This morning I spoke at a conference organised by the Faculty of Media at the University of Malta which discussed ‘Disinformation, Misinformation and the Digital Environment: Challenges and Opportunities’. Here’s what I said.

“Is it actually possible to have a free and fair election ever again?” The Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr asked that question when she was summing up her reporting on the role of Facebook in the UK’s Brexit referendum. It was perhaps a hopeful question, but the manner of its asking was also bitterly knowing.

Any question about the credibility and the freedom of information that flows in society is a question about the viability of democracy. Tyrannies hold elections too. If the coming Russian presidential elections raise any question, it will be how close to 90% Vladimir Putin’s score will be. Elections are not necessarily rigged through the physical stuffing of ballot boxes. They are rigged by the monopolisation of thought, by the service of a well-controlled diet of selective information, by a combination of informational carrots and sticks.

Western Democracies are not immune to the grotesque manipulation of reality to serve the hidden interests of tyrants. You’re probably watching the American electoral process more closely than the Russian. The outcome of the former is less certain. The stakes higher.

A discussion of the state of play in Malta must be grounded in this wider global context. But it is also replete with particularities that should not be overlooked.

This morning we’re discussing how starved of resources local media are; how reporters are themselves vulnerable to be duped by misinformation and how ill equipped they may be to counter it; how irresistibly tempting click baiting is for the baiter as much as for the baited.

No doubt this discussion is important, but it also presumes an inherent innocence, a naivete in which well-meaning writers and equally well-meaning readers are caught. We think of the technological sophistication of misinformation and disinformation as the nets cast by outsiders: those faceless hammers of evil intent which we do nothing to provoke.

Deep fake videos may be new. But Don Giovanni, deprived of the benefits of an iPhone, dispatched his valet in his cloak so he could have his way with blushing maidens.

Disinforming perpetrators are not new. Nor are disinformed audiences. Not so innocent maidens can see beneath Don Giovanni’s cloak. Sometimes, audiences are just happy to go along with the lie.

Which is why my take on 2024 misinformation, like a morality tale by Robert Zemeckis, is set in 1984.

During the years of iron curtain state-propaganda on the broadcast media, the opposition had to broadcast illegally from Sicily like resistance guerrilla fighters. When the opposition became the government, they used their newly-found political power to turn the other cheek. They gifted their political opponents with the right to use the first non-government broadcast licence to bash the government and keep it in check.

At the time it must have felt enlightened, an act of magnanimous reconciliation. And perhaps it was meant that way. But we must judge that action – the birth of the Labour Party’s Super 1 – not merely by the intentions of the midwife – the Nationalist government of 1990 – but by the consequences of that apparently virgin birth.

Before 1987 it was possible to persuade a large chunk of the public there was no opposition to speak of, simply by omitting the use of the name of Eddie Fenech Adami in official TV news coverage. The unspoken depersonalisation of the man was intended and to some extent had the effect of wiping out his existence at least from the minds of those who would have rather he didn’t exist. Malta’s brand of authoritarianism was nowhere near as brutal or as effective as some of the totalitarianisms that collapsed around the same time. But it felt no shame borrowing their methods.

In the Maltese context the attempt of Xandir Malta to paint an official picture of reality was only effective to a limited extent: that is to the extent that audiences were prepared, even desired, to suspend their disbelief, push from their mind the facts available to them from outside the official story, and choose instead to accept as gospel truth what they were told by their government. People knew the Leader of Opposition had a name. They knew his name. They chose to live in a world where he wasn’t worthy of one because that is how Xandir Malta would have it.

Generalisations are of course odious. It is also unscientific to make assumptions about everyone. There will be, no doubt, people utterly unequipped with the judgement and skill to distinguish truth from falsehood and to assume, quite sincerely, that if the TV says something then it must be true. But it is also obtuse to imagine that every disciple of an official lie is innocent of its perpetration.

The complicity of the listener is essential. It is not because we have less ways of knowing the truth that more people in the 21st century argue the earth is flat than any have for several centuries. It is because enough people would rather believe it, despite the evidence they are perfectly aware of. How else can you explain a professor in this very university warning people that covid vaccines carried nanobots so that Bill Gates could control your mind? How else can you explain anyone, anyone at all, accepting that as a possibility? More on the professor later.

When Super 1 came along, the daily false narrative describing a reality that existed only in the minds, in the desires, and in the ambitions of the leaders of the Labour Party, was no longer the official diktat of the state. It was rather an alternative to the official story and an alternative to the truth.

