty.

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