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'To the four nurses in Ireland...RIP': The Covid-19 Twitter claim that made it to the national airwaves

The story behind one of the most infamous myths of the pandemic.

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IT WAS A heart-in-your-stomach moment. 

Just over a month after Ireland’s first case of Covid-19, 63 people had died. Hundreds of new cases were being confirmed every day, and the country was in its first week of an uncertain lockdown.

Then, on the night of Monday 30 March, a tribute to stricken healthcare workers was posted on Twitter:

To the 4 nurses in Ireland who fought so hard for so many patients, but who themselves fell ill, and have now passed. RIP

Its author, Paddy Cosgrave, had been railing against Ireland’s response to the impending health crisis for a number of weeks. He had been closely following developments, and had tweeted a number of stories from sources which turned out to be true – or, at least, had kernels of truth within. 

In doing so, he had built trust with many of his then-55,000 followers (he now has over 58,000) who may well have believed he had ‘inside’ information that he was willing to share with ordinary people. 

When Cosgrave shared his tribute to four nurses whom he claimed had died, even those inured to the Web Summit founder’s anti-government messages couldn’t dismiss the rumour outright. Cosgrave is no fantasist. 

As well as receiving publicity because of his position at the Web Summit, Cosgrave has ventured into the world of political commentary in recent years with various appearances on RTÉ to discuss Irish taxation reform and the housing crisis

If true, the claim was damning evidence that the government didn’t have as strong a grip on the crisis as it was letting on. Nor was it as transparent as its nightly briefings suggested.

In the days that followed, counter-claims and obfuscation saw the rumour travel from a conversation between friends to Cosgrave’s Twitter feed to the HSE’s phone-lines, and all the way to the national airwaves.

By the time those responsible for passing on what turned out to be false information held their hands up and admitted the claim was untrue (Cosgrave apologised for publicising it), it had become one of the best examples of how fake news can spread – and how difficult it can be to tackle.  

Misinformation is often started – and shared – by people who do not trust authorities. In Ireland, it has generally stayed among those communities online, or in messaging apps. This changed with Covid-19 but few claims go as ‘mainstream’ as this one. 

Months on from the spread of one of the most damaging pieces of misinformation during the pandemic, here’s how the saga of the four dead nurses who never were played out.

March

To understand the spread of the four nurses claim, TheJournal.ie FactCheck examined the poster’s earlier Twitter history. For much of March, Cosgrave took to the site to criticise the government for not acting more decisively to minimise the impact of Covid-19.

As the virus spread throughout Ireland, he took aim at things like staffing levels in intensive care units, PPE shortages, and the confidentiality afforded to those who had contracted the coronavirus.

Occasionally, he cast himself as a someone with an inside knowledge of situations in Ireland, like the closure of Trinity College or when there was an early suspected case of Covid-19 at Dublin Airport.

He also offered opinions on things which pre-empted official responses, like having Web Summit staff work from home and suggesting that St Patrick’s Day parades across the country should be cancelled.

He was often correct – or partially correct.

Cosgravetrinity Source: Twitter

The Trinity closing tweet was sent on 5 March after Trinity confirmed it had a positive case, highlighting he had sources with good information. 

Mild tweets about the possible spread of the virus were interspersed with diatribes against those in charge of Ireland’s response, like his calls for the resignations of Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan and HSE CEO Paul Reid over issues around the procurement of PPE. 

web-summit-2018 Web Summit founder Paddy Cosgrave Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

An offhand comment

Late in the month, Cosgrave heard a rumour.

He and the businessman Pat Phelan frequently discussed Covid-19, especially the topic of nursing homes. In one such conversation, Phelan mentioned offhandedly that he had heard four nurses in Ireland had died from the virus.

“I said: ‘I got a message saying four nurses had died’,” Phelan recalls to TheJournal.ie.

Did I corroborate it? No. Was I even sure it was the truth? I wasn’t positive.”

Phelan did not name his source for the information or disclose which section of the health service they worked for when asked. But he insisted that whoever told him was someone he could trust.

“There was a lot of messages flying around at the time,” he said. “I got a message from a source I talked to, saying that there had been four nurses who died. This person was in a position that they could know.”

