I once robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. I’m very proud of that fact.
No, really. I had a bow and arrows — well, it was a quiver of fake arrows, but someone must have thought they were real — and forest green tights. I even had a band of Merry Men.
You see, I was Robin Hood.
It was the 5th grade play at St. Joseph’s elementary school, and Mrs Adamson had chosen me, a relative newcomer, for the lead role. It remains the high point of my stage career. But I clearly haven’t milked that one-night performance enough, because if I choose to view the world through the lens of It-Torċa, I was actually a social justice hero in felt slippers.
It seems ridiculous to have to say it — at least, to anyone older than the age of five — but I’ll sigh and say it anyway. I was as much of a 5th grade revolutionary as the actress Pia Zammit is a Nazi.
Actors are not the roles they portray. Bad guys in movies aren’t really bad guys, they’re just pretending to be one in order to tell a story. Similarly, journalists aren’t the villains in a story but they’re still targeted as the messenger.
It doesn’t mean that I can’t hate Grand Moff Tarkin for giving the order to destroy the planet Alderaan. But if I start acting as though I thought that scene from Star Wars was real, then I should be given psychological help.
Why, then, do people fall for online manipulation that’s basically telling them the same thing? Or, more accurately, why are we willing to pretend that something obviously and transparently false is real in order to push a political agenda or a personal grudge?
When the newspaper It-Torċa published a backstage photo of actress Pia Zammit in costume from a 2009 production of the play ‘Allo ‘Allo, the ‘reporter’ expressed outrage that Zammit was wearing a swastika, implying that the outspoken Civil Society activist and member of both Occupy Justice and Repubblika, was, in fact, a Nazi sympathiser.
The writers of such articles are not journalists, of course. They are willing stooges obediently taking down and printing what they’re told to print. And this is not an isolated incident. It’s the grinding into motion of the government-sanctioned machine used to silence critics who dare to become too vocal.
Pia Zammit’s case followed the usual pattern.
Once the story had been planted in the news media, the image was picked up and circulated by closed social media groups, the same private Facebook groups exposed by The Shift News as being a tool of propaganda and hate messaging used to target critics of the governing Labour Party.
Far from reigning in their rabid followers in these private groups — where senior government officials are members — they tacitly encouraged the spread of this meme by saying nothing.
Social media has spawned a very strange world where perceptions are as good as reality, where ‘alternative facts’ are the new truth, and where people with an obvious agenda manipulate images, video and quotes to destroy someone’s reputation. Thanks to technology and the rapid, uncritical spread of information, this has never been easier.
Being called a Nazi isn’t the worse thing that could happen to someone. Being an accused sex offender, child molester or racist is worse. But they all share a common stench. The distasteful aura of the accusation hangs around long after a person has proven themselves innocent.
An old photo like this backstage image of Pia Zammit in costume is dug out of the archives, misrepresented and deliberately circulated in order to discredit and stir up hatred against an outspoken critic. It is done with the knowledge that others who may have spoken out will think twice about exposing themselves to the same treatment.
After all, if this could happen to Pia Zammit, what’s to stop them from doing it to you? It’s already happened to activists Tina Urso and Sasha Vella, as well as The Shift’s editor, Caroline Muscat.
Attacks on free speech don’t just involve outright physical violence, like burning down The Times of Malta building or ransacking the Opposition leader’s house and punching his wife in the face – incidents that took place under the former Labour administration led by Dom Mintoff.
Free speech is also censored by creating a situation where the critics of the government are publicly attacked through threats, ridicule and character assassination.
It’s high school bullying taken to the level of a country, and it creates a climate of fear.
Is it any surprise that the rest of Europe continues to question the rule of law in Malta, and to feel uneasy about the government-condoned thuggery taking place on its southern fringes?