Andrew Leahy

“Industry Experts”- Half truths, Supposition and Speculation

The recent tragedy involving the USS John S McCain is a reminder of the growing influence of self-appointed ‘industry experts’. / By Andrew Leahy

The recent tragedy in the Singapore Strait involving the destroyer, USS John S McCain and the tanker, Alnic MC is a reminder of the growing influence of social media and its use by ‘industry experts’ to create an atmosphere of supposition and speculation that contorts public perception and can lead to reputational damage.

Just hours after news of the collision broke, the vessel tracking website VesselFinder posted an accelerated animation based on the Automatic Identification System (AIS) tracking data from the tanker, Alnic MC showing its course pre-collision and then its sudden halt. Certainly, an interesting animation, one that has since amassed nearly 120,000 views. However, what isn’t shown in the clip is the course or the actions of the USS John S McCain because military vessels typically do not transmit AIS. Despite lacking this fundamental data, the clip became an analysis centrepiece for a collection of ‘industry experts’ who were more than happy to assume and suppose their way through a critique of the collision.

Interest in the clip initially escalated when it was posted in an article on the online maritime news portal gCaptain. The article itself focused on the established facts, but at the bottom of the article was a section for Opinions and Reactions in which pundits tweeted their own interpretations; @AdamWeinstein “…it sort of looks like the tanker turns into the McCain. Am I interpreting right?”

How can someone “interpret right” when the movements of the other vessel involved are unknown?

Speculation in a tweet is one thing, but on an incident with this level of international coverage it’s the bloggers who take speculation to a new level and it’s often done under the cloak of an ‘industry expert’. One such blog posted on August 24th by SEAPROF and subsequently emailed out to numerous maritime contacts sets out to assess the accident based on the AIS animation and photos of the damaged USS John S McCain.

“We know from the AIS video that the GPS data speed of the ‘ALNIC’ was about 9.5 knots. The pre-incident speed of the ‘MACCAIN’ is not publicly known but such warships can travel at high speed if required. However, it is likely that the MACCAIN’s speed was moderate while travelling in a heavy traffic area.”

Without any concrete evidence at all about the USS John S McCain the author speculates. The author then goes on to analyse a two-dimensional photograph of the damage without the benefits of post-accident measurements or 3D modelling:

“The depth of the indentation shows that the relative speeds between the two vessels were such that the ‘ALNIC’ must have been travelling somewhat faster than the ‘MACCAIN’ ... Also, the angle of blow was relatively shallow and appears to have been perhaps at angle of about 20 – 30 degrees between the two vessels.”

Luckily for the industry, the investigations into this terrible accident will rely on hard evidence from onboard systems, witness statements and the co-operation of the parties involved – not incomplete information, supposition and speculation.

What is an ‘industry expert’? It’s not just an online phenomenon, all the major television networks turned to ‘experts’ for soundbites. For NBC and Reuters it was retired US Navy Admiral James Stavidis who is highly trained and credible but there were plenty of ‘experts’ who weren’t.

Looking at another tragic incident, the El Faro sinking in October 2015, the CBS affiliated WJAX TV out of Jacksonville Florida used a young man to comment on the cause of the accident after introducing him as having “been on ships like El Faro”. If “been on ships” makes for an industry expert, then there’s certainly plenty of us about.

There are a lot of people out there willing to speculate on an accident, often with just scraps of detail. It’s not a situation you can fully control, but it is one that you need to handle. This is why monitoring of media and social media is vital. You need to know what is being said so that if the supposition and speculation gets out of hand you can address it and stop it from going viral and causing lasting reputational damage.


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