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Disinformation Watch #6: Orwell’s nightmare – How the government controls the past to control the future

The government distorts history to justify present behaviour, to shut down independent views and to consolidate political control.

joseph muscat

The Labour Party won the last general election with a majority of 35,280 votes. No it was not 40,000, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that because the number started to be pushed immediately after the election. It may be a detail, but the Labour Party’s loose interpretation of facts goes much further than that – the government is rewriting history.

In the last general election, the Labour Party won 173 more votes than it did in 2013 (35,107). The fitters and plumbers employed by WSC under Konrad Mizzi’s ministry alone covered that.

Yet these numbers did not suit Labour’s narrative. A bigger result was needed it seems, perhaps to crush a principled alternative by the Opposition. The number for the next victory is already being engraved in people’s minds – 70,000.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2017 snap election, the 40,000-win was pushed in secret pro-Muscat online groups, on Disqus comment boards, in debates and newspaper columns. It became fact – even the Opposition uses that number.

The number is based on the same flawed logic as this, pushed by the Labour Party’s One News:

This is far from the only example of the past being revised. Consistent efforts are being made to create the impression of the past as a time of misery from which the Labour Party claims to have liberated its supporters. Working towards the Party’s goals is then in the interest of its supporters.

The Shift News’ investigation of Labour’s network of secret online groups shows constant messaging of Labour leader and Prime Minister Joseph Muscat as “is-Salvatur ta’ Malta” (Malta’s Saviour), a title Labour bestowed upon former Party leader and prime minister Dom Mintoff, who is being increasingly linked to Muscat.

Imagery of Muscat as Malta’s “saviour” is coupled with countless posts from the group’s resident Party historian who shares grossly distorted summaries of Maltese history, under a series of post he calls “L-Istorja GLORJUZA tal-Partit Laburista”.

One meme he shared lists former Nationalist Party leaders, describing their terms as “tal-BIKI” (Gorg Borg Olivier), “BIZZEJJED” (Eddie Fenech Adami), “IZZEJJED” (Lawrence Gonzi), and “AHJAR MEJJET” (Simon Busuttil).

Glorifying the 80s, distorting Malta’s recent history and casting Muscat as the country’s ‘second prophet’ and saviour laid the ground for the Party’s 2017 electoral campaign slogan, which Muscat continues to use, “Ma nieqfux nofs triq” (We won’t stop halfway), compelling Labour supporters to work for Muscat and the Party.

Labour’s hate groups are littered with calls to members to support Muscat’s mission, that members have the “honour” to support Muscat, and pleas for Muscat not to abandon them.

Distorting the past also allows the government to set false conditions that justify its present behaviour. Casting the past as nightmarishly corrupt, the Party feeds people a false sense of current corruption.

The largest secret Labour Facebook group contains only one single reference to Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi’s offshore target-client company 17 Black – and, the reference is limited to Schembri’s denial of his links to it.

In contrast, the groups contain hundreds of references to the National Audit Office report on public procurement corruption at the Mater Dei hospital. Group members describe Nationalist governments as the most corrupt in Malta’s history and Nationalist supporters as hypocrites.

According to the World Bank’s 2017 Worldwide Governance Indicators, Malta’s rule of law deteriorated faster since 2013, the year Muscat was first elected Prime Minister, than any other EU member state. Malta’s ability to control corruption also deteriorated faster than any other EU member state since 2013.

Other hate group members provide enabling arguments for government corruption, saying that it does not matter so long as the country runs a Budget surplus. Other comments (fed with sensationalist headlines from One News or L-Orizzont) feed the false narrative that “Malta kienet falluta” (Malta was bankrupt) and that Joseph Muscat saved the economy.

A more insidious effect of the Party’s relentless distortion of history is that it crowds out debate, keeping people from developing their own diverse interpretations of events while developing a reliance on Party disinformation for their views. The Nationalist Party is also guilty of using these tactics.

The hysteria surrounding the new book on Muscat, ‘Joseph: 10 Snin Mexxej’ (Joseph: 10 years of leadership), is representative of the Party’s drive to monopolise interpretations of the past, with Labour activists pressuring online group members and supporters to buy the book, saying that buying it is doing one’s “duty” as a Labour supporter.

The book is published by the Party’s publishing arm, marketed as an evaluation of Muscat’s leadership, with contributions from his head of communications Kurt Farrugia, communications aide Nigel Vella and education minister Evarist Bartolo.

When governments run a disinformation campaign based on false history, the Party’s version of the past risks becoming Malta’s truth.

When Muscat called an election a year early in May 2017, despite enjoying the support of the majority of the electorate, assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia wrote: “No Prime Minister ever calls an election a year early because things are going well”.

Muscat repeatedly referred to the election as settling the crisis around Egrant, an offshore company that Caruana Galizia reported is owned by Muscat’s wife, Michelle Muscat. Most believe that Muscat called an early election because of the Egrant scandal, which is still the subject of a magisterial inquiry.

Caruana Galizia said that claim was false in May 2017, before the election was held.

She had reported that the Labour Party had already commissioned electoral campaign material weeks before she broke the Egrant story on 20 April, and that the Party’s campaign website had been registered on 7 April.

Henley & Partners CEO Christian Kalin, who has a “very close” relationship with the government and is on first name basis with the Prime Minister, also told Caruana Galizia that he knew of the election as early as March while demanding she removes references to Henley & Partners from her blog.

Caruana Galizia repeatedly said the public should question why Muscat had called the election early, writing that he and his “henchmen” wanted a fresh mandate “before whatever it is they know will happen does happen”.

She never arrived at what she considered to be a satisfactory answer before her 16 October assassination. We still do not have the answer to the question – only Labour’s truth – and people have stopped asking.

This is the sixth episode in The Shift News’ series Disinformation Watch.

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