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Manufacturing consent: How secret online groups feed the cycles of spin

The power of a cycle is that it first neutralises, and then makes dangerous, criticism of the government, the Labour Party and State institutions.

Prior to The Shift News investigation into pro-Muscat online groups, few people outside these groups peddling hate were aware of their scale and operation. Further investigation into these groups by The Shift News reveals that they form a key part of (and are used to drive) predictable and coordinated cycles that manipulate the news.

Last week, The Shift News revealed a large network of secret and closed pro-Muscat Facebook groups that are now administered by government and Labour Party officials. Amid repeated diversions and half-truths, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and many senior government officials remain members of these 60,000 member-strong groups replete with hate speech and routinely used to manipulate online polls in the government’s favour or co-ordinate online ‘mobbings’ on critics or activists.

Investigations show these groups are also being used to drive an agenda; in the process twisting events and the news around it. The typical series of events observed involves Labour Party activists manufacturing a scandal, passing the manufactured scandal onto Labour Party controlled media, using those media reports to bait pro-Muscat group members into reacting with outrage, and who then direct their hate at individual citizens and anti-corruption activists.

Tracing the latest cycle

Traffic policeman Simon Schembri was seriously injured on 15 May by 17-year old Liam Debono, who was known to the police and is now charged with attempted murder.

Shortly after, 21-year-old Kylie Cutajar, 28-year-old Josef D’Amato and 28-year-old Ritmark Borg posted distasteful comments in an obscure corner of Facebook making light of the incident. Someone took screenshots of that conversation and prepared them for sharing in one side-by-side image.

The president of the Police Officers Union of the General Workers Union, Sandro Camilleri, reacted strongly to Cutajar’s original Facebook post, claiming it represented a societal hatred of the police force.

Camilleri, who is a member of the largest pro-Muscat online group and often cited or tagged in posts within it, spent some four days on a whirlwind of interviews – appearing to cry in one of them – pushing this claim.

The Police Act (Chapter 164, 2nd Schedule, Article 24, 6e) states that police officers should ensure impartiality. It addresses the issue of discipline with regards to “discreditable conduct” by police who: “do not abstain from any political activity or canvassing or from any activity which is likely to interfere with the loyal and impartial discharge of his duties, or which is likely to give rise to the impression among members of the public that it may so interfere”.

Over the following days, Cutajar, D’Amato, and Borg’s Facebook comments were manufactured into a national scandal that sought to lay the blame for Schembri’s alleged attempted murder, not with the troubled 17-year old Debono, but with anti-corruption activists critical of the government and the police commissioner who has failed to act on evidence of corruption.

Labour Party controlled media, including ONE News and INews, inflated Camilleri’s claims into a broadside levelled at individuals and civil society groups who have been actively protesting corruption, incompetence and government interference in the police force in the wake of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination on the 16 October.

There was only a seven-minute difference between one of Camilleri’s posts on social media and an article on ONE News quoting it.

Labour Party activists then placed the manufactured narrative – that these activists laid the ground for Schembri’s alleged attempted murder – across pro-Muscat online groups, framing it in increasingly incendiary language.

Cutajar posted a subsequent facebook post explaining that the original post and comments by her were intended, perhaps misguidedly, as satire not incitement to violence. This second post was later subjected to some 500 online insults and threats including from a certain Templar Charles (previously also involved with the online mobbing of Tina Urso) who at his third insult said, “we will not stop until you shut down your facebook”.

Cutajar shut down her facebook account shortly after to end the onslaught.

One Labour Party activist, Ethelbert Schembri, posted: ‘All those attacking the police corp for political reasons, undermined the work of the police. So yes: YOU HAVE BLOOD ON YOUR HANDS!’

Shareable memes (internet graphic posters) were also spouted out by linked pages such as Progressivi Qawra, Reqes Itlam (Seqer Malti), a fake account called “Joe Camilleri” (who tags his memes with a cartoon monk) and countless others. 

Posts were then directed at specific anti-corruption activists in a process called “hate baiting,” where the person posting knowingly invites an extremely reactionary group of online users to hate the subject of their post.

One post cropped the photograph of a young woman activist with a poster quoting NWA’s iconic protest song, protesting police inaction in the face of corruption outside the Floriana police headquarters in the immediate aftermath of Caruana Galizia’s assassination.

Group members called the young activist a ‘bitch’, ‘hamalla’(chav), ‘harra [sic] mmerraq’ (juicy/wet shit), ‘hmiec’ [sic.] (filth), ‘kerha’ (ugly), ‘sahara’ [sic.] (witch), aside from countless ‘fuck you’ and ‘fuck your family’ comments, as well as stranger insults like ‘black spiders’ and ‘jarhead’.

