The disinformation that accompanied the pandemic was used in many countries as an excuse to encroach on press freedom, restrict access to information and limit people’s rights.
In Malta, the government continued to use tools and tactics that had worked so well in previous years, while cultivating new ones – they were not only related to the pandemic but focused on self-preservation.
So, this year, they will be reviewed using The Shift’s very own disinformation ranking. Let it not be said that we’re always “negative” around here.
Coming in first place: The most persistent strategies
In first place, we have a tie. At the top of the list are the most persistent disinformation strategies used by the government and its propaganda vehicles for trying to downplay the gravity of the pandemic on the island and for the repeated attempts to discredit the public inquiry into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Attempts to discredit the public inquiry started well before the board was even set up, with former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat telling a BBC crew in Brussels in 2018 he wasn’t convinced “…that a second public inquiry – whatever that means – can lead to a better result or not”. Once the public inquiry started at the end of 2019, government officials and their supporters ramped up their efforts to subtly undermine (pardon the split infinitive) the process.
The disinformation tactics that followed primarily consisted of labelling the inquiry as a waste of time and public funds and claiming that it is biased against the government. The phrase “political exercise” would go on to be repeated over and over by disgraced former minister Konrad Mizzi, junior minister Rosianne Cutajar and disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat as well as by the lawyers appearing for government officials.
Other discrediting strategies involved Prime Minister Robert Abela, declaring in September that he had “reservations about the way in which the inquiry is failing to keep to the terms of reference given to it” and that he will only grant a “one-time” extension for the board to conclude its investigation, defending this stance by claiming that prolonging the inquiry would only cause further damage. Presumably, to the Labour Party.
Ahead of lifting the COVID-19 precautionary measures in July, Abela dismissed the possibility of a second wave of the pandemic with what would become one of his boldest catchphrases in oceanographic studies: “I heard a lot of things about the second wave this and second wave that – waves are in the sea.”
As the COVID-19 positive cases continued to rise, hitting a record high in mid-August, those with a vested economic interest in downplaying the situation wasted no time in spreading disinformation on their social media pages by labelling health officials, journalists and critics as “fear-mongers”. The Labour Party also released a video entitled, ‘The Truth about the COVID-19 Situation in Malta’. In it, a number of data charts were carefully selected in order to give the impression that the situation in Malta was under control.
Videos and images related to the COVID-19 pandemic continue to circulate but the focus has now shifted to the vaccine, where government videos and photos are making it seem as if Abela single-handedly negotiated Malta’s vaccine acquisition and distribution, making no mention of the pan-European effort behind it.
Clinching their second place: The most implausible
The second-place goes to the government and its mouthpieces for its projections of excess ‘positivity’. In the year 2020, everything the government touched turned into the metaphorical gold. Take the Rule of Law reforms, for example, that, according to Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis, were awarded the accolade of “Best Practice” by the European Commission’s first annual Rule of Law Report.
We were told not to fret about the hundreds of daily COVID-19 positive cases that continue to this day because these could have been in thousands. In 2020, Malta passed the ‘best budget ever’ and our unemployment rate, despite the pandemic, seems to have fallen under 3000 – so, everything is working just fine. Never mind that this number is likely to be much higher if you take into account those individuals who may not use a particular service to find work or those on the GWU’s books.
If you’re not positive, well then, your government can’t help you because it is you who’s wrong. About everything.
— BugM (@bugdavem) December 23, 2020
And finally, in third place: The most unimaginative
This hyper positivity espoused by Abela is merely an extension of the tactic used by his predecessor, disgraced former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and his supporters who have been promoting their brand of ‘positivity’ since 2013. Which is why third place goes to this rather tired tactic of ramming positivity down the public’s throat, where any criticism and questioning the government’s actions is equated with ‘negativity’, even treason.
Government critics are forever “ashamed” of their country or they are “traitors” or sullying Malta’s good name. It is a language pattern that was identified in 2018 under Muscat and continued well into 2020 with Robert Abela.
Language disinformation patterns this year also included a set of phrases that government officials bandied about for most of the summer. These included hackneyed statements about ‘institutions working’, ‘continuity’ and ‘missing documents’.
Another thing that seems to have been very much missing this year was top government officials’ accountability. When called to testify during the public inquiry, all the answers sounded the same.
They weren’t responsible for any of the dark deals that spread through all levels of government during the term of office of the former Prime Minister. They saw nothing and heard nothing. They simply cashed their paycheques and minded their own ministerial backyards. Some did not remember what happened there either.
Disinformation phrases of the year
To conclude our list, here are some of the phrases that we’ve seen appear often this year and what they really mean.
“Awaiting the magisterial inquiry”
Used since 2016 as a political tool by both politicians and the police for cases neither want to investigate.
“Waves are in the sea”
This statement did not age well.
“There’s no conflict of interest”
Say those whose conflict of interest is so big that they have been engulfed by it and can therefore no longer see it.
Giving oneself a break from public life while buying my boss some time so they can figure out what to do with me.
That’s right, isn’t everything?