He also maintains that he would not have shared the information publicly himself. Asked whether he thought Cosgrave should have done so, he said: “That’s up to him, you’d have to ask him that.”

Whether Cosgrave regrets what happened next, or whether he sought to corroborate the information that Phelan had given him remains unclear. Multiple attempts by TheJournal.ie to contact him for this piece over the past three weeks were unsuccessful.

30 March

What is known is that at 9.56pm on 30 March, Cosgrave posted the claim to his 55,000 followers on Twitter.

Hundreds of people quickly re-shared it with no context, and thousands more ‘liked’ it, allowing an innumerable amount of Twitter users who didn’t even follow Cosgrave to suddenly see the rumour on their timelines.

Cosgrave Nurses tweet 2 Source: Twitter

At the time of writing, the tweet, which is still visible on Cosgrave’s Twitter feed, has been retweeted without comment more than 350 times and ‘liked’ by over 4,000 accounts.

Four minutes after sharing his tribute, he posted a reply to his initial tweet, framing the issue as a government cover-up:

To the politicians and HSE & DoH [Department of Health] top brass, please for the sake of those who have fallen and those who are ill, can you please be open and transparent with the nation. We are all in this together.

A number of users expressed their condolences for the “nurses”, some of whom rebuked the government for failing healthcare workers during the crisis. Others were convinced the tech entrepreneur had “information that we wont hear about for 2 days”. 

Many, however, viewed the claim more critically. Within minutes, dozens of Twitter users began to ask him to verify the claim, and others implored him to remove the tweet. He did neither.

31 March

Health officials sprung into action following the tweet from the high-profile businessman. Behind the scenes, frantic calls were made between hospitals, doctors and the HSE to double-check that the rumour was no more than that.

Then in an unprecedented move, the HSE posted an official response on Twitter at 12pm in an attempt to quench the flames of the controversy:

@HSELive doesn’t comment on individual cases to protect people’s privacy. However, when we become aware of fake news that causes distress to our staff and families we must act. Contrary to tweets sent yesterday – thankfully none of our nurses have died in Ireland from #COVID19.

To date, that tweet has been retweeted without comment over 640 times, almost twice as much as the initial rumour, but has only been ‘liked’ by 2,900 accounts.

HSE nurses tweet Source: Twitter

It’s probable that although many people saw both tweets, not all of those who saw mention of Cosgrave’s rumours later saw the HSE’s clarification.

At 12.16pm, the tweet was re-tweeted with another clarification by the Irish Nurses and Midwives’ Organisation (INMO), with a plea not to share such speculation.

“Sharing inaccurate rumours about healthcare workers is shameful and unhelpful,” the union posted on Twitter.

“Those who have shared untruths about our members during Covid-19 have caused undue distress and worry to families and the wider nursing community. Do not do it.”

An hour later, Cosgrave hit back, suggesting that the HSE’s tweet was further evidence of a cover-up.

Although he retweeted the rebuttal without comment at 1.08pm, a reply at 1.19pm zoned in on its wording, spotting a possible gap that could justify his claim.

“Can I ask by ‘our staff… and our nurses’ do you mean to include all HCW [healthcare workers] including agency nurses, those working in private nursing homes etc,” he wrote, before tagging HSE CEO Paul Reid in a second version of the tweet two minutes later.

Cosgrave Nurses tweet 3 Source: Twitter

The implication was that although the HSE could be telling the truth, it was prevaricating.

In this new version of events, achieved through a pedantic interpretation of the HSE’s use of the phrase “our nurses”, Cosgrave suggested that the ‘dead’ nurses worked in private settings, rather than for the public health service. 

The theory provided him with the logical wiggle-room required for him to stand over his original claim, while also showing support for the health service’s side of the story.

“To be clear I agree with the HSE. From what I understand none of “their staff” have died. But HCW have died,” he tweeted. 

A curt reply to criticism from the economist Brian Lucey at 2.04pm summed up his refined theory. “The HSE is correct,” he said. “None of “our staff” have died.”

Replies to these tweets show users of the site were asking questions about the identities of those who had died, with some asking if they were private nursing home staff. 

