The citizen hero

Despite hailing from a generation which is far from savvy with technology, Arnold Cassola manages to utilise modern tools with deftness of an expert social media influencer

Arnold Cassola
Arnold Cassola

Earlier this month I was honoured with an invite to a surprise event to celebrate Professor Arnold Cassola’s academic achievements. The event took place in a lecture hall at the University of Malta, in front of a room of friends, ex-colleagues, ex-students and admirers. 

While most of the guests match all of these categories, on my part I’ve only gotten to know Arnold better over the past three years and personally I have not had the honour of being neither a colleague nor a student.  

From his strong social media presence, it is easy to assume that Arnold is solely defined by his stalwart opposition to incompetence and injustice. While his persistence and courage in this arena is inspiring, during this event I got a deeper glimpse at the many contributions that this man has made during his life, in particular in the academic realm of the Maltese language and history.  

The event organisers aptly themed the evening around Arnold’s investigative nature, which when he applies it to any matter, uncovers all sorts of secrets. In his many travels around the world, the most likely place to find Arnold, besides the beach, is in some dark corner of the local library. Here he hunts for any clue of Maltese heritage, and as evident in his subsequent publications, he is able to dig up many literary artefacts which would otherwise be lost to our country. 

One such discovery was the first dictionary of the Maltese language, an incomplete document which was roughly dated to the 1650s and in which the unknown author lists down many words as spoken by our ancestors; some are still valid today, others morphed into new words and several others which have faded away from our collective lexicon. One of the evening’s speakers walked us through some of these words and provided some truly fascinating insights.  

As we all know, Arnold’s attention was always partly occupied by his fight against injustice and for good governance. Despite hailing from a generation which is far from savvy with technology, Cassola manages to utilise modern tools with deftness of an expert social media influencer. The evening also included a humorous segment that dared dive into the comment sections of Arnold’s many posts on his Facebook page, Arnold’s Citizen Watch. 

From the hilarious, to the obscene and to the life threatening, the trolls seem to know no limits. No one really takes these ill-educated offenders seriously, yet there is a lot of laughable content being posted in an attempt to dissuade or spite Arnold - the man is able to take it all like a professional who knows that this is part of the job. It is worth noting that any incitement for violence or suicide, and yes there are many of these, are always promptly reported to the authorities.  

I do not always agree with Arnold’s posts. The most valid kind of criticism that the man receives is that he does not verify each and every one of the messages received from his followers - and he sometimes proceeds with posting these onto Citizen Watch without having the time to fully validate the authenticity of each claim. 

Unlike most other pundits, Arnold is quick to correct any inaccuracies as soon as new information surfaces - and he does so with an equally public post. Given the limited time available, and given the sheer amount of content that is forwarded to Arnold, I do not think it is humanly possible to verify each and every one of these posts prior to publishing. While this is indeed a human limitation, what Arnold has going for him is that the vast majority of his Citizen Watch posts are valid, of concern to most citizens and in many cases effective at soliciting action.  

The next type of criticism lobbied towards his efforts is the expectation that such complaints should only be filed with the authorities rather than publicised on social media. This one completely misses the point - we all know how slow and ineffective official channels often tend to be, yet the power of social media in such cases is impressive. In a country where many are more interested in appearances than in actual contributions, the medium of social media helps because it can directly impact the reputation of the people who for some reason or another fall short from fulfilling their duties. 

Thanks to Arnold’s platform, many have been spurred into action, bypassing long bureaucratic and less than helpful processes with hopes of resolving such issues before the public outrage continues to escalate.  

The evening concluded with a small reception, one that reflects the humble and simple nature of Arnold. I left with a strong desire to write about Arnold’s accomplishments and to share my appreciation of this man’s commitment to honesty, justice and his investigative nature. Arnold has an unwavering commitment to safeguarding the environment and has made big contributions to social justice via his national and international political work.  

I wish others lived with equal zeal for combating injustice, something which only this one-man army appears to be doing at this moment in time. If we aspire to have a healthy democracy, we need an opposition and a government that takes many pages from Arnold’s book. We need more people to pursue justice with a vision that is longer than the five-year electoral term and politicians who choose to say that which is right even if it may cost them some points in the polls.  

I hope that his example will continue helping inspire a generation of academics, activists and citizens. More of us need to choose to be active citizens while we have the luxury of being able to.

Mark Camilleri Gambin is Chief Product Officer at Expedition42 and co-founder of Talexio