The Malta Independent 22 September 2020, Tuesday

Organised trolls a ‘very snide way of inhibiting freedom of expression’

Joanna Demarco Saturday, 23 June 2018, 09:00 Last update: about 3 years ago

Joanna Demarco spoke to Head of Media and Communications at University of Malta, Dr Gorg Mallia about freedom of expression in the age of social media, and pursuing careers in journalism.

There have been many situations in the news lately which have raised to the surface the issue of freedom of expression on social media. When it comes to freedom of expression…are there parameters?

Social media has no gatekeepers, and ‘freedom of expression’ is quite a tenuous term.  There is no such thing as a line which says this is where freedom of expression ends and becomes abuse, or hate speech. That depends extensively on the culture, religiosity, laws and general morals of a country. Freedom of expression in Sweden, is not freedom of expression in Iran, for example. Some things which are acceptable in Italy are not in the USA.

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Somebody once said to me ‘your freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins’, and that is really what should define freedom of expression. I can insult you, but can I incite someone to harm you? No I can’t.  Freedom of expression stops where hate speech starts, and hate speech is determined by what we as a society define as hate. But by inciting someone to harm someone else I am being anti-social in a way that is instigating a crime.

Even within a country that is democratic like Malta, there are two types of oppressing freedom of expression. One is direct – I literally kill you to silence you. The second is indirect – I create a psychological atmosphere where I make you scared to speak your mind or to comment.

 

In your opinion, is there a difference between an ordinary member of the public expressing their opinion and someone in a position of authority expressing their opinion?

People like Trump are actually doing that, going outside the ethical line. Social media is allowing him to do that because he has a channel which circumvents the normal channels.  Obviously, people in a position of power should always be careful what they say. If Joseph Muscat says something which angers people, and if Ganni Borg says something to anger people, Ganni Borg will anger a very small amount of people. Joseph Muscat will anger a large percentage of Malta.

 

 

What about, for example, Jason Micallef’s comments in his position as Chairman of v18?

Jason Micallef is a public employee who has a specific job which is cultural. He is not a private person, he is a public person.  You can’t say something as a private person if you are a public person. I am the head of media and communications here. If I say ‘this is ĠorġMallia talking, not the head of communications’, that will be deemed as ridiculous.  Whatever I say is going to be reflected on my role. Of course Jason Micallef is going to be quoted as the Chairman of V18, not just as a private citizen called Jason Micallef.

(Valletta as the capital of culture) has been tainted by the person who is its main figurehead. He should have thought about this and realised that what he was saying amounted to besmirchingthe assassination of a journalist.  She was murdered and that is the worst thing you can do to anyone; shutting them up by actually killing them, and then someone who is an official of the government, makes fun of it. Ridiculous!

 

As Head of the Department of Media and Communications how important is ethics in the media, how should it be respected?

There is a line that should be drawn because the media is a loaded gun and is extremely powerful, dominating the world of information. Media without ethics is like a rampant killer shooting people without compunction. As I said before, ethics is determined by many factors in each country, and differs from one country to another.

It is a very complex issue and there is no such thing as a straightforward answer, and it is unfortunate that because there is no straightforward answer, it can actually be instrumentalised by people who would rather not be commented about and purposely utilize all those grey areas to curb freedom of expression while at the same time tout it as being there.

 

Armchair warrior critics/ trolls. Are they specific to the social media age or have they been present in another way before social media?

What social media does is put on a public podium what used to be said behind closed doors.  Whereas before people made fun of people in their small groups, social media gave them a public platform.

We actually saw this before the proliferation of social media when radio stations were liberalized in Malta, people found a voice, they would go on radio and spout off a litany of complaints that they would have not done before.  Radio stations increased that reach to a certain degree and now social media has increased it beyond measure.

And there are also organised trolls. They will do their best not just to work in a single bubble, but spread across as many bubbles as possible, killing dissent. That is a very snide way of inhibiting freedom of expression and that is horrible because you can publicly say ‘we have freedom of expression here’ but in reality that freedom of expression is being curbed in the most effective way – by being drowned out.  This notion is one of ‘I am going to shout louder than you can.’

We have seen this in the past at mass meetings when people would take bells and whistles to create a much louder noise than the person speaking. It’s the same thing that is happening here, but the podium now is much much louder. People are being shut up through ridiculing, through a repetition of the same attack on them, often in slightly different guises.

Nowadays instead of a statement that is verifiable because there are gatekeepers to check it out, you just have unverified opinions, and those opinions may be lies. And if that liar buys likes or has multiple fake profiles to give him or herselflikes, or is part of a group of people that are certain to give him or herlikes, then the status of the liar grows exponentially, giving the impression of “truth”.

A few years ago you introduced the diploma in journalism. How is journalism being received? Is it attracting students?

We don’t have that many students in the diploma, but we do have many students who are interested in the degree of B.Communications (Hons), who focus on journalism. We have a full-time member of staff who caters specifically for journalism and we have made journalism compulsory to first year students in order to acclimatize them to the fundamentals of journalism. We are doing our best to train journalists. In the Master’s degree which is opening this October students can even specialize in different aspects of journalism; reporting, editing, sports journalism etc. We have also introduced a placement in both the undergraduate and postgraduate course, so students can have first hand experience in journalism (among other things).

 

Nowadays it is difficult to find journalists to employ. Why do you think this might be the case?

Salaries is one of them; number two, there is a lot of sticking your neck out. Political parties have also given journalism quite a bad reputation… among other things you need to do as a journalist, you might have to be that person who doorsteps politicians and asks awkward questions of them.

But in actual fact, another one of the reasons is what we discussed in the beginning, this culture of fear created to inhibit you from stating what you believe and what you have unearthed and signing your name to it.

I think one of the reasons why our journalists are keeping back from being journalists and are instead doing other things –in spite of their studies having preparing them in ways that can make them become top-notch journalists – could very well be this overwhelming feeling that although we pay lip service to freedom of expression we then do our damnedest to make sure that it is as inhibited as possible so it won’t affect us and what we do.

 

Do you think this is something that has been going on for years though or is it fairly recent?

Yes, for years, but I don’t think it has ever been as concerted or as mobilized as it has been over the past few years.

 

 

 

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