We’ve all been the victims of lies propagated by those who prefer the truth to remain hidden. The cyber war being waged against government critics over the past week is just one aspect of the way Malta’s politicians, activists and political supporters use deceit and fabrication to destroy those they wish to silence.
Just over a month ago, the public inquiry into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia issued a chilling verdict on the Labour regime in power since 2013: the State itself had fostered and enabled a culture of impunity that led directly to the relentless dehumanisation, harassment and eventual murder of a journalist simply doing her job.
The prime minister’s lack of action on the report’s recommendations couldn’t have been highlighted more starkly than by what’s been happening over the past week to independent newsrooms across Malta.
Just weeks after the inquiry’s damning conclusions were published, the media has come under attack, with their websites being cloned, fake articles being circulated, and supposed email and message exchanges between anti-government activists and MPs being forwarded to newsrooms under the guise of press releases.
Whoever the actual creators of the mirror sites and fake content actually are, Robert Abela must take ownership of this debacle. The events that have taken place over the past few days are the direct result of his failure to do his job in this critical time for Malta.
His immediate response to the inquiry’s report should have been the establishment of an independent committee to formulate a strategy for the rapid implementation of the recommendations made by the public inquiry determining the State’s role in the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. And the protection of journalists, bloggers and the media as a whole from ever becoming the victims of targeted attacks like those carried out against Caruana Galizia should be first on that committee’s list.
The prime minister’s apathy and tardiness have meant the culture of impunity that turned Malta into a den of corruption and money laundering and led to the murder of the only journalist seriously trying to expose that wrongdoing is still as strong as it was four years ago.
The cloning of websites to publish fake news ostensibly issued by a trustworthy site is not a new problem, nor is it a particularly difficult one to solve. There’s been an element of over-reaction that is actually detracting from the seriousness of the problem.
The point is not that Manuel Delia has become a target for this kind of cyberbullying. Nor that Newsbook and Lovin Malta have also seen their websites cloned and fake content being bandied around the internet. Nor that PN MP Jason Azzopardi has been the target of several of the false press releases containing lies about him aimed at discrediting him with the public. Not even that Repubblika itself has fallen prey to the scammers.
It’s all wrong, of course. But the crucial point here is that the ugly environment that allows people to think they can get away with crimes such as these is still there, still as strong, still as unaddressed and still completely lacking any kind of remedial planning.
Nothing has changed. In this case, it’s absurdly clear that the malfeasance is clearly coming from the same general direction as that which sought to demonise Caruana Galizia, despite the few pathetic red herrings thrown in at the last minute.
But the issue of finding out who is behind the falsity shouldn’t be an impossible task. Malta’s police force has a cybercrime unit that should, theoretically, be able to pinpoint the malefactors fairly rapidly. PN MP Jason Azzopardi has said publicly that he knows exactly who is behind the whole caper, and that he even knows how much they’re paying to run this whole disinformation campaign.
If he does indeed know who the criminals behind this campaign are, then he should speak up about it. It’s become one of the nastiest and most disconcerting aspects of Maltese politics that MPs behave like village gossips, whispering half-truths, tapping the sides of their noses, claiming full knowledge but letting slip only teasing tidbits.
Of course, Delia, Newsbook, Lovin Malta and the rest of the newsrooms that fell prey to this barrage of deceit, reported the attacks to the police. Unfortunately, though, Abela’s failure to act on any of the recommendations of the public inquiry means also that the cybercrime unit, long underfunded and understaffed, is almost powerless to achieve any meaningful results.
And so, amid the inevitable uproar that has ensued, it might be worth viewing these most recent events using a broader lens than the one we’ve been operating so far.
Quite apart from the distress this has clearly caused to the victims, websites have long been manipulated to prop up or tear down a person’s credibility.
In 2018, The Shift reported on a fake news portal with stories aimed at attacking Socialist MEP Ana Gomez. Stories that were enthusiastically replicated by pro-government media and Labour MPs in an effort to discredit Gomez and her work.
The Shift also reported on a fictitious Facebook account aimed squarely at spreading rumours about the government’s perceived enemies including the family of slain journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, MEP David Casa, as well as businesses that are thought to support organisations calling for justice for Caruana Galizia.
In January 2020, The Shift wrote about how Dutch MP and Council of Europe Special Rapporteur Pieter Omtzigt had his Wikipedia page manipulated.
In April that same year, The Shift also reported a fake version of Malta Today promoting Keith Schembri, including a favourable article about the disgraced former chief of staff as well as a personal website showcasing his rags to riches stories. Both websites were swiftly taken down following The Shift’s report.
Daphne Caruana Galizia had also reported in 2017 that a fake website masquerading as an official site for the Nationalist Party leader, Simon Busuttil, was set up in the midst of the electoral campaign. It was taken down following legal action.
The Shift’s news portal itself has been subjected to multiple cyberattacks ever since it was founded. Our journalists, too, have been the subject of online attacks. Reports to the cybercrime unit have never led to anything concrete, despite their best efforts.
The implications of having a large portion of Malta’s independent media so rapidly and easily compromised, risking seriously overwhelming the cybercrime unit in the run-up to a general election, is the most alarming aspect of this entire debacle.