Tuesday 07 April 2020

This is a soap opera, not an election

This article first appeared in Malta Today

Who needs an android box in this election campaign when we are dished out daily episodes of comedy, drama and now, political intrigue?

Yesterday’s news about Russia possibly meddling in Malta’s elections brought two cliches immediately to mind, depending on whom you believe: ‘You can’t make this stuff’ up and ‘Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.’

It all began from a article on a website called www.intelligenceonline.com which is alleging that there is possible Russian interference in Malta’s elections. The website claims that behind the allegations of the Russian whistleblower that the offshore company Egrant belongs to Michelle Muscat is the long arm of Russia which has vested interests: “MI6 and the CIA are highly concerned by what the Russian couple have been up to in Malta. Some officials perceive it as a move to destabilise Malta’s pro-Western prime minister that comes from on high in the Kremlin, especially because it has occurred at a time when Muscat has been openly opposed to Moscow. Malta, which has held the rotating presidency of the European Union (EU) since January, has refused to allow Russian vessels crossing the Mediterranean to join operations in Syria to stop over and refuel on the island. That stirred Moscow’s fury as it deemed such refueling vital.”

It is probably inevitable that such a revelation would be met with scoffing laughter because it really seems just too far-fetched to be true. Why would Putin be interested in what happens in tiny Malta? The memes and the jokes soon spread all over social media, and the predictable Hitler video followed. It didn’t help matters that Roger Moore had just died the day before – the whole story was just begging for James Bond one-liners.

But while it was very easy to laugh, almost immediately, the very real interference of Russia in the American elections sprang to mind, and a quick search revealed that the National Security Agency had warned France of a similar attempt at interference.

According to an interview with ABC news last month, “Sen. John McCain said Russia is “succeeding” at exerting influence and interfering with elections around the world, with “little or no penalty.They have succeeded in interfering with our election, and we know that they continue that in the French elections, and in other elections.”

As I write this, the story (and the hilarity) continue to go viral, which is to be expected. However, as often happens, much like Chinese whispers, misinformation is also being spread along the way.

Let us start with the website itself. Despite the fact that it has been checked out to be a legitimate site, published by Indigo Publications (which also checks out as being a valid source), I still saw people self-assuredly saying that it was a “dodgy” website and fake news. They were repeating this as a fact even though they were basing their comments on what “other people said”.

Meanwhile the journalist Pierre Gastineau, who wrote the story, tweeted that the Maltese PM had confirmed that he had received information of possible interference. This much was also true: during a press conference, journalists asked Muscat to verify the story and he replied that while this information had already been relayed to him, there was still no evidence that the whistleblower was in any way connected to the Russian secret service. I listened to the press conference myself and those were the exact words he used.

And yet I saw at least three headlines which claimed that it was Muscat who was blaming Russia for interference in our election.

Now, when it comes to reporting, or journalism of any kind, the wording is extremely important, one word placed in the wrong sequence can completely change the meaning of an entire sentence of headline. In the middle of an election campaign, when information is coming from all directions and emotions run high, it is even more important to get it right, and to quote properly. I have no idea whether the story is true or not, or even whether it is plausible or not (in fact, people were quick to point out the inconsistencies), but at least let us start with the premise that when a story breaks we need to stick to facts, check the veracity of sources and ensure that what is repeated is factual and not spin. And that goes for everyone who shares and comments about news on FB because in this election, we are all responsible for the information we are spreading, especially as many people are too lazy to read past a headline or a quote.

There is one thing which is clear, however. Whether one dismisses this as Muscat’s last desperate attempt to discredit the whistleblower because he is completely guilty of the Egrant accusations, or whether (as some claim) this is an elaborate Machiavellian move, orchestrated by the PN which is equally desperate to win this election, unless the real truth comes out before 3 June, ultimately voters will have to make their decision about whom they trust the most, purely based on their gut instinct.

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