The Battle For Trust, Truth And The Internet: 2013 In Focus

29/12/2013 (This was written specifically for Deccan Herald) 

While the usual catalogue of violence, suffering and mayhem was witnessed during 2013 and sections of the media were fascinated with the lives or loves of Salman, Priyanka, Kareena and the rest of celebritydom, for this end-of-year lookback the stardust and the suffering will take a back seat. Instead, the spotlight falls on spin, trust and the internet, not least because 2013 was to a large extent a year of revelations, accusations, denials and clever public relations.  
In an age of instant, mass communications, we are bombarded with messages 24/7. From advertisements and round-the-clock news channels to newspapers, social media, text messages and emails, the onslaught is relentless. How to filter it all or to make sense of it? Who to believe and what to believe, especially when one source tells us something then another says something completely different. For the public, it can be a headache. And for those trying to influence us with their messages, they know full well that there is an information war as they battle for our hearts, minds and trust.
Edward Snowden’s revelations
If two words could be used to define 2013, they might possibly be Edward Snowden. This young American emerged from the shadowy world of espionage and surveillance to expose Washington’s monitoring of us all and its illegal snooping across the planet. For his efforts, he incurred the wrath of the US establishment.
Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States has been the world’s sole superpower. Despite all the public statements about respect for a multi-polar world, away from the public gaze the US has done everything to ensure that it gains ‘full spectrum dominance’ of the planet. Edward Snowden’s releasing of classified information about the US’s activities did little to undermine this view. If Snowden achieved anything, it was to shatter any claims about the US being the model of democracy it likes to portray itself as whereby the individual is king and the state takes a back seat.
But wait a minute. Isn’t that view a bit extreme? In recent times, haven’t developments such as the internet come to play a vital in strengthening democracy by empowering the individual? On one level, this is true. The internet and social media provide a vehicle for self expression, and there is also the convenience of carrying out various practical tasks online. Many have put their heart and soul into the internet, and their lives revolve around tweeting, liking, disliking, sharing, mobile apps and ‘press to purchase’. We have been encouraged to place our trust in the corporations that we give our information to and have thus handed over all kinds of personal details to Facebook, Google and any number of companies.
It wasn’t always this way. The older generation can remember back to when a handful of TV and radio stations existed, snail mail was king and friends were people you personally knew and interacted with face to face. But now, everything is just a highly convenient click away and people have so many ‘friends’ that it’s astonishing. Online friends, that is – often distant acquaintances, usually ‘friends’ of ‘friends’ (virtual strangers who become virtual friends), whom they divulge all kinds of details to and share photos, feelings and much more with. In a quest for convenience and self expression, people have inadvertently surrendered their privacy and identities to that benign sounding realm ‘cyber space’. Information is flying about the place left, right and centre. But who controls it and what is done with it?
Edward Snowden shed light on such questions by exposing what some already suspected: no matter where we may reside in the world, we are potentially being listened to, watched and monitored by the National Security Agency (NSA) in the US (or its counterpart in the UK). The internet is not the empowering tool that many thought it was. During the past year, we discovered that the NSA has either colluded with a range of large corporations that many trusted, or has somehow hacked into their digital databases. Courtesy of Edward Snowden, we found that our emails, phone conversations, internet and social media activities and physical movements are on file and available to be scrutinised at will. Our likes, dislikes, shares, political allegiances and activities, purchases, holiday destinations and personal feelings are all in the public domain to be tapped into.
While buying into all of those lofty libertarian ideals about the digital age being personally liberating, many were duped into handing over their personal information to those who have the power to strip us of our freedoms. The NSA has captured ‘cyber space’ and taken the keys to people’s digital homes. Ironically, they naively delivered them to it on a silver platter.
Former NSA employer Snowden blew the lid off the whole NSA data surveillance industry. He also blew the lid off how Big Brother USA spies on governments and the personal conversations of national leaders, both friend and foe alike, and disregards laws in order to access information as and when it deems fit.
All of this is an ugly truth that the US wanted to keep from us. As a result, Snowden became Washington’s public enemy number one. Before having his passport revoked, he fled to Hong Kong then Moscow. The US did everything it could to capture him and prevent further embarrassing revelations, even going as far to orchestrate the hijacking of the Bolivian president’s plane as it flew over Europe because it was thought Snowden may have been on board. After being in limbo inside Moscow airport for weeks, Snowden was finally granted asylum by Russia.
Snowden’s revelations should be of great concern to us all. It is not that we are just being monitored, it is that the internet is increasingly being centralised in the hands of certain key companies under the control of a few governments, with the US having the means to control the major transit routes that comprise the core of the net. The NSA has set out to control the internet from day one and can increasingly determine what we can access online.
And let’s not forget that other info warrior WikiLeaks’s Julian Assange, who also released sensitive information about US activities and remains on Washington’s ‘most wanted’ list. He spent all of 2013 in the small Ecuadorian embassy in London. Ecuador might have granted him asylum, but the British are not letting him go to the airport any time soon.
The Syrian crisis
Another key battle over information and trust occurred over Syria. The US became the self-appointed judge, jury and executioner and wanted to bomb Syria for the good of all peace loving people across the world in the name of preventing terror – so the White House’s spin machine would have liked us to believe. Many may not realise that a prelude to World War Three was possibly on the cards when the US threatened to bomb Damascus. Although difficult to confirm, some reports alleged that two missiles were actually launched from its warships in the Mediterranean, or possibly by Israel. They were supposedly shot down by the Russians who also had ships stationed there (as did the Chinese). In any case, tensions were high, and Russia was standing firm in its defence of Syria.