Irish Times correction

As his stream of posts about the rumour continued, criticism of Cosgrave mounted.

Increasing numbers of people accused him of scare-mongering and spreading misinformation, and he was urged to stop posting about the claim.

The war of words was further complicated by matters away from Twitter.

On 27 March, the Friday before the controversy, the Irish Times’ front page story – a report on the government’s announcement that the country was to go into lockdown – contained incorrect details about the death of a healthcare worker in Dublin.

“Among the [latest] fatalities is the first healthcare worker to die in the outbreak, a nurse at Tallaght Hospital,” it read.

A full article about the person’s death was also published on the Irish Times’ website.

When the HSE posted its statement on Twitter that no nurses had died, several users tweeted the piece in response, questioning which was the true version of events.

A healthcare worker had died but the newspaper had made two reporting errors when publishing the story – by saying it was a nurse and that the death happened at Tallaght Hospital. The death was of a healthcare worker, not a nurse, and not at that particular hospital.

A correction to the headline of the piece and in the copy of its article online was made and a clarification added that no nurse had died, nor any healthcare worker at Tallaght Hospital.

Images showing the article and correction were shared by Cosgrave at 5.01pm, his last post about the claim that day. 

Cosgrave Nurses Irish Times CorrectionPNG Source: Twitter

Into the mainstream

In the real world, there were concerns that Cosgrave was harming the government’s public health messaging, just as Ireland was getting to grips with orders to stay at home.

“NPHET worked hard at giving accurate information while not breaching confidentiality,” the HSE’s Chief Clinical Officer, Dr Colm Henry told TheJournal.ie.

“The fact that somebody came up with an alternative source of information, which later turned out to be false, undermined our work.”

When Cosgrave posted at 4.52pm on to say that “multiple doctors and nurses” had contacted him to back him up, it played into the ‘in-the-know’ brand he had cultivated in the weeks beforehand.

To some, this could have made his claim about the ‘nurses’ more credible and served to undermine the HSE’s message even further.

By this point, the rumour was going mainstream, transmitting into people’s homes via the national broadcaster, and live streams on Twitter and Facebook, including from the Department of Health’s account.

Shortly before 6pm, Dr Tony Holohan was asked about the story at the National Public Health Emergency Team’s televised press briefing at the Department of Health.

“We’re not going to get into the business of confirming or denying stories that appear that we haven’t either seen or had time to examine,” the Chief Medical Officer said.

7670 Covid 19 Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan at the Department of Health on 31 March Source: RollingNews.ie

Henry, however, had seen the rumour. When a reporter at the briefing first asked about it, he shook his head before the question was even finished. After Holohan was pressed for clarity in a follow-up question, Henry interjected.

“I think we all have heard stories over the past few weeks which have been completely untrue, but as I said have been very distressing to people,” he responded.

“It’s easy for people to put these stories on Twitter without any consideration for the impact it might have on the families or friends of people who are ill.”

1 April

At 8.31am the following day, Cosgrave hit back on Twitter, sharing the Irish Examiner’s front page story about Holohan and Henry’s comments:

I’m glad @CMOIreland has become concerned with #FakeNews – hopefully today marks the end of his spinning on so many issues of deep consequence of the nation.

Among the replies to this latest broadside against health authorities was a Dublin-based nurse, who captured the distress felt by his colleagues on the ground.

“You have caused deep upset and fear in the past few days,” Adrian Connor posted at 8.40am, telling Cosgrave about the upset and fear felt by nurses as a result of the rumour.

Paddy Cosgrave CMO Source: Twitter

Almost two hours later, those comments were echoed by the INMO’s general secretary Phil Ní Sheaghdha.

Shortly before 10.30am, the rumour was put to her by RTÉ broadcaster Sean O’Rourke on his mid-morning programme at the end of a segment about childcare for nurses.

Without naming Cosgrave, Ní Sheaghdha referenced the initial tweet and said she had received the information over the weekend.

“I find that extraordinarily callous… nurses are out there on the front line, they are really and truly putting their lives at risk,” she said, before she was cut off by a glitchy phone line.

