Joseph Muscat repeatedly claims to stand for a positive politics: ‘We will always stand for #optimism with a #positive attitude. People outright refuse bitter, negative and tribal politics’, he tweeted last year, signing off with ‘JM #Malta’.
Alongside the Prime Minister and Labour leader himself, a minimum of eight senior staff working for him are members of Facebook groups containing violent comments, including the distribution of anti-corruption activists’ personal details and calls for them to be physically attacked, sexually assaulted, and stalked.
The senior staff includes: Keith Schembri (the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff), Konrad Mizzi (Minister of Tourism), Chris Cardona (Minister of the Economy), Glenn Bedingfield (MP and consultant to the Prime Minister), Neville Gafa (consultant to the Prime Minister), Tony Zarb (consultant to the Prime Minister), Rosianne Cutajar (MP and communications coordinator in the Prime Minister’s Office), and Robert Musumeci (consultant to the Prime Minister’s Office).
President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, who called for a law on cyber-bullying in April 2017, is also a member of the groups.
An investigation by The Shift News into six of the biggest pro-Muscat Facebook groups – numbering 60,000 members – found coordinated attacks on anti-corruption activists and Daphne Caruana Galizia’s family, including calls for sexual violence.
The information was compiled over the past six months by whistleblowers working with The Shift News in the groups, who gained access to restricted and secret membership groups.
Administrators of one of the groups, Laburisti Magħqudin [Labourites United], vetted members for Labour credentials, whether by Labour Party membership card or national identification card.
The information uncovered countless misogynistic, violent, and abusive comments.
Many of the comments appear to breach Malta’s Data Protection Act and Article 82A of the Criminal Code, which carries a term of imprisonment of six to 18 months for threatening, abusive or insulting words used to stir up violence.
.The Shift News investigation found:
- Images depicting non-Labour Party politicians, including David Casa and Simon Busuttil, as satanic demons, some with green faces, crooked noses, and surrounded by flames.
- Images depicting non-Labour Party politicians in murder fantasies, including Godfrey Farrugia with a noose around his neck.
- Homophobic posts criticising perceived enemies of Joseph Muscat, including descriptions of the Archbishop as a ‘pufta’ and Simon Busuttil as ‘Simonlina…li jhobb il-banana’ [Simonlina likes the banana].
- Posts and comments celebrating Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination, describing her as ‘saħħara ħadra’ [evil witch] and calling on fellow members to let her burn in hell.
- Comments describing Nationalist Party supporters as ‘fascist bastards’, ‘traitors’, ‘scum’, and ‘animals’.
- Calls for anti-corruption activists to be identified, targeted, and attacked.
The Facebook groups – which include Laburisti Sal-Mewt [Labour Supporters to Death] with 16,000 members – are central in Joseph Muscat’s and the Labour Party’s relentless campaigning.
Labour Party messaging runs continuously, enforcing Muscat’s latest narratives and slogans. Hopefuls launch their campaigns to become Labour Party local councillors and members of parliament. Sitting MPs advertise their ‘coffee mornings’ and projects. Members share thousands of hagiographic memes of Muscat in between sharing images of his enemies for targeted abuse.
Abusive comments and posts regularly targeted Daphne Caruana Galizia’s family members and her own memory, as well as anti-corruption activists and journalists who are critical of the government. There are countless violent threats against non-Labour Party politicians.
The Shift understands that people targeted for abuse in the groups have reported group members to the police’s cyber crime unit.
Muscat is under pressure to condone V18 Chair Jason Micallef’s recent abusive comments about Caruana Galizia. Some of the world’s leading writers, including Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie, along with 100 Maltese artists, have called on Micallef to resign in reaction to his comments about Caruana Galizia. Muscat has since reiterated his support for Micallef.
Group members decry that the Prime Minister had not suppressed anti-corruption protests and protesters, had not removed the Valletta memorial of Caruana Galizia, and had not ‘done anything’ about his critics.
Group messaging has spilt over onto public social media channels, prompting people to call on Muscat to intervene and call halt to escalating abuse by his supporters. Muscat has not done so.
Anatomy of a hate attack: pro-Labour groups mobilise against anti-corruption activist
At 11.29pm on 21 April, an administrator of a 9,000-member secret Labour group, Laburisti Maghqudin (United Labour Supporters), posted:
“TINA URSO kienet il-mohh wara il-protesta ta tghajjir lejn il-Prim taghna hawn hu link tal-fb taghha [link]” [Tina Urso was the brains behind the (London) protest insulting our Prime Minister, here is her Facebook profile [link]).
At 11.31pm, the same message was posted by the same person in a 16,000-member secret Labour group, ‘Laburisti Sal-Mewt” (Labour Supporters to Death), where they are also an administrator.
