Irony is seldom so choice. A Union minister of the “world’s largest democracy”—India’s self-promoted political brand—tries to control a medium that in the past year has proved an extraordinary tool for advancing democracy in other parts of the world.
Instead of demanding that India’s Facebook, Microsoft and Google executives filter out content that didn’t chime with his tastes, the honourable minister for telecom might have been better off (and certainly would have aroused less ire) had he discreetly logged on to the website of another tech company, Reputation.com.
Gag order? Kapil Sibal announcing the decision to monitor online comments earlier this month. Gurinder Osan/AP
“Control how you look on the Internet,” its website promises. “Promote yourself online so you look good to employers, banks and romantic prospects.” Online reputation management is serious business these days. In some circles of the very wealthy, total anonymity and invisibility on the Web have become as much a status marker as a private jet and exclusive airport lounges. But the usual goal of those who seek to alter their online ego is to create a pretence of righteous behaviour.
The minister’s request was promptly exposed by anonymous executives, and rightly so. But as I read about the public censoring of the would-be Web censorer, I was reminded of the Gandhian hyperpublicity that now saturates our daily life. We never know when we are being watched, or what aspect of our activities may be watched. Gandhi designed his life as a public spectacle and was famously the master of multiple audiences. Whether communicating with peasants or with potentates, he was able to reach out to each by revealing to them carefully selected aspects of his moral physique. But we no longer have any idea who our audiences are, or even whether we are on stage or not.
Gandhi presented different aspects of his moral physique to different audiences. Keystone/Getty Images
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How in the world to manage image, when there are more arenas than ever in which we are potentially exposed? It’s not just a problem for celebrities or corporate houses. It’s a problem faced by nations and by governments.
Most of those governments have their own in-house versions of Reputation.com, their ministries of truth. The Chinese government is especially artful at image control. Its bureaucrats monitor Internet chatter to alert themselves to simmering problems. If people are complaining to one another about water supply or food prices, governments can seize the information and swing into action. To Chinese officials, this isn’t an intrusion. It’s a testimony of their commitment to good, responsive government. Of course, it’s also a way of keeping demands for democracy at bay. And yet such intrusions by the Chinese government into their citizens’ Internet lives at least end up yielding some tangible benefits to the citizenry.
Protesters outside Sibal’s residence in New Delhi. Vijay Verma/PTI
In the age of WikiLeaks, no government is entirely indifferent to the following two truths: that bad behaviour has a way of coming out, and that power is evermore dependent on how others view us. Whether it concerns the deployment of military force or the price of money that markets require governments to pay, the efficacy of government actions depends as never before on their legitimacy and standing—not just in the eyes of their own people, but in the judgements of markets and of circles of public opinion often located far away. Consider the citizens of Europe, who are discovering, brutally, that their personal futures are inextricably dependent on how their national economies are judged by ratings agencies and markets. In that sense the world is today a wide web of opinion, human belief, which has acquired an intensity and volatility that we are still only just beginning to grasp—and which we still imagine we can control by old, gatekeeper methods.
As images and stories circulate in a new international sphere of “public opinion”, the build-up and erosion of legitimacy has taken on a viral, instantaneous character. Individuals suddenly become celebrities, and the reputations of nations are irrevocably damaged overnight. As the marketers at Reputation.com like to point out, something doesn’t have to be true to wreak massive financial damage or to puncture status. In such a volatile time for reputations, the impulse to take control of India’s image, in paternalist fashion, is almost touching in its concern for India’s vulnerability. But when politicians are moved to act on that impulse, that’s not touching in the least.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Still, as I read the coverage this week, I couldn’t help thinking that the sneaky things governments do to control information are nothing compared to what they do to obtain it, especially in the post-9/11 world. When my wife flew in to Washington last month, authorities browsed the external hard drive she’d tossed in her luggage. It wasn’t a master spy operation. The operative left a USB cord and other hardware in her suitcase, still plugged into the external hard drive. The USB cord was tagged red, white and blue.
An Assange supporter in London. Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Paradoxically, ham-fisted efforts to obtain and control information, in any country, may give its citizens a false sense of comfort. When officials are so clumsy at pursuing their ends—when their mental gears turn so clunkily—we may think we’re living not in an Orwellian world, but in a gimcrack Inspector Clouseau movie. We may start to feel that we’re the ones watching our governments. That we have it in our power to hold them accountable and to expose and shame those officials who go too far.
We may even come to believe that in time, enough governments will make enough embarrassing mistakes to finally realize that acceptance of criticism, however ill-founded, is the better state policy—not simply because it’s the politically right way for a democracy to act, but because it’s also the more effective form of PR and image management. After all, the offence the officials cause when they’re discovered trying to massage national image brings worse publicity than thousands of derogatory private websites.
As nations and economies compete against one another with ever sharper elbows, hoping to draw in capital and human resources, the reputational stakes will spiral upward. Governments will get cleverer, and quite possibly stealthier, at working to make sure their nations’ reputations appear well scrubbed.
Sibal’s comments have drawn a flood of criticism on sites like Facebook. Anupam Nath/AP
As for the public image of our political class, and the honourable minister’s image in particular: After having been assigned to handle the 2G scandal, and now this, perhaps we should all chip in to buy him a voucher for the $15,000-a-year (around Rs 8 lakh) “ReputationDefender” subscription, the top-of-the-range package. The image scrubbers at Reputation.com would have a logical place to start—that new Facebook page, “We Hate Kapil Sibal”.
Sunil Khilnani is Avantha Professor and director of the King’s India Institute at King’s College London. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org