The wave of disinformation in the week that immediately followed the Labour Party’s electoral victory was as predictable as it was noteworthy.
It was predictable because the narratives conveyed last week were almost identical to every single notion disseminated by Labour Party propagandists following the same party’s victory in 2017.
The disinformation was noteworthy because every idea was framed using negative campaigning, also known as ‘negativity bias’, an effective tactic at the core of the governing party’s propaganda that has a lasting effect on those who consume it.
Two very distinct trends can be identified in much of the Labour Party’s public discourse in the week that followed its electoral success. The first is the identification and blaming of individuals/organisations for the Nationalist Party’s defeat, and the second is the persistent emphasis on discord within the Nationalist Party.
It’s your fault we won
Not content with simply winning the elections, and even as Prime Minister Robert Abela was asserting how humbled he was and how he would yet again “seek national unity”, Labour Party propagandists and supporters immediately took to social media to single out those ‘others’ for the Nationalist Party’s electoral defeat.
One example of this is the list that was published on 28 March on one of the Labour Party’s largest Facebook groups ‘Bejn il-Ħbieb Laburisti’. The list was created to ‘thank’ those that helped the Labour Party win the elections.
The list singles out private individuals, civil society groups, independent media outlets, individual bloggers and select members of the Opposition. The comments beneath the Facebook post also include additions to the list.
This idea was further elaborated in opinion pieces penned by Labour Party stalwarts such as Desmond Zammit Marmara, and government PR consultants like Saviour Balzan, who push the same concept: that of associating civil society groups, individual bloggers and independent media critical of the Labour government with the Nationalist Party, leading to the ‘incontrovertible conclusion’ that this association contributed the Nationalist Party’s electoral losses.
These ideas are reminiscent of the 2017 elections. At the time, not only was journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia’s face plastered on campaign billboards along with members of the Opposition but she was then blamed for the PN’s electoral defeat of that year. They did the same to Manuel Delia this year.
Plenty of column space was taken up emphasising Caruana Galizia’s role in the Nationalist Party’s defeat in 2017. Martin Scicluna, for example, wrote that the PN should formally disassociate itself from the journalist. Saviour Balzan had questioned whether there was any truth in any of Caruana Galizia’s revelations of government corruption and wrote that the Nationalist Party was “using her as their reference point and building their campaign on her passion for vitriol and imaginary stories”.
Last week, after another Labour Party victory, Balzan penned a similar piece. This time, he said The Shift was a “reference point”. Old habits die hard.
Another striking similarity to the Labour’s 2017 post-election spin is the renewed vigour with which the Labour Party repeatedly emphasises – real or perceived – division or internal strife within the Nationalist Party.
Examples include Minister Silvio Schembri ‘advising’ the Nationalist Party to get rid of those politicians who only “spit out spite and hatred” referring to the group of Nationalist politicians who had in the past objected to Adrian Delia as Party Leader.
It also includes articles on the Labour Party media channels dedicated to describing ‘turbulence’ within the Nationalist Party following the election’s results and the ‘pressure’ on Bernard Grech to stay on (or resign) as Party Leader.
In June 2017, the same ‘pressure’ and ‘turbulence’ within the Nationalist Party was also emphasised. Simon Busuttil, who was the Leader at the time, immediately resigned from his role along with the entire Party administration not long after Nationalist Party’s defeat in the general elections.
Nobody is contesting the fact that the Nationalist Party needs to coalesce into a robust opposition. What is being highlighted here is the lengths to which government propaganda goes to underscore discord and division, and to create it if necessary.
The point is that sustaining the idea of a divided opposition ultimately suits the Party in government.
The lasting effects of ‘negativity bias’
Every discourse that emerged on the governing party’s social media and news channels last week, whether it was blaming others, describing a fractured opposition, or even the simple crawling out of the woodwork to mock and insult those campaigning for justice for Daphne Caruana Galizia, had one thing in common – ‘negative bias’.
No matter how often Robert Abela and the Labour Party preach ‘positivity’ and ‘serenity’ and hypocritically equate criticism of wrongdoing with ‘negativity’, the post-electoral propaganda spin focused as much on the Nationalist Party’s defeat as it did on Labour’s victory and that is not coincidental.
Studies of how people process information based on how it’s presented to them have found that the benefit of negative attacks — from a political campaign standpoint — is that they influence everyone. Even a Party’s supporters will be affected by negative attacks because once a negative idea has been planted, it’s very hard to shake.
This idea may partially explain why a lot of the post-electoral propaganda chatter included efforts to blame civil society groups, independent journalists and private individuals for the Nationalist Party’s defeat and why so much is being written about the PN’s internal strife.
By focusing on the Nationalist Party’s internal division, real or perceived, you may be tempted to forget that the Party presented a raft of Bills in parliament that incorporated all the major recommendations made by the board of the public inquiry tasked with establishing the extent of the State’s role in Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination.
By labelling government critics ‘negative’, ‘traitors’, ‘elitist’ or even ‘the establishment’, government propagandists are assigning a negative frame to them that has a good chance of sticking, no matter what they do.
By associating independent newsrooms with a political party, one might be tempted to forget the stories and investigations that they publish daily about government wrongdoing and the waste of public funds. The list is endless.
It is unclear how much more post-electoral analyses and advice we may have to plough through but as we do, it helps to consider how issues or opinions are being presented to readers and to ask ourselves to what extent has negative campaigning all but killed Malta’s public debate, and who benefits from such smothering.