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The Truth when Lies are Paid for

Way back in 2005 I chose the slogan “the truth, if I lie” (la vérité si je mens) for this blog. The truth is an important aspect whether we are talking about reporting or opinion forming. Facts and the truth should be the basis of assessment in a normal democracy. We all know by now that in this age of post-truth this has changed:

“We have entered a new phase of political and intellectual combat, in which democratic orthodoxies and institutions are being shaken to their foundations by a wave of ugly populism. Rationality is threatened by emotion, diversity by nativism, liberty by a drift towards autocracy. More than ever, the practice of politics is perceived as a zero-sum game, rather than a contest between ideas. […] At the heart of this global trend is a crash in the value of truth, comparable to the collapse of a currency or a stock.” (Matthew D’Ancona, Post Truth, The new war on truth and how to fight back).

One manifestation of the manipulation of truth is the increasing use of space on mainstream media for paid propagation of information. Large chunks of public money are used to buy space on media to sell statements in an effort to turn them into universally accepted truths. More often than not the use of “statistics” is facilitated by the virtual disappearance of any proper watchdog and by the building of walls of silence that laugh in the face of the transparency that should be reinforcing the veracity of such statements.

Take the “record unemployment” figures that this government loves to flaunt. Behind such figures lie so many half-truths buried in statistical convolutions such as the reformed unemployment scheme that ensures that people vanish off the lists much before they enter gainful employment, such as the obvious reliance on a bloated civil service to take on more “jobs for the boys”. That same record unemployment was behind the use of the power of incumbency in the last election where famously Gozitan entrepreneurs and SME’s and employers in the entertainment industry found themselves short of staff simply because the government did the magic absorbing trick of vanishing their employees away into the civil service.

But there is another equally worrying trend. The government has found ways to buy “authenticity” by purchasing its way onto spaces in the media that could deceivingly be passed away as independent reporting. In the beginning it was close collaboration with houses like The Economist hosting talks in Malta packed full of government spokespersons and ministers. The Economist would be happy to lend its name to a national government paying its way into its discussion space. Two “The World in XXX” events plus one “Mediterranean Leadership Summit” were thus organised by the Economist in Malta at the Hilton Portomaso. The Mediterranean Leadership Summit, held in 2016, included Henley and Partners as its Gold Sponsor (we all know who these are), the Libyan Investment Authority as its Silver Sponsor (notwithstanding the fact that the LIA had had its assets frozen by the UN since 2011), and Finance Malta and Maltco lotteries as contributors.

It is not just events though. Articles can now be bought. Yes, you read that right. Articles on major international news portals can actually be “paid content”. Thus, the CNN article doing the rounds about Malta being one of the Top 15 country destinations for Christmas was apparently yet another paid article. Here are Andrew and Paul Caruana Galizia calling out another paid report, this time one that appeared on the Guardian:

Do not underestimate the government use of paid social media ads and posts (such as facebook campaigns). As time goes by, the Facebook algorithms are fine tuned to push to the top of your screens any paid information. While you scroll through the online papers and you see repeat adverts also paid for by government to promote its spin remember that. The campaign to disinform is much stronger than you think. The solution is to be vigilant and call out whenever you can.

Finally do not let the irony escape you that these lies and half-truths are funded by YOUR money. You are actually paying taxes that are then used to sell you untruths.

It’s a liars’ world out there. The truth, if I lie.

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