The issue was not just about the fear of catching Covid-19. The rumour also took an emotional toll, as friends and family members worried about whether someone they knew had died.

“[In late March], the number of critically ill healthcare workers would have been easily identifiable to people who knew them,” Colm Henry explained.

That led to worries among those in the sector who heard the rumour that someone they knew had passed away.

“It’s a small country and people know each other intimately,” Henry continued.

“Rumours which were untrue caused distress to family and to clinical colleagues. It also caused huge anxiety among healthcare workers coming in to the frontline every day.”

004 Dept Health Dr Colm Henry, the HSE's Chief Clinical Officer Source: RollingNews.ie

2 April

Although the rumour appeared to have been put to bed, with the INMO asking for an apology, Cosgrave continued to push it the following day.

At 9.09am, he shared a screenshot of the original uncorrected Irish Times story about the dead healthcare worker. In the picture, the copy read that Varadkar and Harris had “paid tribute to the nurse who died”. (He had previously tweeted the correction on this story.)

The post contained the claim that “Simon [Harris] & Leo [Varadkar] honoured a nurse who they said had died – they now say they made a mistake, no nurse died”.

However, Varadkar and Harris did not pay tribute to a dead nurse at the briefing on 27 March, referenced in the article, nor was there any subsequent admission of an error by them.

Beginning his speech to announce the start of strict stay-at-home measures, Varadkar said: “I want to start by expressing my condolences to the families and friends of the people who passed away today, one of whom we understand was a healthcare worker.”

Cosgrave’s tweet also called for the HSE to “end the issue” by providing case data on all deaths, has been re-tweeted 46 times without comment, and ‘liked’ by more than 100 accounts to date.

The request was repeated in another widely shared tweet at 9.28am, when Cosgrave returned to his theory about the HSE’s counter-claim two days previously.

“Yes I said 4 nurses have died. HSE statement said none of “OUR nurses” have died,” he posted to his tens of thousands of followers.

“This is a matter of semantics & how you classify human beings. Enough spin, share all relevant data on everything: case data on positives & deaths, exact data on tests & delays, admissions data etc.”

Cosgrave semantics April 2 Source: Twitter

Although the post was widely re-tweeted and ‘liked’ again, the backlash continued. Twitter users called on Cosgrave to apologise, and repeated their demands for him to stop tweeting about the largely discredited rumour.

4-7 April

Though Cosgrave did not address his detractors, he seemed to have heard them. Specific posts about the claim mostly dried up after 2 April, but he did allude to it in subsequent tweets.

On the morning of 4 April, as he announced that he was “bowing out”, without specifying exactly what he was stepping away from, traces of the rumour and the backlash to it could be detected in his statement. 

“I’ve done what I can on transparency, international aid, PPE, testing kits, donations, tracing tech, nursing homes, media awareness, giving some whistleblowing HCWs a voice,” he tweeted at 11.09am.

“I’ll wear the endless vilification by the FAKE Green Jersey brigade as a badge of honour.”

Cosgrave 4 April 'bowing out' Source: Twitter

The tweet was ‘liked’ 1,100 times, and replies imploring him not to give up, telling him to “come back fighting” and not to “let the spin merchants win”.

For a few days, Cosgrave stepped back. In the week before his announcement, during the course of which the controversy about the four nurses arose, he was averaging 46 posts a day. One day that week saw him post 73 times.

By comparison, he posted eight times on the day of his announcement. He averaged just 14 tweets a day over the next week.

8-14 April

Despite his relative downturn in posts, Cosgrave continued to question the government’s approach – particularly as the death toll in nursing homes continued to rise.

At 6.05pm on 8 April, he returned to familiar territory with tweets to Simon Harris and Dr Tony Holohan. The following day, he announced his return to Twitter to discuss those deadly outbreaks in nursing homes.

From then on, occasional swipes at government figures were interspersed with concerns about nursing homes, healthcare workers and PPE supplies.

However, Twitter had not forgotten Cosgrave’s infamous claim. In replies to his tweets, sarcastic questions about the ‘four nurses’ continued amid the ongoing clamour for an apology.

On 14 April, he hit back at his critics in a pair of tweets.

