One of the nice things about writing a regular column is that it gives me an excuse to pick out trends, rather than just relying on snapshots.
I have just returned for the third time to websites from political hot spots and have three conclusions. First, that there is very little progress in the conventional sense: these sites are as likely to have moved backwards as forwards, certainly when measured against the general improvement in quality on the web.
Second, the effort put into sites reflects the current heat: when the struggle for hearts and minds - especially of Americans - is critical, the web is well exploited as a purveyor of high-class propaganda. When the heat is reduced, sites tend to be neglected.
Third, most interesting, is that the web provides unfiltered access to the thinking of people with whom few of us will ever have the chance of a lengthy dinner table discussion.
Take Northern Ireland. When I first looked at the Sinn Féin site (www.sinnfein.ie) in 1998, I was impressed. It knocked spots off centrist party sites and also contained some spooky features such as a map of British army bases in the province. Two years later I looked at loyalist sites and was particularly impressed by the Loyalist Network.
In general, tension has been falling - and so has emphasis on international propaganda. The Sinn Féin site is only superficially changed from 1998 and looks desperately dated. It makes basic mistakes such as allowing linked sites to appear in tiny frames, where they look silly. The army map has gone, though.
Meanwhile Loyalist Network seems to have vanished, although the Ulster Loyalist Information Services Network (www.ulisnet.com) continues to peddle the same mix of black humour and cogent, if scary, articles it did in 2000. But it is very inward-looking - your average American will be baffled by many of the references (as I was). So as a propaganda tool it has limited use.
In India and Pakistan, by contrast, the web is moving to the centre - or, at least, it is on the Pakistani side. The main government portal (www.pak.gov.pk) has a news flash at the top of its home page labelled “Wanted for terrorism”. The link leads to a “Wanted” notice about the May bomb attack on a bus in Karachi when 11 French engineers were killed. This is surely aimed not so much at potential informants as at the international community, as a way of telling it how seriously the government is taking the hunt for terrorists.
The home page also has a link to a substantial and well designed section on the disputed territory of Kashmir: here Pakistan gets its viewpoint across in clear if forceful language.
I have mentioned the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs site (www.mfa.gov.il) several times - usually in relation to its battery of navigation aids (and also the only politically motivated site map I know of).
But as a source of propaganda it is also powerful. On Tuesday morning, just after the Israeli raid on Gaza City, a link was already in place to an article in the Ha’aretz newspaper. The article itself was balanced, though the summary on the MFA site gave a predictable spin. The MFA also asks the questions sceptical foreigners might - such as: which came first, terrorism or “occupation”? (its quotation marks) - and answers them in its own way. It is propaganda, of course, but well delivered.
But the Israelis now have high-quality competition, thanks to sites produced by Palestinian sympathisers outside the region. The Palestine National Authority (www.pna.org) has, as before, a rather forlorn- looking “under construction” home page. But one of the links, to the Ministry of Planning and International Co-operation, leads to something quite spectacular.
The Electronic Intifada (www.electronicintifada.net) is a highly professional site, apparently designed and run from the UK, which blends links to newspaper stories, in-depth comment on the way the conflict is being presented in the media, the Live From Palestine “diary project” and snippets such as a running total of Palestinian and Israeli deaths. The design is clean, using interesting fonts and images, and the material is up to date. On Tuesday morning there were already links to a dozen articles covering the Gaza City attack.
Much has been written about sites linked to al-Qaeda. I found one that certainly supports its goals. Al-Muhajiroun (www.almuhajiroun.com) is slickly designed and, like the Electronic Intifada, appears to be UK-based (it does not say so -, but several references are British). The “non-Muslim” section asks some pretty basic questions - (“Who made God, then?”) - although most of the site is pure propaganda. Straight news reports are quoted but the site adds its own flourishes: “This just shows just how Islam and Jihad has no boundaries.” A story about the arrest of Daniel Pearl’s killers talks of “the satanic judiciary of Pakistan”.
If you want to get beyond media-processed versions of stories and come to your own conclusions, there can be few better ways than viewing them through websites such as these. I came away from them depressed at the lack of meeting of minds - but understanding just a little better the way some of those minds work.
This column appears every two weeks. The writer is a website effectiveness consultant for Bowen Craggs & Co. www.netprofit.co.uk.