I’ll be honest and declare that this post isn’t really about travel, so you may well be asking yourself what it’s doing on a travel blog. I doubt if my answer will be entirely satisfactory but I think you deserve more than me excusing it by saying, “it’s my blog and I’ll do what I want”. If there is one link to travel it’s that having been twice to Syria in 2005 and 2006, I have many great memories of the place and its people and have followed events there with interest, even before the war started. Unlike virtually all travel blogs, I have never shied away from occasionally discussing the politics of the places I have visited when I think its relevant, so this piece may be an extension of that. As travelers we have a bit more duty and I would hope enthusiasm, for trying to understand what’s going on around the world, of course we can’t be an expert on everywhere and we have to focus on what interests us most. Although this piece is centred around current events in Syria I hope it provides lessons that can be applied elsewhere in the age of the Internet where we are deluged with contradictory sources of information. Whilst I have no immediate plans to expand beyond my travel remit, I’ll be happy to respond to any of your thoughts and criticisms on doing so.
Unlike many of you I have the luxury, or perhaps curse of having plenty of spare time to trawl the Internet to keep myself informed on what is possibly he most depressing, long running, current events subject: Syria. Not wishing to fall into the Internet quagmire of the dreaded echo chamber, I follow sources from all sides of the argument, or rather many arguments, including those who I profoundly disagree with at times. I click on links quoted in articles and then click on links in those articles. I delve deep into Twitter thread upon Twitter thread. I do my own Googling to try to resolve issues I haven’t found a resolution to. When I see a claim that an organization has made a statement about a key issue I often check out the validity of the original statement or inform myself about the credibility of the organization. I visited Syria twice before the war and was reading about the country a long time before it started. I have Syrian friends who I have discussed the situation with. But where am I after these years of effort? Wiser maybe, but any more sure of exactly what’s happening in Syria, not at all. So if I don’t know what the fuck is going on, why do so many people seem so convinced they know?
Following even clearly knowledgable commentators, it feels at times that people are talking about two parallel worlds in describing events in Syria: different sides, driven by particular ideologies, often remain oblivious to perfectly justified criticisms by the other viewpoint. Although it’s a gross simplification I’d lump the two sides into the categories of: 1. Establishment media/military interventionists; 2. Alternative media/Anti war proponents. On both sides I have found wisdom, credibility, denial, disinformation, omission and outright lies. If you follow only one side you’ll never get near the whole truth, if you follow both sides you’ll probably just get confused like me. However, I have at least come to some conclusion over the major failings found on either side, that’s not to say it describes everyone at all times. The first category is in denial as to the nature of much of the rebel forces and hence gives an unjustified level of credibility to information released by them. It also refuses to recognise or minimizes the subversive actions by Western states and their allies in the conflict. The second category is in denial as to the legitimate aspirations of many Syrians who peacefully demanded relief from government oppression at the time of the Arab Spring. It tends to write off the entire rebellion as jihadi extremists when many Syrians have bravely resisted both them and the government. It also ascribes far too much relevance to the subversive Western and Allied activities denying Syrians any agency or ability to think and act for themselves without the CIA or whoever organizing it. Although there are very few in the second category that believe Assad is entirely innocent there is a tendency to overlook the regime’s undoubted crimes while the first category does the same with the rebels.
As with previous major chemical attacks, the narratives of both these sides are playing out at the moment but this time the alternative view has crept more into the mainstream, albeit mostly to be criticised but that is a change to having been largely ignored or dismissed as conspiracy theory without even a second thought. Although the alternative media does indeed have problems concerning conspiracy theories, probably even more so than the mainstream media has ignoring anything that diverts from the establishment narrative, there are some reasonable assertions that can be made from an extensive study of the more intelligent commentators. Some theories are clearly garbage and some turn out to be true, but the mistake is to focus on the headline conspiracy instead of looking at the evidence. Even if the proposed idea is likely to be false it is often based on very real concerns about the nature of the event and statements made by the media and government about it. It has been distrust in these institutions that generated the theories in the first place and it has been the failure of those institutions to deal with the more credible aspects and commentators on the theories that has led to a spiral of distrust, which I believe has now led us close to the crisis point in my title.