Barack Obama wanted to intervene, in a ‘humanitarian’ sense, because the Assad government had allegedly carried out a chemical weapons attack on its own people. That there was no evidence Assad was responsible seemed to matter little as Washington’s PR people went into overdrive, just like they did in 2003 over Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction. But thankfully reason prevailed this time, not least in the British parliament, which voted not to get involved with attacking Syria. And given that no one could produce hard evidence to support US claims (not even Washington) about the said chemical weapons attack, Obama had to back down.
The whole scenario rested on information and trust. Did we trust the information being presented by the US? Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was based on what British MP George Galloway called a ‘pack of lies’, people are less inclined to rush to support US-led wars, and the internet has especially become a hotbed for the articulation of dissent. In this respect, Edward Snowden’s revelations are thus highly pertinent, given the US’s mass surveillance of almost everything online and Washington’s (and probably most governments) increasingly sophisticated attempts to control public access to content.
The rise of Narendra Modi
And so to India and the man of the moment – Narendra Modi, who was also at the centre of a battle for hearts and minds during the year. A wholly divisive figure or a shining beacon of hope for India? A hero of development in Gujarat or a case of spin triumphing over reality. Again, it was all about PR, perception and trust. One thing became clear during 2013, however; Modi was able to cement his phenomenal rise to the pinnacle of Indian politics.
While many hold Modi personally responsible for the killings and abuses that took place in Gujarat back in 2002, he has in some quarters succeeded in forwarding the message that his state is a shining example of development and that he is a suitable candidate for PM. Despite his many detractors, he has succeeded in securing a mass support base, especially among middle class youth.  
The future is bright, the future is Modi? Do you trust him? By early November, it was clear that his 960,000 followers on Google plus did. And it was clear that six million ‘likes’ on his official ‘fan page’ on Facebook did. On that page, it says: “the man endeared as a visionary & an untiring, selfless worker who has made Gujarat the cynosure of all eyes across the world.”
The future is definitely bright and we should certainly trust him, if we are to believe all the PR. And in this day and age, PR matters. It is impossible for everyone to have direct knowledge about everything that is happening in the world, so we turn to the media to inform us. But there are some heavy duty players at work, including- PR firms, lobbyists, image consultants and suchlike, whose sole aim is to get some highly distorted versions of ‘the truth’ into the public domain. And Modi has for some time had a genuine heavyweight on his side – the US-based PR/lobby giant APCO Worldwide.
This firm has been instrumental in helping to give Modi a timely and much needed makeover, remarketing him as prime ministerial material and globally promoting Brand Modi and Brand Gujarat. It culminated in 2013 with Modi being selected as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 Indian general election.   
And so to everything else
There were numerous prominent deaths during 2013. The two biggest were arguably those of Nelson Mandela and Margaret Thatcher. Mandela’s struggle against the barbaric apartheid regime in South Africa was inspirational for millions across the world. After being imprisoned by the regime for 27 years, he eventually rose to become PM of post-apartheid South Africa. His death united people in grief. Eulogies came from all sides of the political spectrum.
Former British PM Margaret Thatcher was granted a lavish funeral and her coffin was paraded through the streets of London. This upset many because her time as PM left deep wounds, which her passing served to reopen. For her supporters, she saved Britain from economic meltdown. However, regardless of the eulogies following her death, or probably because of them, many people vented some very bitter sentiments about Britain’s first woman PM and her social and economic legacies.
Nelson Mandela and Margaret Thatcher were towering political figures. For different reasons, their deaths evoked some deep-seated feelings.
What else happened during the year? 2013 saw India and Pakistan still ‘skirmishing’, the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, droughts in Maharashtra and various crashes, crushes, bombings and blasts across the country. Many metro projects moved forward in a number of cities. Flash floods and landslides in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh claimed the lives of more than 5,700 people and trapped more than 20,000.
The perpetrators of that horrendous rape aboard a bus in Delhi were finally sentenced, and the controversial Koodankulam nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu became partially operational. Sachin decided to hang up his test match bat, Tehelka made headlines of its own for all the wrong reasons and the fodder scam from the nineties finally caught up with Lalu.
Typhoons lashed India and devastated the Philippines and French troops went into resource-rich Mali and stayed. A meteor exploded over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, injuring 1,491 people and damaging over 4,300 buildings, ‘austerity’ continued in Europe and the US was still printing dollars like they are going out of fashion. They might be, given the ongoing rush to buy gold by various countries and talk of replacing the dollar as the world’s reserve currency.
A building collapsed in Bangladesh killing 1,129 and injuring 2,500. It was the third worst industrial accident ever. And there was high-profile political turmoil  in Ukraine, Thailand, Egypt and Turkey. There was even a glimpse of a major thaw in US-Iran relations.
Many things happened that were unreported or under – reported, not least because they were not deemed ‘newsworthy’. For example, candlelit marches in Delhi are headline grabbing, the ongoing tragedy affecting Indian farmers is not. The IPL is extremely newsworthy, Irom Sharmila’s cause is not.  
And the same may be said about this particular look back. Some occurrences have been included, many have not. Any write up is bound to be partial and subjective. Ask ten different people to write about the year just gone and you would probably get ten totally different narratives.
However, this particular look back has been very apt because it had much in common with 2013. It was long and winding, had some interesting highlights (hopefully) and went over in a flash. But the biggest thing it has in common with 2013 – it’s finally over