|Working the web: War on the
You can read all about the war in the papers, but the web can provide a broader forum for news and debate, writes Chris Moss
More internet news
Thursday December 6, 2001
The mainstream coverage's war on terrorism seems to know no saturation point, as we thirst for more and more information on the fate of Taliban prisoners at Qala-i-Jhangi or the roundtable talks in Germany. But if the first casualty of war is the truth, is diversity the first casualty in news provision? Not on the web. Unlike during the Gulf War, the last international conflict on this scale, salvoes of news coverage are now launched at users with pinpoint accuracy on the web - for better or worse.
Many office workers first saw the twin towers in flames on their PC screens and while traditional media have taken over at peak times, the pace of change in events in Central Asia is such that websites are updated in much the same way as local evening newspapers were printed every hour.
Email and the internet have also figured for the first time as "agents" of war - even the elusive Osama bin Laden is imagined safe, and sinister, in cyberspace. And as part of a general clampdown, the CIA and FBI are screening messages and data on some sites.
When the web first turned to news, its promise - tagged "Internet liberation theology" by one Salon.com writer - was that a combination of low technical overheads and interactiveness would allow new ways of reporting and presenting information. The internet's ability to offer angles from all over the world would challenge parochialism and mega-corporation hegemonies.
Mainstream websites are fairly keen on self-censorship, and include the likes of Barbara Streisand removing anti-Bush remarks in the interests of "national unity". To date, the Electronic Freedom Forum's site reports that no site has been shut down by the US government, though there are new firewalls on some official sites related to chemical weapons, chemical warfare defences, energy data, some Nasa pages and sites dedicated to road maps and pipelines.
Meanwhile, British authorities have pulled the plug on sites such as Sakina Securities, thought to be too candid on military matters.
For actual news, small, independent sites cannot afford to compete with the corporations when it comes to original reporting. The IndyMedia group of sites, affiliated to the anti-corporate movement, offer a whole load of opinions on the war, on the US and on the humanitarian crisis, all written for a faithful audience.
Marcus Sky Covell, the Indy Media UK reporter who was hospitalised in the Genoa streetfights, sees the warring countries and mainstream media as co-conspirators. "They've over-hyped the war. Every day, you get up to 15 pages of newsprint and the bottom line is it sells newspapers. They get all these opinions and whether the writers are for or against the war, it's still hype. They have not remained objective. Also, while we print people's views directly, they take other people's opinions, combine them with their own, then print it."
Indymedia and other independent sites such as Mediachannel are also useful monitors of the distortions on mainstream news providers. "Far too many of the news sites function only as ways to extend and promote major media brands," argues Danny Schechter, ex-CNN staffer and now executive editor at Mediachannel. He adds that "much of the web reporting, at least in the US, suffers from the limits of media machines that too often march in lockstep with the government."
The internet is also, via its chatrooms, the medium for public expression about major events. While most folk might be happy to read the columns of self-appointed experts, sites such as the London-based http://www.outtherenews.com/ provide a diary for the public to enter into debate, dialogue or plain rant about the current crisis.
Sites run by Muslims such as Islam Online or Islamicity provide, as a matter of course, all the background non-Muslim media have had to suddenly catch up with. Islamicity's chief executive, Mohammed Abdul Aleem, stresses the usefulness of internet for genuine debate and dissent. "One can get a sense of a significant disconnection between points of view by reading the comment section for one of our articles we promoted called American Muslims call for peaceful efforts to end the conflict in Afghanistan. I think about 90% of the non-Muslim comments are upset with this statement and the majority of Muslim comments are supportive."
The internet, which could be the chaotic counterpoint to the editing, polishing, soundbiting and "making" of wars and victories (and the one thing no one is doubting about the Afghan crisis is the anarchy and mayhem across the country), has still room to improve and show it is above recycling mainstream TV and printed news by simply uploading it on to a screen.
For all the utopian fantasies of technologists and non-governmental organisations such as the digital opportunity task force, the G8 consortium of technology firms that regards the internet as the great economic equaliser, the war is still in many ways offline - the web can keep up with cameramen and news reports, and even missiles, but horses are still too fast and caves too secret.