We’ve had 32 years of Super 1 and I could pick the news coverage of any evening of the thousands that we’ve lived through since it came along. I’ll pick one those living then still remember now, when Super 1 announced the victory of the vote against EU membership in 2003. I remember driving on my way to my own celebrations to mark the victory of the ‘yes’ vote with which I was personally delighted, and finding myself alongside carcades driven by people who were told by Super 1 the ‘no’ vote had won.

Those people honking their cars knew it was a lie. The facts were available to them in the news reported by every available source of information anywhere in the world except the one they chose to listen to, comforted by the fact that it was pouring into their ears the lie they would rather have believed.

Their complicity was necessary to subvert a democratic process, fortunately for only the brief and mad few weeks when sanity was suspended for the general election campaign of that year.

But memories of 2003 are sweetened by the memory of final victory. Consider that we live in a country where a government found responsible by an inquiry it set up, of the killing of a journalist for exposing its corruption, has won a greater majority in a subsequent general election. How unlikely are Putin’s victories now?

Thirty-two years of Super 1 have trained us like the crowds crossing their arms chanting ‘Get Kerry Out’. The training that Super 1 gave us makes us accommodating audiences for others. They have ploughed us into fertile ground for polarised propaganda bereft of nuance, masquerading as journalism. Allowing political parties to have a voice in 1990 was an act of liberation. Merging news reporting with politicking in this country has anticipated the insanity of FOX and GB News. It is incredible to me now that owners of independent media in Malta such as the Times of Malta, the Independent, and Malta Today form a club with the political parties as if they were on the same side, against journalists who would never join a club that would accept them as members.

For there’s another aspect of our context that must be kept into account. Ultimately the way to beat disinformation is with information, factual, true, and honest. The availability of that is shrinking. Ministers do not give interviews to the press or answer their questions. So-called Freedom of Information is honoured in the breach. Exposure to SLAPPs is a clear and present danger. Journalists employed by political parties are no more than propagandists. Journalists employed by the public service are mute eunuchs. Journalists employed by anyone else are on the brink of penury. The threats to independent journalists that allowed for Daphne Caruana Galizia to be killed, persist. To speak of a chilling effect is reductive. We’re on the eve of a gaunt, unheard, silence. When we shut up, disinformation will be the only information left.

And then, just to cheer you up, the weed of demented conspiracy catches easily on ground long fertilised by polarised propaganda.

Any conversation on disinformation in Malta must at some point stumble on Professor Simon Mercieca, PhD, whose blog is a murky soup of incoherence peppered with vile slander, heady conspiracy, and utter falsehood. I’ve heard it said that no one believes Simon Mercieca and it’s impossible that Simon Mercieca believes what he says. How can it be that someone licensed to investigate facts and filter out biases as a professional historian would take seriously even a fraction of what he writes?

The keys to understanding disinformation are multiple: the malice of its author, the complicity of the reader, the ambivalent neutrality of the author’s enablers – in this case the very university which employs him – and the personal benefit of those for whom a lie is more comfortable than the truth, such as the lie that could allow those responsible for killing Daphne Caruana Galizia to walk free.

He’s in good company. Consider the madness in America: like that time when il-partnership rebaħ but on a scale far more catastrophic than our Lilliputian tribulations, lonely sources of information professed, at least for a short while, that the 2020 US election returned the opposite result to the result the real world testified. The people who continue to support that perverse notion form the support base of the likeliest next president of the world’s most powerful country.

Lies can win if enough people choose them over truth.

You’d likely wish for something a bit more optimistic. Some twist at the end where truth triumphs. Times feel dark because the technology of disinformation is far more sophisticated today than when Don Giovanni scored. But reducing the crisis of democracy to a debate on the scary sophistication of deep fake videos and eloquent A.I. is itself mindlessly optimistic because every weapon used against us can be eventually countered by a more effective weapon used for us. We can educate the public to spot deep fake. Most people, with some training, can smell a stinking lie.

It’s the people who believe a lie when they know it is one that we need to worry about. It’s the complicity of a public which does not perceive itself as a victim of disinformation but a customer of it: for whom the lie is devoutly to be wished. Any strategy for the survival of democracy must take into account a fact we often ignore: it may be government for the people, but not all people think they want it that way.

For this is how democracy dies: with thunderous applause.

Is it possible to have a free and fair election ever again? More urgently and less obviously perhaps, do enough people want one?