Large internet groups such as these are ideal, essentially taking advantage of social media’s echo chamber effect by grouping up people with similar beliefs and throwing inflammatory topics into their sights. Within such groups hate is allowed to build up until, inevitably, it spills over whether into public groups, online newspaper comment boards or elsewhere.

As hate spread across the network of pro-Muscat Facebook groups, the narrative frothed back over into the mainstream. In this stage of the cycle, Labour Party and government representatives exploited momentum in the powered-up narrative and shared posts on it openly.

Labour Party MEP Marlene Mizzi described Schembri’s alleged attempted murder as the ‘collateral damage’ of the undermining of authorities to ‘fuel an agenda’.

Labour Party and government employee Karl Stagno Navarra, whose defrauding of creditors earned him the nickname il-Frodist (the fraudster), supported Mizzi’s post, linking her argument back to photographs of anti-corruption activists.

Their message is unsubtle: “it is these anti-corruption activists, who criticise our government and our police force, who are to blame for the attempt on Simon Schembri’s life.”

A cycle reaches its peak when senior government and State officials, many of whom are members and administrators of the pro-Muscat hate groups, use the narrative in official settings.

Four days after Schembri’s alleged attempted murder, Muscat told a public services conference that civil society must respect the Malta Police Force, which a recent cross-party delegation of MEPs found to have failed to act on evidence of serious criminal activity by his chief of staff Keith Schembri, tourism minister Konrad Mizzi, and close business associates Brian Tonna and Karl Cini. This has led to criticism of the police commissioner, specifically.

Muscat’s comments, as those by other Ministers, MPs and government officials, were designed to neutralise justified criticism of government interference and corruption in the police force.

Cutajar, D’Amato, and Borg have now been charged with inciting violence, inciting people to commit crimes, and misusing electronic equipment. Magistrate Joseph Mifsud, denied them bail saying the case must serve as an example. His decision (or parts of it that suit the Muscat narrative) are now being shared within the same groups.

Mifsud was appointed to the bench under Muscat. He was previously Labour Party International Secretary and a long-time staffer on Labour Party newspaper Kullhadd.

No charges have been brought against any individuals who have been inciting violence against anti-corruption activists.

Nor have any charges been brought against the individuals that The Shift News revealed to be inciting violence, including calls for sexual violence, against civil society activists, journalists, opposition politicians, and Caruana Galizia’s family across these hate groups over at least the past six months.

Hate cycles go on and on

A cycle posted on Twitter by BugM.

The hate cycle that Labour Party activists developed on Schembri’s alleged attempted murder is the latest cycle of many that have followed the same pattern.

When civil society activists and concerned citizens gathered outside the police headquarters for a sit-in protest in the immediate aftermath of Caruana Galizia’s assassination, they wrote messages critical of the police force on paper, folded them into paper aeroplanes, and threw them over the gates.

The hate cycle exploited these photographs casting them as acts of physical aggression against the police. Someone found the time to painstakingly sift through over 100 paper planes with messages to find two messages written, or planted, clearly having the same handwriting.

Much like police inspector Camilleri pushing his narrative across Labour Party controlled media over the past week, these ‘threatening’ paper aeroplanes were passed on to Labour Party-owned ONE news and Labour Party MP and Muscat-aide Glenn Bedingfield.

Their coverage of these paper aeroplanes was then shared and distributed across the network of pro-Muscat hate groups and pages on Facebook from where they were shared onwards by government employees and countless pro-Muscat troll accounts.

This spread to mainstream news with reports of the paper aeroplanes receiving coverage in newspapers like The Malta Independent and State broadcaster TVM.

The next stage in the cycle was home affairs minister Michael Farrugia, who is responsible for the police force, decrying the ‘threatening’ paper aeroplanes in parliament and using them to condemn anti-corruption activists. Bedingfield also abled a copy of the paper aeroplanes in parliament.

The cycle reached a worrying point when, under pressure from government officials and under attack from an army of online trolls, civil society groups and opposition politicians were cornered into apologising for the ‘threatening’ paper aeroplanes.

The power of a cycle like this is that it first neutralises, and then makes dangerous, criticism of the government, the Labour Party and State institutions.

As Cutajar, D’Amato and Borg found out, a hate cycle’s main power is in its ability to direct mass hate at specific individuals and justify the selective application of punishment.

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