The Jurrasic Park movie franchise was originally a cautionary tale on the dangers of pushing technology too far, but here in Malta the dinosaur theme park is just a daily reality for our parliament (which is full of ancient monsters we’re not really sure how to cage). But here their problem isn’t over-exceeding technology’s limits, it’s understanding the basics before using it.
In the age of hyper-connectivity, ignorance is no long an excuse for dangerous misinformation. And when you’re one quick Google search away from the truth, we cannot laugh off people spreading alarming lies for likes… particularly if they’re elected to represent us in parliament.
This week Nationalist MP Edwin Vassallo spread some Valentine’s love by posting a fake news article about bananas infected with HIV that were spreading the life-threatening infection across the country. We know – oh so romantic; it felt like the cherub missed our heart, and shot you straight into the groin instead.
But it wasn’t just Edwin Vassallo who was smitten by a falsity. Generously providing us with an example from a Labour official (making a balance in this post far easier to achieve), Jason Micallef shared a fake news story about how Simon Cowell is so sick of the X Factor nonsense, he’s pulling the plug. And despite being provably false, at the time of publication, the post is still up.
While this may feel like something your great aunt (who moved to the UK when she was seven) would share with a caption about how bad things have gotten since Leona Lewis, Micallef didn’t post this because he’s devastated he’ll never get to not understand Cheryl’s critiques again.
Just like Vassallo didn’t share that article because he really cares about public health and the HIV crisis Malta has.
Some supporters of the PN MP were quick to defend him, claiming the post was shared by mistake and is easily forgiven for his good intentions.
But in a rare crossover with the truth, fake news doesn’t care about your feelings or intentions. You could be obsessed with the Minions from Despicable Me and do everything you can to help your friends make good decisions about which bananas are out to get you. Once shared (even if carelessly as claimed by the defenders) by a conservative politician, this post was specifically designed to “educate” and change minds by fearmongering.
Within certain groups, particularly the LGBT+ community, HIV and AIDS claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in an incredibly short span of time. And it was the stigma and misinformation (aka lies) about the virus, as well as inaction by politicians who spread the fake news of the time, that played a huge part in why care wasn’t provided to those who needed it the most.
While not on the same scale as Vassallo’s, both in terms of harmful message and ease of debunking (Facebook literally writes “this is probably fake, here’s the article proving it” under the banana photo), Micallef’s shared article is also a problem because he posted it to rally people against something he hates (remember his X Factor feud earlier this year?). And even more worryingly: it worked. Not one follower called it out as fake news and cheered him on for being on the right side of the argument.
When you start linking the false stories shared to the politicial drive of certain individuals, it becomes pretty clear that this isn’t like the time Aunty Gina warned us about the crocodile in our sewers because she is genuinely worried it will snout its way up the drain, and bite our asses.
But if we continue allowing it to happen, sewer-crocs are the last thing our asses have to worry about.
In general zero-tolerance policies are too extreme to ever work. But if the internet calling you a liar doesn’t make you triple-check every future article you post, then you clearly aren’t interested in the truth.
So let’s take something from American sports that isn’t backbreaking cheerleading routines (or mediocre Half Time Shows that spark international debates on visible nipples) and look to baseball for inspiration. It’s pretty straight forward: three strikes (including but not limited to, fruit infected with deadly infections that literally cannot be transmitted that way), and you’re out.
And remember kids, Google is for more than just finding out the Maltese name for certain fish before heading to Marsascala’s Sunday market.