“I have not retracted what I shared on 4 nurses as those who provided me with the information, including nationalities, have not,” he posted at 10.06am.

“They’ve been correct on many issues: PPE, tests, nursing homes, PHG contracts etc. All at first were dismissed as false, but later were proved accurate.

“When multiple & independent sources keep sharing information that proves accurate over time despite initial denials by HSE etc… It’s hard to ignore.”

It would be his last post defending the claim.

15 April – 7 June

On 15 April, two healthcare workers were confirmed to have died after a Covid-19 diagnosis at St Luke’s Hospital in Kilkenny. The Ireland East Hospital Group issued a statement of condolence that evening which was widely covered in the media.

Jim Kenny and Catherine Hickey were support workers at the hospital. Jim died on 14 April with Catherine passing the following day. They were the first healthcare workers who lost their lives to be named publicly, bringing the total death toll among healthcare workers to three. 

On 24 April, the Department of Health confirmed that a total of five healthcare workers had died after testing positive for Covid-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. This number included Kenny and Hickey and the first death which was reported on 27 March – confirmed not to be a nurse.

Therefore, it was not possible for four nurses to be included in the total figure of five. 

8 June

Eight long weeks later, people were beginning to feel free again.

The beginning of Phase Two of the government’s roadmap meant that for the first time, friends and families could see each other under guidelines which allowed up to six people from different households to meet indoors.

Though urban streets remained quiet that Monday morning, there was a sense that normality was returning.

Non-essential retailers began to open their doors, small sports groups were allowed to return to training, and even the NPHET’s daily media briefings, which for months had been beamed into homes across the country, were scaled back to just two days a week.

The worst of the crisis appeared to be over, and Ireland had grown used to living through the pandemic. The last thing on most people’s mind was a rumour that circulated during the dark days of spring suggesting four nurses had died from Covid-19.

But Pat Phelan was not most people. He had seen comments directed towards Cosgrave about the rumour in previous weeks, and had a guilty conscience.

“I’ve gotten where I’ve gotten by being fairly straight with people,” he tells TheJournal.ie.

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“And I felt it was wrong. I felt that it had gotten a guy that I actually like into trouble. I’m a huge believer, in business and in my personal life, that if I make a mistake, I admit it instantly.”

Phelan told Cosgrave he was coming clean. Cosgrave urged him not to do it, but at 1.25pm that day, he wrote a tweet claiming responsibility for the rumour.

“I got a message that nurses had died from a HSE source early Covid, I checked with another source and confirmed,” he wrote (though he later told TheJournal.ie that he did not corroborate his claim).

“I mentioned it to @paddycosgrave, the sources were wrong, I apologise sincerely to HSE/families and also to Paddy, he asked me not to do this but it’s on me not him.”

Phelan apology Source: Twitter

Phelan didn’t specify at what point he believed the rumour to be false, but said he realised the truth when the government stated that no nurses had died.

“I took the smack, because Paddy was taking the smack for it, and I had gotten the information,” he recalls now.

“I felt it was wrong, and that it had gotten I guy that I actually like into trouble. Paddy actually asked me not to come out and I said ‘No, I made a mistake’.”

At 1.28pm, Cosgrave retweeted Phelan, his first post about the matter in almost two months. Then at 2.51pm, he quoted Phelan’s apology and admitted his error.

“I decided to share this,” he posted.

“It’s on me, not @patphelan. I would like to first apologise to Pat, who is as decent and caring a human as you’ll meet. Most importantly, I’d like to unreservedly apologise to all nurses, the @INMO_Irl, @HSELive and families.”

It was 10 weeks to the day since the original claim was posted.

Cosgrave apology Source: Twitter

To date, the tweet has been retweeted 33 times without comment, and ‘liked’ by 266 accounts – a fraction of the hundreds of retweets and thousands of ‘likes’ his initial tweet received. 

July

Reflecting on the time lag between the claim and clarification, Colm Henry does not sound convinced that Cosgrave and Phelan’s apology will have changed anything.

“When the facts came out, people knew it wasn’t the case,” he says. “But as you know, by the time the facts come out, people have all moved on.”

Despite their apologies, the pair continue to be reminded about their roles in the saga.

