In a recent study published by the Oxford Internet Institute, Samantha Bradshaw and Philip Howard discovered that during 2019, over 70 countries, including Malta, fell victim of organised social media manipulation campaigns. Locally, Facebook, the most popular social media platform registered the most manipulation.
Malta was ranked as a ‘medium’ misinformation country, immediately behind the highest-ranked group, which includes China, Russia, and the US. The ranking is based on the size of the team of people engaged by the government to spread misinformation, the sophistication of the tools used, the number of campaigns and the budgets involved.
As a medium ranked misinformation country, Malta has a “more consistent form and strategy, involving full-time staff members who are employed year-round to control the information space”.
This implies that Malta has a permanent team of misinformation agents, employed by the government to thwart public information, possibly including fake sites such as organicdecors.com to promote the Prime Minister’s achievements as reported by independent journalist Manuel Delia.
Bradshaw and Howard’s research shows that Malta’s social media manipulation happens through government agencies, by politicians and parties, and private contractors, using bots and human interaction, but not hacked or stolen accounts.
In Malta, the most common type of social media manipulation involves “attacking the opposition or mounting smear campaigns” and “suppressing participation through personal attacks or harassment”.
Research shows that Malta’s social media manipulation happens through government agencies, by politicians and parties, and private contractors
This is mostly done through spreading misinformation and trolling users. Through humorous memes and videos, misinformation teams create misleading information to thwart public understanding.
Misinformation is spread by carefully diagnosing online and offline data and paying for advertisements to target specific communities, rather than disseminate thwarted information across the whole of the population.
Furthermore, the research found that Malta is among 68 per cent of the countries under review who use State-sponsored trolling to target political dissidents, the Opposition or journalists.
The publicly available data on Facebook Ads also shows that in Malta, in the last 90 days, MaltaGov was the highest spender of Facebook Ads, spending over €17,000 on 70 sponsored ads. By way of example, the advert to inform the Maltese that the Budget will offer a tax refund cost the taxpayer in excess of €1,000.
Second biggest spender is Konrad Mizzi, spending over €3,600, with more than €300 of paid adverts informing the public that he appreciated the support received on the eve of his resignation, and another €600 promoting his related press statement. The European Parliament follows in fourth position (€2,094) and MEP Roberta Metsola (€1,690).
So what can the regular citizen do to not fall prey to misinformation tactics?
We have an innate tendency to tribalise, so we need to consciously tame that instinct by fact-checking all information on social media. A good tactic developed by Malcolm Gladwell is ‘narrative-bursting’ which suggests dissecting every piece of news one consumes, to force oneself to confront their biases and assumptions. Through this process, one reads the news item as it really is, not as one wishes it to be.
But to be able to ‘burst the narrative’, one needs a good dose of media and information literacy. Incidentally, Malta is at the bottom end of media literacy rankings done by the Open Society Institute. This makes it harder to see beyond our filter bubbles, to break free from confirmation biases that support our preconceived ideas, and to welcome diverse ideas. While social media could be birthing a post-truth era, we cannot be fatalistic, but should rather be more resolute in our efforts to promote media literacy.
We must all be more responsible in our use of social media by consciously putting on three hats: the explorer, who searches for alternative data; the analyst, who applies theoretical concepts, verifies sources and fact-checks; and the creator, who analyses the consequences of the misinformation they themselves propagate.
Journalists, in particular, have an ethical obligation that extends beyond their immediate context or audience. Laudable efforts include Le Monde’s list of unreliable sites; Google’s RevEye, which checks the genuinity of an image; Correctiv’s fact-checkings, which famously blasted false claims that UK ex-Prime Minister Theresa May was threatening nuclear war against Russia; and Malta’s own Cyber Security educational campaign to spot fake news.
While these efforts are welcome, media literacy must be learnt from the earliest school days. Finland, topping the list of media literate countries in Europe, starts educating its children from an early age, and through practical exercises in a game environment where children learn to fact check, becoming a digital Sherlock Holmes of sorts. Malta has no other option but to follow suit.
Learning to engage the news and information critically promotes a culture of justice, truth and peace. Misinformation strikes at the heart of this triad that is necessary for a strong democracy. With an ethical formation that values truth, and by being more media literate, we can protect ourselves against misinformation, and build a stronger democracy which protects the most marginalised.
Rev. Matthew Pulis is a computer scientist and digital theologian researching gaming and theology.
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