The Mideast conflict goes cyber, harsh words and all

Trying to steer world opinion, Israeli and Palestinian sympathizers are turning increasingly to the Internet, waging an online battle using passionate e-mail, partisan Web sites, and combative chat rooms.

Are they swaying anyone? Maybe not, but that hardly seems to matter to the deeply opinionated participants.

“The volume recently has quadrupled,” Anthony Arnove, author of the book Iraq Under Siege and a self-described pro-Palestinian, said of the Middle East-focused e-mail he has been receiving.

The online weapons include real and invented news, photos and video of carnage after Palestinian suicide bombs or Israeli attacks, e-mail appeals for boycotts of businesses deemed pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian, and Web postings that vilify either Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon or Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat.

“Send this to 20 other people you know and ask them to send it to twenty others, Jew and non-Jew - it doesn’t really matter,” concludes a typical e-mail chain letter of murky origin - this particular one supporting Israel’s territorial claims, while the subject line pleads: “Don’t Delete Me!”

“The Internet has become one of the primary means that people use to try to influence world opinion, and the fight that’s going on right now in the Middle East is almost as much about world opinion as it is about military issues,” said Frank Rusciano, chairman of the political science department at Rider University in New Jersey.

“The Internet is kind of like our global gossip column,” said Rusciano, who led a study tracking world opinion after the Sept. 11 attacks.

For now, the online war of words overshadows a continuing “hacker war” that sympathizers for the opposing Mideast factions have waged for years. The hacker war has engaged in defacing Web sites, disrupting access to Web sites by flooding them with meaningless data, and other hacking activities.

In recent years, politicians, corporations, animal-rights activists, and other groups have learned to use the Internet to plead their causes. But the life-and-death nature of the Middle East struggle has partisans in a fever pitch.

“Read this terrible report about the horrors in Ramallah and act. Call the media, the President, Congress,” pleads a mass pro-Palestinian e-mail.

“My little country, Israel, is on fire,” proclaims a pro-Israel Web site splattered with violent images.

The Electronic Intifada, an internationally run Web site that supports the Palestinian cause, regards the Internet as the place where it can level the playing field with what it considers the better-funded supporters of Israel, according to one of its founders, Nigel Parry, of St. Paul., Minn.

Parry estimated that up to 300,000 people eventually get the e-mails his site sends almost daily to an initial group of 3,500 recipients. “You get more bang for your buck” on the Internet, he said. “We’re trying to provide a response to what we think is the imbalance of coverage.”

Use of the Internet by those concerned with the Middle East reflects the larger trend in do-it-yourself news gathering and dissemination that picked up after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, said Lee Rainie, director of a continuing research survey, the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Since then, “a lot of people are getting news and information from these kinds of personal communications. They’re constructing their own news environments - sharing e-mails, forwarding URLs [addresses of Web sites], forwarding communications they got from friends in that part of the world, and calling attention to foreign coverage,” he said.

But the Internet is also an easy place to spread malicious or bogus stories among the gullible.

“Any kook can set into motion campaigns, attacks, misinformation, disinformation, by merely… sending it to 1,000 of his friends, and each will send it to 1,000 of his friends,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which fights anti-Semitism.

As a result, some people with strong interest in Middle East developments say that what happens on the Internet is almost irrelevant.

“They’re preaching to the converted,” Jean AbiNader, managing director of the Arab American Institute, said of partisan sites and e-mail. “I think warfare by Internet is not very useful.”

Correcting the falsehoods that appear online is almost impossible, AbiNader said. Every week, he said, there are several chain e-mails that are “very anti-Arab in tone,” with “historical misstatements and quotations that are out of context. But you can’t answer those kinds of things, because you don’t know who’s getting them.”

Foxman agreed. The ADL’s Web site has a section called “Debunking Internet Rumors,” but Foxman said bad information often originates from virtually anonymous sources and circulates at lightning speed within groups that may never receive, let alone believe, the debunking.

“How do you catch up with it? How do you follow up?” he asked.

So far, the Internet war apparently has not produced any large-scale computer disruption by politically motivated hackers.

But that could change, said Sandor Vegh, a University of Maryland researcher looking into the activities of so-called “hacktivists.” Vegh said that as time goes on, he worries less about the online war of words than about the possibility of a more-ominous cyber war on military and financial computer networks.

“It takes one person to write a highly destructive computer virus that can disable communication networks,” Vegh said. “The other side of the story, of course, is that no strategically important system or classified information should be on the Internet.”