Within seconds, group members asked for a photo of Tina Urso, an anti-corruption activist with il-Kenniesa, to which the administrator, now a Labour Party candidate for Zabbar local council, curtly replies “idhol fb” (go to her Facebook profile).
Another member quickly obliged with a photo of Tina Urso, ready with text repeating much the same message, but this time tweaking the message from insulting Prime Minister Muscat to shaming Malta and calling her a traitor.
Within minutes, a Labour supporters facebook page, Bejn il-hbieb tal-Partit Laburista (Between friends of the Labour Party) administered by that same person, shared the photo with the tweaked message, adding “Share and shame #theSituationIsDesperate”.
All hell was unleashed.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Urso uploaded a series of videos on her personal Facebook timeline, showing footage of a protest outside Henley & Partners’ gala dinner at Drapers’ Hall in London.
The videos showed protesters chanting the now hackneyed expression “shame on you” and booing at guests entering the conference hall, including Joseph Muscat and his wife, Michelle, who arrived over an hour late in a blacked-out SUV and were quickly hurried into the hall by a retinue of security men.
The protest struck a chord.
The videos went viral, swiftly greeted online with words of encouragement and praise, interspersed with the odd “how embarrassing”. Slowly, insults poured in as more people saw and shared the videos.
After hours of anger simmering in pro-Labour Facebook groups at the protest, the administrator’s calls to action redirected that rage.
During the morning of 22 April, the call to action was amplified and shared by related pages like Progressivi Qawra (Qawra Progressives), a Facebook page with 10,000 followers that intermingles graphic political images with adverts for electronic cigarettes (its administrator is into cross-selling).
Government officials chimed in, with among others, Mario Azzopardi, Minister Chris Cardona’s de facto Chief of Staff and the police commissioner’s cousin pushing the “share and shame” strategy.
What started as a trickle of grumbles turned into a flow of insults, becoming a deluge of hate.
Behind the scenes, group members re-purposed images previously used for Daphne Caruana Galizia, “the witch from Bidnija” (green background and blood-drip lettering) to create more shareable posters of Urso, this time adding the false message that she hates Malta, the Maltese, Labour and the Prime Minister.
Elsewhere a fake Facebook account with 14 friends further stoked the flames with a message “Tina Urso huwa confirmed li tohrog ma wiehed mit tfal ta Daphne” (It is confirmed that Tina Urso is dating one of Daphne’s [Caruana Galizia] sons).
The narrative was complete. Not only was Urso a female traitor shaming Malta overseas, but she also has an atavistic link to their target, Daphne Caruana Galizia.
The speed with which online hate travels is breathtaking.
Hundreds upon hundreds of insults piled onto Urso’s Facebook timeline. Insults became increasingly aggressive and morphed into threats. Elsewhere, someone volunteered her address. Others started sharing other photos of her ripped off her Facebook profile.
Mario Philip Azzopardi, artistic director for the controversial V18, added under the green photo with blood-drip lettering “what a sorry bitch!”. He later partly apologised – not to Urso, but to his Facebook friends – claiming rather unconvincingly that he was taken in by “fake news”.
Neville Gafa, a high ranking official within the Office of the Prime Minister, who was involved in a racket to sell medical visas to Libyans and who was reported to the police for stalking Daphne Caruana Galizia the day before her assassination, posted that Urso’s “threats” would not scare or stop him.
The same administrator who posted the original call to action shared Gafa’s post in the Labour groups to gather further exposure, adding comments like, “did your lover put you up to this?”, in reference to her supposed relationship with one of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s sons.
Things took a more macabre turn when the head of a private investigation company named Templar Charles, and evidently obsessed with the military, suggested that people turn up outside Urso’s house.
Urso has filed two police reports, but no security was offered by the police.
This series of events is just the latest in what is looking like an escalating trend towards online mobbing.
A history of abuse
Prior to the coordinated attack on Tina Urso, similar social media attacks were launched on MEPs like Roberta Metsola, Ana Gomes, Sven Giegold and Werner Langen, local opposition politicians – notably Marlene Farrugia – as well as activists’ pages, the Archbishop as well as European Commission members like Cecilia Malmstrom.
Their social media profiles still bear the scars in broken-English and badly written Maltese.
Many of the people involved in coordinating these online attacks are now government officials and who have become adept at instilling and directing rage at government critics.
Joseph Muscat’s repeated failure to distance himself and his government from such attacks and groups has served to embolden those involved.
While hate speech, threats and harassment are specific offences under Maltese law (what is illegal offline is also illegal online in relation to hate speech and abuse), punishable by imprisonment, enforcement in this area has only been noticeable by its absence.