First, we need to go back a bit, to the Iraq war. It was very quickly proven after the invasion of Iraq that the whole justification for the war was a lie, often repeated unquestioningly by the mainstream media, where commentators denounced as traitors those who dissented from the establishment narrative. This should have been a wake up call, remember the conspiracy came from the US government, not a bunch of loonies in the dark recesses of the Internet. It told us that governments and media can not only lie, we knew that of course but that they can do so to undertake the most serious and disastrous of actions.This fed fuel to the fire of the 9-11 conspiracy, even if it remained mostly underground, creating a community that would never again trust a word of the government. This is not the place to examine that vast subject of 9-11, suffice to say that despite some of the patently absurd theories associated with it there is clearly enough evidence of omissions, distortions, unanswered questions and cover ups detailed by intelligent commentators and experts to question parts of the official narrative. Even if there were perfectly reasonable explanations that could have been provided for these issues the failure to provide them created the base of an Internet movement that would question, rightly or wrongly, everything official that came after. Open source Internet investigations allowed people to dig into a vast library of past government crimes and cover ups to provide ammunition for their cases and put current events into a historical context. We discovered or were reminded how we were lied to about previous wars, how the CIA traded drugs, tortured innocent people and lied to official investigations, how we supported brutal dictatorships, overturned democracies, along with a whole litany of wrongdoing. Of course this free for all was a showcase for the good the bad and the ugly but a new paradigm for citizen investigations and alternative journalism was born.
As the years advanced more and more people rightly started to question what they were being told, even if they didn’t always come to the right conclusion. The Arab Spring threw in a whole new input from Arabs and Muslims abroad and sure enough along came another war: Libya. Yet again it turned out that we were lied to justify that war as well, not that the media showed much interest by the time that fact became beyond question. Hot on its heels came Syria, with its layers of complexity and limited access providing ample opportunity for even the well-intentioned on all sides to misread or ignore any of the myriad of relevant factors. As with the enormously confusing Balkan war in the 90s, lazy journalism and deliberate disinformation from all parties compounded the problem.
Now we arrive at Ghouta and the suspected chemical attack in Douma and the competing stories fighting for attention. I’m not here to reveal the truth of what happened, because despite hours and hours of investigation I still can’t commit myself to one version or another of events. All I can tell you is that you’re being lied to by both sides. Possibly more significantly in the long-term, is that the establishment has lost control of the narrative on events like this and the Skripal poisoning. The near total compliance to the official line by the mainstream media, often with its vicious smear attacks on anyone who dares deviate, now has an Internet army to fight. What all those years ago were a handful of Internet cranks talking about 9-11 now number in their millions and they are asking legitimate questions, they are fed up of being lied to and dragged into wars they reject. Look at comments sections in the mainstream media, they are full of people who don’t believe what they are being told about chemical weapons attacks, the White Helmets or whatever crime Russia supposedly committed this week. I don’t care what you believe to be true about these events, 9-11 or who killed Kennedy, the point is that trust has sunk to such a level that every major international event is going to be subject to complete scepticism because people have stopped believing what they are being told. Obsession with Russian bots and troll farms misses the point, even if the Russia paranoia headlines are all true, all they are doing is amplifying what’s already there. If our governments had not developed lying and disinformation to and art form and our media had done its job and remembered its duty was to remain sceptical of the official line, then we wouldn’t need to rely on questionable Internet sources.
This is the crisis I mean. If government and media don’t seriously assess their roles in war and foreign policy and how they inform the public, then faith in everything else they do will collapse, this is surely a recipe for chaos. Do we want a completely polarised public, each half living in parallel worlds of understanding for any controversial event? Trust in mainstream media has dropped year on year and current events will only exacerbate that. We are already at a point that it won’t matter what the official conclusions are about the chemical attack or the Skripal case, millions will still not believe it and quite possibly with good reason. It’s no good ranting on about conspiracy theories if you’re not seen as having any more credibility than some bloke on the Internet.
It’s time we demanded that our politicians and media acted with integrity that merited our confidence. This isn’t about left-wing or right-wing, who or what ideology or faith you support, it’s about all of us and the sooner our leaders and media get the message the better.