Potholes and the government meme machine

A hole is not a hole in the upside-down world of Malta. No, sir. That gaping space you swerved around on the new Marsa flyover is progress!

We know this is true because Minister Ian Borg said so with great insistence when speaking to The Times of Malta.

“It’s not a pothole,” he said. “Can you appreciate, it’s not a pothole? It’s not a pothole. I told you what it is.”

“A gaping hole…?” the journalist replied.

The Minister should know he can’t get upset by follow-up questions when he just contradicted the reality everyone else lives in.

But that disjointed expansion is most definitely not a hole, and I think we all know what to expect next: more memes to back it up. Memes on Facebook and Twitter, and memes on giant billboards across the island.

Yes, you read that right. Rather than reassure people that health and safety measures are in place, this government pukes out infantile cartoons.

They attempt to display their incredible grasp of numbers, but as far as I can see, their powers are closer to those of a magician than a statistician. Minister Borg’s department is especially fond of numbers that defy reason, with no explanation to say where they came from.

Take this billboard from Infrastructure Malta, for example. “3.8km of new lanes. 30% less travel time.”

Where did that data come from?

“30% less” compared to what? Compared to the average rush hour drive between Sliema and Marsascala? Or compared to a 2am drive from Dingli to Rabat?

This meme also deliberately muddles correlation and causality. Even if the alleged statistic were true, how do we know this miraculous 30% savings in travel time was caused by 3.8km of new lanes? Could it have been due to the time of day, or school being out, or a random absence of accidents and roadwork?

We’re just supposed to take Captain Cartoon’s word for it. And yet, talk to anyone stuck in traffic because a minor car accident happened on the road ahead, and they’re trapped for an hour.

As my dad used to say when Canada switched from imperial to metric, “It must be that new math.”

This claim is even bolder:

“50% less travel time, more quality time for you.” Okay… What exactly does that mean?

Are they saying spending 50% less time in traffic means I will have more quality time? That’s stating the obvious. But what’s missing is the substance.

They place their rather random claim on an image of a cartoon car driving down an empty road — a car with the steering wheel on the wrong side, incidentally. And below it, a logo for the Central Link Project and the blurb, ‘facts count’ (this is the PR for the project in which Media Today Managing Editor Saviour Balzan was involved).

This is obviously meant to imply that the Central Link Project will cut your commuting time in half. But they don’t actually say this, and so they can’t be expected to back such a claim if they’re called on it. ‘Le le le,’ they could say, “we just meant in general’.

They’re right about one thing. Facts certainly do matter. I would improve my travel time by a significantly greater margin than 50% if I worked from home, or if I was unemployed. But does this mean I’m better off?

I could also interpret it as meaning that taking fewer holiday breaks gives me more quality time. I’d be travelling 50% less, wouldn’t I?

Here’s another infographic accolade. 2,200 trees planted, and a promise that they’ll plant 4,500 more in the “coming months”.

When exactly is that supposed to be? How many trees did they cut down? And are the ‘trees’ they claim to be planting actually trees? It isn’t enough to stick twigs in the ground. They have to survive to maturity.

In this one, we’re reminded again that “facts count”, and we’re told “cleaner air, 66% less particulate matter emissions”.

Are they saying that, in order for air to be cleaner, it should have 66% less particulate matter emissions? Or are they actually claiming that Malta’s air is cleaner? If so, cleaner than what? Cairo? 

Eurostat reports — using actual verifiable numbers — that Malta recorded “by far the highest share of its population reporting that they had been exposed to pollution, grime or other environmental problems” in 2017 — the highest in the entire EU.

Malta is also currently the 8th worst country in the world for levels of asthma, behind Kuwait, Egypt and Congo. That’s not very surprising when you consider Malta has missed every single EU emissions target since 2013, the only country in the union to manage that feat.

These silly memes are propaganda, not substance. And they normalise a substandard level in all governance issues. But it isn’t just Orwellian infographics where these Ministers are exercising their creativity.

They’re also rather careless with the truth when it comes to verbal pontification. Minister Borg is apparently going to reduce pollution through the cunning strategy of…. more roads and cars. Is there anything this Minister can’t do?

To be fair, Borg isn’t the only Minister using random memes to create the illusion of statistical success. I don’t mean to pick on Captain Cartoon. Infrastructure Malta is just one of the more prolific posters of such empty propaganda.

Here’s one from Konrad Mizzi’s Facebook page:

In the text included with this post, the Minister is bragging that the government has increased employment by 90%, thereby putting another 230,000 people into the labour market.

I have two questions. Did he mean to write “the Labour market”, as in ‘persons of trust’?

And given that the population of the entire country is 493,559, at least officially, is he saying that half the country was out of work before he came along? It must be that #KonradMizziEffect again.

This entire thing is nothing more than a false advertising campaign paid for with your tax money.

Look a little closer and it isn’t difficult to see that these random claims do not reflect your day to day reality. And as we saw with the gaping hole in the brand new Marsa flyover, the frantic bulldozing of the landscape has nothing to do with the quality of work being performed or the long term benefits.

Speaking of which… You know that new wavy stretch they built on the Mellieħa Bypass last year? The one that always makes the kiddies scream like they’re on a roller coaster? Turns out it wasn’t deliberate.

Borg is ‘Getting Things (Re)Done’ — and you’ll have the pleasure of paying for it.

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