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Disinformation Watch #8: ‘Gaslighting’ – The changing lies on Rabat Road trees

Rabat road trees
Rabat road trees

The government’s original plan to upgrade the ‘Rabat Road’ from Saqqajja Hill to the Mrieħel Bypass junction, required the uprooting of hundreds of trees along the road which developed into a stream of statements and counter statements that served to question your own sanity.

Transport Minister Ian Borg made no mention of the required uprooting on 22 May when he announced the upgrade, part of the €55m Central Link Project to ease traffic through Attard. It was revealed when Transport Malta submitted five detailed plans of “existing trees to be uprooted” to the Planning Authority on 13 June.

The Times of Malta reported that over 200 mature Aleppo pine trees were set for removal on 16 June, generating a public outcry.

Transport Malta quickly issued a denial through Borg’s Facebook page, aiming to discredit The Times of Malta report and stating that “the majority of the indicated trees are to remain in place” and that “212 additional trees will be planted” in other unspecified locations. Borg concluded that the total number of trees will increase, given this additional planting.

The government’s head of communications Kurt Farrugia repeated the denial on his own Facebook timeline, stating that The Times of Malta report is “a case of (at best) wrong reporting.”

A Maltese PhD student at Queensland University of Technology, John Paul Cauchi, analysed the original plans, finding that Transport Malta’s denial was “incorrect”, saying on his Facebook timeline that “we are being lied to, or we are being told half-truths”.

Counting every single tree that is marked for removal in the original plans, Cauchi found that over 79% of all trees were to be uprooted as part of this project. That is, of 589 trees in the plans, many of which are indigenous to Malta and would not survive transplanting, 466 were marked for removal, Cauchi’s uploaded data reveals.

The trees marked for removal in Transport Malta’s original plans that were submitted to the Planning Authority on June 13, as collected by John Paul Cauchi.

On the same day that Borg issued the government’s official denial, 16 June, new plans were uploaded to the Planning Authority website in which the number of “trees to be uprooted” was reduced to about 60 trees.

The Times of Malta then published Transport Malta’s original plans in full, as Cauchi’s analysis went viral on social media.

As criticism of its plans escalated, the government announced on 20 June a third revision of the original plan in which only 15 trees were marked for removal.

Malta Today ran a frontpage headline that read in caps “only 15 trees to be uprooted on Rabat road”, but the underlying article made clear that this was the government’s third revision and laid out all the contortions that got the government to this point.

Still, Malta Today’s headline served the government’s purpose. Borg took to Facebook to post a photograph of the MaltaToday frontpage with the caption “Sadanittant, din hija l-verità: Mhux ser jitneħħew aktar minn 15-il siġra taż-Żnuber mit-Triq tar-Rabat waqt li ser jitħawlu mat-300 siġra!” [Meanwhile, this is the truth: Not more than 15 trees will be removed from Rabat road while 300 trees will be planted].

Borg added the hashtags “#realnews” and “#notfakenews” to his Facebook post.

ian borg

Not just angered by the plans for uprooting, people also saw the government’s attempt to ‘gaslight’ them, a form of manipulation in which a more powerful entity makes their targeted group question their own memory, perception and sanity.

Public outcry intensified further, triggering the government to revise its original plans for the fourth time on 23 June.

On that same day, to further gaslight the public and sow confusion Borg and Environment Minister José Herrera announced the planting of 28 carob trees along the Mellieħa bypass, saying “il-Gvern kien, għadu u jibqa’ impenjat biex jipproteġi l-ambjent tagħna” [the government was, is and still remains committed to protecting our environment].

No mention of Rabat Road was made as a distinct event, as the government tried to conflate the carob tree planting in Mellieħa with the Rabat Road controversy.

The Times of Malta journalist Keith Micallef.

The following day, 24 June, State broadcaster TVM, which The Shift News showed exhibits a strong bias towards the government and Labour Party, reported Borg saying that the Rabat Road controversy developed over “fake news and spin”.

Borg has yet to substantiate his claim of “fake news”, despite calls from the press to do so, and the Planning Authority has yet to show the third and fourth revisions on its website.

Rather than admit fault or concede that the original plans were misguided, the government chose to deceive and lie to the public while attacking and discrediting the country’s press.

Read more: Disinformation Watch

Jason Micallef

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