A decade before her assassination, Daphne Caruana Galizia wrote in October 2007 about a ‘spate of letters to the editors of all the English-language newspapers’ that ‘appear to have been written by the same hand’ and that followed ‘precisely the same format’, all critical of then Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi in the same way.
Caruana Galizia suspected that a group of people at Labour headquarters – she called them then opposition leader Alfred Sant’s ‘elves’ – wrote the letters. Her suspicion was confirmed a few days later when some of those people – Alexander Saliba, Nikita Zammit Alamango, and Aaron Farrugia, now all government officials – accidentally copied Malta Independent editor Stephen Calleja into an email discussion about their letter writing.
Saliba told his colleagues to read Caruana Galizia’s column to see ‘how effective our articles have been’ and how ‘we are riling the Nationalists’. He ended, ‘Proud to be one of those elves in Sant’s Grotto.’ The discussion also included calls addressed to ‘Elve [elf] Aar [Aaron Farrugia]’, ‘Elve Daniel’ and ‘Elve Andre’ to boost their letter writing.
Caruana Galizia uploaded a random comment generator onto Running Commentary to ‘make life a little easier for them’.
A decade later, we now see Labour Party activists and government officials have put online, scaled up, and intensified their campaign to spread misleading content.
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, opposition politicians, and Caruana Galizia’s family, including accusations that Caruana Galizia was assassinated by her own sons. Further investigation into these groups by The Shift News revealed that they are key in driving predictable and coordinated cycles that manipulates the news.
Starting today, The Shift News Disinformation Watch will publish a series of key disinformation examples, showing:
- How trolls associated with the Labour Party and government use disinformation in their digital harassment campaigns against activists, opposition politicians, and government critics to suppress dissent
- How those same trolls are used to propagate conspiracy theories about perceived enemies, including Caruana Galizia’s family, to slander and discredit government critics
- How the Labour Party’s network of Facebook groups coupled with the government’s large social media expenditure and its control of the state broadcaster have allowed it to dominate the online conversation and control public opinion
- How the Labour Party uses its mainstream media channels to lend legitimacy to online disinformation campaigns and bring them to an offline audience
- How the system of Facebook groups, trolls, and mainstream media are used to manufacture crises to deflect attention away from government corruption.
The examples The Shift News has seen so far show the use of trolls to amplify vitriolic harassment at scale, accusations of treason and collusion with foreign interests, the dissemination of hyper-partisan and slanderous disinformation about targets, doctored images and memes, misogyny and homophobia. Their goal is always the same: the use of disinformation to intimidate and silence targeted individuals, usually journalists, activists, and vocal members of the opposition.
The Shift News’ goal with Disinformation Watch is to fight against coordinated efforts aimed at silencing critics and the disappearance of objective truth.