A scan of replies to Cosgrave and Phelan’s recent tweets reveal that although the episode is now firmly in the past, many Twitter users have not forgotten about it.

“I continue to get stick over it,” Phelan says.

“I had no involvement in it whatsoever, other than I said it to Paddy. Am I sorry for the pain it caused families? Of course I am. But I didn’t publicise it.

“I continue to get abused on a daily basis. [People tell me] ‘That was like the dead nurses, Pat.’ I’m a big enough boy to know that when I’m in the wrong, I’m in the wrong.”

It’s not known whether Cosgrave pays the same attention to his own critics, or if he harbours regrets about what happened. TheJournal.ie contacted him numerous times ahead of the publication of this article but he declined to arrange time to speak. However, he has made an unreserved public apology on this Twitter account.

During that period when were trying to make contact, on 25 July, he tweeted a false story about TheJournal.ie, claiming “one of the big bosses” at the company told a member of his Web Summit staff to not expect any coverage because of Cosgrave’s political views. 

We can confirm that there is no editorial direction in place at TheJournal.ie regarding coverage or non-coverage of the Web Summit.

(The Web Summit moved to Lisbon in 2016 and its deal to stay there until 2028 was covered by this publication in October 2018.)

The tweet was retweeted 240 times without comment and liked over one thousand times. 

A bridge for misinformation 

While that piece of misinformation also had hundreds of comments doubting its veracity, it has much in common with successful disinformation campaigns – the idea that elites, including governments and media, join together to keep others down.

“When there is an existing overarching conspiracy theory about a new world order or deep states or global elites who are looking to control and subjugate the population of the world – when people are already saying that that was going to happen without very much basis for it, the pandemic by touching every element of life, makes it very easy to say ‘this is what I was talking about’,” says Alastair Reid, managing editor at First Draft News.

We’re definitely seeing a lot more talk around conspiracy theories. I think it’s interesting to track exactly how that has developed as well, because a lot of the issue with a lot of conspiracy theories is that almost universally, it’s the case of two plus two equals five, but there are some kernels of truth in there. And that’s what makes them often so compelling. But it’s connecting the dots and making connections where they don’t always exist.

Sustained criticism of authorities may also form part of an overall ‘conspiracy mentality’, as Shane Timmons of the Behavioural Research Unit at the Economic Social and Research Institute explains.

Timmons notes that a conspiracy mentality presents in people who have low levels of general trust, manifesting in a distrust of experts and official communications.
“Some people will have a higher conspiracy mentality than others,” he says.

“These individuals tend to have high need for uniqueness and don’t like to conform to the group as much as the average person does. They also tend to over claim their knowledge.

“And there’s studies from the UK and the US which show that they also tend to have a fairly narcissistic view of their own nationality. They tend to think that other people don’t appreciate how good their nation is.

“We saw more of them at the start of the pandemic, when there was a lot more uncertainty and misinformation and conspiracies tend to flare up.”

Cosgrave doesn’t fit that bill – in fact, he had a disparaging view of Ireland’s response – but his tweets may have found an audience where shades of that mentality did exist.

We now know there was an appetite in Ireland for such theories and pieces of misinformation which highlighted perceived conspiracies, and in this case they were primed by kernels of truth from a ‘mainstream’ voice. 

As of time of publication, a total of eight healthcare workers have died in Ireland from Covid-19. Dr Syed Waqqar Ali of the Mater Hospital became the eighth healthcare worker to die in the State on 22 July. 

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Through 2016, deep fakes, Brexit and Trump, Ireland did not see misinformation in the same way or at the same level as other jurisdictions.

But since the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed, TheJournal.ie FactCheck has debunked or examined 75 claims about the coronavirus. Through that work, we have been able to track the pandemic’s impact on Ireland’s susceptibility to and relationship with fake news.  

In this series, we will investigate some of the more notorious stories – who started them, and what effect they had on the population? We interrogate the atmosphere and tools that allowed the messages to spread – their R number as scary as Covid-19’s.

This new coronavirus may not be with us forever, but misinformation could be one of its deadly after-effects. 

So now we ask: Is Ireland changed forever? See the full series here.

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