There has been one successful prosecution in recent memory. Labour-supporter and 66-year-old pensioner Emmanuel Navarro commented on Facebook that MEP Roberta Metsola should be “burned alive”. Amidst cries to have Navarro let off, Navarro was granted bail in November and retracted his comment and apologised.
Joseph Muscat’s troll army: the Facebook groups manufacturing outrage and breeding hate
Laburisti Sal-Mewt [Labour Supporters to Death]
- Membership: 16,000 members (20,000 at peak).
- Privacy: Secret and closed group. Admins and moderators have access to official Labour Party lists and actively police this group by asking for Labour membership cards or ID card numbers.
- Administrators: Closely managed by six administrators and another six moderators. Main admin is Angele Camilleri (née Mamo). Others include a secretariat officer at the Ministry for Education and an IT officer from MCAST.
- Officials: Marie Louise Coleiro Preca (President of the Republic), Joseph Muscat (Prime Minister’s personal account), Keith Schembri (Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff), Konrad Mizzi (Minister of Tourism), Chris Cardona (Minister of the Economy), Glenn Bedingfield (MP and consultant to Prime Minister), Neville Gafa (consultant to Prime Minister), Tony Zarb (consultant to Prime Minister), Rosianne Cutajar (MP and consultant to Prime Minister), Robert Musumeci (consultant to Prime Minister) and Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando (Chair of Malta Council for Science and Technology).
- Activities: This group was the subject of scandals such as an administrator advertising and offering jobs to Labour supporters or organising state hospital doctor appointments for Labour supporters (see here). Presently the Group is also running a “charity”, ‘Kull Qatra Tghodd’ where Labour supporters unable to cope with the cost of living are offered the chance to get used furniture or other hand me downs. The group often shares polls on Times of Malta or the Independent inviting its members to vote one way or another.
Partit Laburista – Labour Party (Malta) [official]
- Membership: 12,300 members.
- Privacy: Public but closed.
- Administrators: Seven admins, including Kurt Farrugia (Government Head of Communications), Luke Dalli (Arts Council Malta), a “customer care” official at the Ministry for Justice and a One news “journalist”.
- Officials: Almost all Labour Party officials and government officials, including Marie Louise Coleiro Preca, Joseph Muscat (again his personal account), Konrad Mizzi, Chris Cardona, Neville Gafa, Kurt Farrugia, Rosianne Cutajar, and Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando.
- Activities: Dissemination of Labour Party propaganda and anti-Nationalist Party messaging. Prolific posters include a customer care representative at the Ministry of Justice, constantly celebrating Minister Owen Bonnici’s activity, and an employee of Labour Party-owned media house One, constantly posting pro-government video clips.
Kemm se nsibu Laburisti Fuq Facebook [How many Labour Supporters can we find on Facebook]
- Membership: 11,800 members.
- Privacy: Secret and closed.
- Administrators: Three admins, two of whom work with the Ministry for Justice and one works within the Labour Party. Originally started in 2011 by Jesmond Zammit.
- Officials: Marie Louise Coleiro Preca, Joseph Muscat (again his personal account), Konrad Mizzi, Chris Cardona, Neville Gafa, Kurt Farrugia, Rosianne Cutajar, and Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando.
Laburisti Maghqudin (United Labour Supporters)
● Membership: 4,800 members.
● Privacy: Secret and closed. Members are vetted for Labour credentials, whether by membership card or ID card.
● Administrators: Closely managed by many of the same administrators as Laburisti sal-Mewt. Main admin is Angele Camilleri (née Mamo) along with another three persons. Also includes eight moderators one of which works with the Ministry for Justice.
● Officials: Konrad Mizzi, Chris Cardona, Neville Gafa, Kurt Farrugia, Rosianne Cutajar, and Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando.
il prim ministru joseph muscat ghandu is sapport taghna lkoll [Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has all our support]
- Membership: 6,000 members.
- Privacy: Public but closed.
- Administrators: Administered by the same three people as Kemm se nsibu Laburisti fuq facebook.
- Officials: Marie Louise Coleiro Preca, Joseph Muscat (again his personal account), Keith Schembri, Konrad Mizzi, Chris Cardona, Kurt Farrugia, Tony Zarb, Rosianne Cutajar, Robert Musumeci, and Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando.
Moviment Laburista L-Laqwa Zmien Ta’ Pajjizna #Joseph #Muscat [Labour Movement the Best Times of our Country #Joseph #Muscat]
- Membership: 5,000 members.
- Privacy: Public but closed.
- Administrators: Administered by one person working with a private company (Malta clubbing events).
- Labour Party and Government officials: Members include Marie Louise Coleiro Preca, Joseph Muscat (again his personal account), Konrad Mizzi, Chris Cardona, Kurt Farrugia, Rosianne Cutajar, Robert Musumeci and Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando.