Monday 19 April 2021

How social media skewed an election campaign

This article first appeared in Malta Today 

Although I was as stunned as everyone else at the sheer extent of Labour’s win, the indications that the Nationalist Party was out of step with the zeitgeist were always there.

Even before the election was called I had already pointed out that, “People will believe whom they want to believe”.

But perhaps the biggest red flag was when I wrote on 14th May that “It’s never a good idea to insult those whose vote you are after”.

It seems to me that if one had to encapsulate the public mood to explain this overwhelming majority vote in favour of PL, and particularly the continued popularity of Muscat, those were two of the main themes which really made the difference to the outcome. The Egrant allegations have, to date, remained just that and Busuttil’s refusal to put his position on the line if they turned out to be false, dented his credibility much more than he realized. Then there were all the other “little” news stories which kept emerging, not as damning as Egrant but still intended to tarnish the Labour Government, which turned out to be well, not quite as they appeared. So people were wondering: if truth is on your side, why is there this need to twist facts or spin about things such as the voting documents not being valid, about Muscat blaming Russian interference when he didn’t, about saying he threatened the Magistrate when he didn’t…and the list goes on.

In contrast to a time when the media controlled information through gatekeeping, today, any news can be easily checked, with a simple click and a quick search. Information is at the tip of your fingertips for those who are concerned with finding out the truth, rather than those whose job it is to spin. When Muscat’s trust ratings remained steadily higher than Busuttil’s, why didn’t anyone in the PN camp take stock and address this crucial issue? Why was it that, despite the irrefutable existence of the Panama Papers, the electorate still considered Muscat more trustworthy?

Of course, I know that there are those who prefer a different narrative: that people who voted PL “don’t mind corruption” at the top, as long as they are doing quite well for themselves and that everyone who voted Labour was “bought”. I have my reservations about this kind of reasoning, primarily because it implies that everyone on the other side of the political divide is some kind of Mother Theresa. I think it is naive and even misleading to keep insisting that one side stands for values, honesty and good governance while the other is just plain amoral. This is patently not true, because we have already starting seeing the kind of behaviour from elected PN politicians which reeks of self-interest and lack of integrity.

And I still do not think this narrative can explain this landslide victory in the face of everything which was relentlessly thrown at the Muscat administration not just over the last six weeks, but from the very first day it took office in 2013.

The reason that the avalanche of mud thrown (some of it quite justified, of course) seems to have had astonishingly little effect, is because the whole island has been operating in a parallel universe. Online, especially on social media, the anger at what seemed like a free-for-all at the top was definitely gaining momentum, especially among the PN grassroots and core vote, which is always the first essential step in guaranteeing a groundswell of popular support. However, every time I stepped outside and away from the online world, it was like I had entered a different dimension. Over the course of this campaign I kept remarking on this phenomenon: the tension, the aggro, the bickering and the passionate partisan arguments were all taking place on social media. But I never came across it in the real world, no matter where I went.

Facebook turned into a battleground, and it quickly became obvious that both parties had despatched its people to try and convert as many undecided or floating voters as possible. They were everywhere, swarming on every conversation and thread, the PN supporters banging away at the same theme of Panama, Egrant and corruption while the PL supporters resorted to dredging up PN’s past transgressions. Those who needed no convincing were going to vote PN anyway, those who kept demanding proof were going to vote Labour anyway, but I could sense that where it really mattered – among the floating voters – not everything was quite right. They retreated and clammed up until FB was split firmly into two entrenched camps. As unfollowing and unfriending became rife, we ended up with two separate echo chambers where if you have 500 friends who move in the same social circles, who think and vote exactly like you, and you are all nodding your heads in agreement behind your screens, it was so very easy to be lulled into the belief that “everyone” was on the same wavelength.

Never was the phrase: “you should get out more”, more fitting. So while social media was used relentlessly, it was also skewing reality, which is why the PN’s perceptions of the electoral pulse were so off.

I am convinced that this was the fallacy which made the Nationalist party and its supporters truly believe they had a chance of winning this election. The statements were so loud and strong on FB that they believed the majority felt like them. Only the reality was that the majority which was going to make the 35,000 difference was elsewhere, either not logging on to FB at all because it had become too ‘heavy’ and unpleasant, or simply keeping quiet and reading everything so they could made up their own minds. Meanwhile, they were also out and about, living their lives and just trying to get along.

Which brings me to the other point: the never-ending derogatory talk against those who vote Labour, even if they have only voted Labour once or even if they were merely contemplating the heinous crime of possibly voting Labour again. Anyone who worked or co-operated with the PL was also an easy target. The shriller the insults, the more the Labour hardcore and the moderates joined forces determined to defy this hostility. It drove them underground, so to the speak, but they were there nonetheless. As the sneers and jibes infiltrated the mainstream (as it has been steadily doing since 2008) the more anyone remotely affiliated to Labour, even if it was just a great-grandmother somewhere in their bloodline, drew closer in solidarity against this growing wall dividing “us” and “them”. In the end it was not a vote in favour of corruption at all (a mantra which had long ceased to register) but a vote against this inexplicable hate of the “other”.
And finally, there were the unforgivable attempts to destabilize the Maltese economy through the spreading of unverified rumours (it was always “someone told me” that an (unnamed) financial services company or gaming company was leaving). On the eve of the election people were receiving warning messages and understandably panicking, terrified of losing their jobs. This was another turning point where voters wondered: Was the thirst for power so great that the PN was happy to see Malta collapse and brought to its knees as long as they won? And then what? Who was going to “save the day?” The same people who had trash talked about Malta all over Europe, and even beyond?

Ultimately, what was being presented to them from one side seemed more uncertain and murky than the certainty and good leadership being presented to them by the other. And yet even as I write, the disdain, ridicule and social class prejudice continue, blaming voters for being “ignorant” and self-serving. But I suppose this is just another example of human nature where it is so much easier to point fingers than to do some deep soul-searching until one finally admits to one’s self what the real problem is.

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