Wednesday 28 February 2024

Perceptions, urban myths and public sympathy

This column first appeared in Malta Today

As unsettling and disquieting as it may be, there are a lot of advantages to having a political crisis unfold in real time on social media.

First of all, it is much easier today than it was say, in the 70s or 80s to spot fake news and debunk it as soon as possible. In fact, attempting to verify what is true or not true over these last few weeks has been as much of a challenge as actually digesting the real news without our minds being blown.

Take the cute doggy story which made so many people go “awww”, which I first read on Newsbook (the RTK online portal) and which went viral and ended up on The Guardian. As it turned out, yes, the dog had sniffed out undeclared cash carried by a Libyan passenger,  but no it was not traced back to Melvin Theuma, the middleman in the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder case. Theuma had been under suspicion for being the middleman since May 2018 and was finally  arrested on an alleged illegal lottery set up.  The Times debunked the story several times through its journalists, and Lovin Malta at least issued an apology after they also ran with the story. However, for some reason, the fake story is still there on the Newsbook website.

It might seem like an innocuous thing to get wrong, but it does make you wonder how many more serious mistakes have been made, and whether enough thorough fact-checking with reliable sources has been taking place.  Misinformation and fake news inevitably have repercussions on pubic perception. Every time I speak to people I realise that they have got the wrong end of the stick on a number of details concerning recent events in a real life game of Chinese whispers.  In some cases, they would have heard it from someone who read it ’somewhere’, on the basis of a warped conclusion reached by some amateur FB detective.   

In the weird chaotic atmosphere we have been experiencing, passions are running high and wild accusations continue to fly, which is why I suggest everyone takes a deep breath and slows down on their assumptions. The photo shared by Glenn Bedingfield showing a protestor ostensibly relieving himself in a corner inside Castille as a soldier gestures him to stop, is another case in point.  The photo was then shared by Labour MEP Alex Agius Saliba, who flatly said that the man was “pissing inside Castille”.  Predictably, the Labour Party media repeated it and that’s all it took for many members of the public to voice their outrage at what they perceived as the ‘last straw’ by the protestors.  Only as it turns out, that’s not what happened as could be seen in the live feed provided by Moviment Graffitti. The protestor himself explained that since they were not allowed to use the toilet facilities he tried to answer the call of nature by using a plastic bottle. The solder told him he was not even allowed to do that, and said that if he wished, he could leave the premises to use a toilet but would not be allowed back in.  So the protestor decided he could hold on a bit longer. But by the time the explanation came out it was too late, an assumption based on a photo had become fact and those who were already annoyed and impatient by the constant protests (and who cannot understand why they are still being held: “Muscat has resigned hasn’t he?”) had something to focus their anger on. 

Another urban myth going around whose origins I have not managed to trace is that after the first protest when eggs were thrown, bags of urine were also thrown at MPs leaving Parliament .  Again, this was picked up by the Labour Party media and became fact based purely on what “someone said”.  It was also carelessly repeated by Alex Agius Saliba in his diatribe mentioned above, an irresponsible thing to do by someone who has been elected to high office. (If any reader can prove that this in fact happened, I stand to be corrected).

Let me make it clear that I believe in protesting for the complete truth to be given to the public, for all those involved to be brought to justice, and for corruption at the highest levels to be pulled out by its roots so that maybe one day, we can at least try to have a clean Government.  However, it seems to me that sometimes those involved in the protests end up shooting themselves in the foot. 

At this juncture, a tipping point has been reached and there are mixed feelings towards the protestors who originally started off with a lot of public sympathy and backing.  The fact that this sympathy is waning can be attributed to several factors, not least of which is a yearning for things to go back ‘to normal’ so that everyone can celebrate Christmas peacefully.  That may seem like a selfish thing to want during a political crisis but protestors have to bear in mind that the Maltese electorate is likely to be suffering from ‘protest fatigue’ and keeping up the momentum of daily anger is difficult and wearying.  As superficial as it may sound, people had become quite used to a nice, easy life of socialising without a care in the world…despite the menacing currents bubbling underneath.  The enormity of what has happened might be too much for a lot of them to deal with it, so they would prefer it if they didn’t have to.  (I am not saying I agree with this attitude, so please don’t shoot the messenger).

Another factor is that there is deep suspicion as to whether all protestors have genuine motives. The peaceful sit-in by Movement Graffitti inside Castille, for example, lasted five hours and their presence was there to drive home a message: no, we cannot allow the Government to act as if nothing has happened and that it should all be business as usual.   Unfortunately, outside of that big green door another scenario took place which left many perplexed. Screaming in the face of police officers and claiming that they are touching and pushing you when the video which I replayed several times clearly showed that no such thing happened does not earn you much support. What I saw were police officers who handled the situation calmly. There were also conflicting reports as to whether journalists were “pushed out” or “escorted out” (according to The Times) of Castille.  The words we use during volatile times like this are crucial. 

Meanwhile in La La Land…

…the man who got us into this fine mess, is persisting in living in his own little bubble as he continues his Farewell Tour for all the world as if he were Mick Jagger. Joseph Muscat’s behaviour is indicative of someone who thinks perceptions beyond his unwavering core Labour support don’t really matter.  Beyond telling us he is resigning in January and that he felt ‘betrayed’, and is “assuming more responsibility than he should have”,  he really has not answered any questions about what was going on at OPM.  The fact he thinks he can sail off into the sunset on a high, while convincing himself that he is still shrouded in glory, is self-delusional at best.  Accountability, complete disclosure and full explanations are, at the bare minimum, what a Prime Minister should provide the nation after what we have learned.  If Muscat believes these are not necessary or that we do not even deserve to know, then it is yet another blow to those who voted for him in good faith, and he has understood absolutely nothing about why many people are so angry at being treated with such disdain. 

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