It’s just after 8 a.m. on a Friday morning and Ali Abunimah is about to pressure National Public Radio (NPR), one of the United States’ most authoritative news sources, to correct itself. How? By zinging an e-mail to NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C. Welcome to the Middle East conflict’s cyberfront, an electronic theater of war where anger, outrage, and righteousness are the foot soldiers, and a one-man, makeshift media monitor with a Web site can redraw the battle lines.
Unlike the fighting on the ground, geography is largely irrelevant in the cyberbattle for hearts and minds. Its combatants include Nigel Parry, Scottish cofounder of the pro-Palestine Electronic Intifada (www.electronicintifada.net), a site that encourages media activism and features daily reports from the Palestinian territories. Parry’s site had 600,000 hits last April alone. Meanwhile, in the pro-Israel camp, the New York–based Israel Support Group (ISG) (www.israelsg.com) hosts a comprehensive site with news, video reports, and activist guides. ISG’s site gets approximately 80,000 hits a week, with 70 percent coming from North America, 20 percent from Europe, and 10 percent from Israel.
Since restrictions on information technology have limited Internet development in much of the Arab world, Palestinians and Muslims find their cybervoices among expatriate communities in the West. One of the largest Islamic Web sites, IslamiCity (www.islamicity.com), reaches about 50 million people a month and features polls, TV and radio broadcasts, and religious guidance. Although based in California, nearly half of the site’s users reside outside the United States, including countries where media are restricted. Similarly, Middle East News Online (www.middleeastwire.com), headquartered in North Carolina, partners with 120 content providers worldwide and uses a network of reporters and stringers to disseminate information about the entire region. Fadi Chahine, the site’s founder, says he logs more than 6 million total hits a month, with roughly 35 percent of his traffic originating from the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia.
But the impact of the Internet on the Middle East conflict cannot simply be quantified in users per month. Web sites are having a broader influence by challenging the hegemony of established media. Many Webmasters are fast becoming effective media watchdogs—with bite. “The impact of the Internet on the media is that they are hearing from people on both sides of the conflict,” says Rania Awwad, a representative for Palestine Media Watch (www.pmwatch.org), a grass-roots organization that promotes balanced media content. “They know their audience is much smarter because they have access to alternative sources of information. The media knows it is being watched.
That’s just fine with partisan watchdog groups like Palestine Media Watch or pro-Israel HonestReporting (www.honestreporting.com), which describes itself as a “fast-action Web site that monitors the international media for biased reports against Israel.” Among its successes, the site says that after months of lobbying, “CNN has finally stopped referring to Gilo [on the outskirts of Jerusalem] as a ‘settlement.’” (It’s now a “Jewish neighborhood.”) Likewise, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) (www.memri.org) uses the Web to monitor Arab media for anti-Israel content, which the institute then translates and sends out to government officials, media, and policy figures in the United States and Europe. In a recent scoop, MEMRI caught a Saudi newspaper, Al-Riyadh, outlandishly claiming that Jews drain the blood of Gentiles to make Purim holiday cookies.
Abunimah, the one-man watchdog who runs www.abunimah.org, says he wants “to inform people and provide them with a critical analysis of what they and I get from the media.” In the case of NPR, Abunimah heard a report that no casualties occurred during an Israeli helicopter attack in Gaza. Having read the details on Ha’Aretz (www.haaretzdaily.com), a prominent left-leaning Israeli daily, he popped an e-mail off to NPR pointing out that five Palestinians died in the attack. Less than two hours later, an NPR anchor rectified the inaccuracy on-air, and the permanent transcripts were corrected.
All this real-time cyberactivism, unlike in previous conflicts, means that journalists are subject not just to increased scrutiny but also to massive lobbying campaigns. “The Internet is hugely important to lobbying on both sides,” says Bob Rowley, who sits on the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board. “Working journalists get bombarded.” Other media outlets are sensitive to this reality but reluctant to discuss it on the record. CNN, for instance, refused to allow one of its anchors to be interviewed for this story, even on background. The ombudsman at one major U.S. newspaper, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says he receives between 100 and 300 e-mail complaints a day; most concern coverage of the Middle East. Rowley says he takes individual reactions more seriously than mass e-mail campaigns.
Some observers worry that the proliferation of independent Web sites, media monitors, and lobbying campaigns will have a polarizing effect on the conflict. “Muslims get news from a Muslim perspective. Jews get news from their perspective. There is a gap in understanding what is happening in the conflict,” says IslamiCity’s Mohammed Abdul Aleem.
But the Internet can also be a conduit for reconciliation, allowing the like-minded to communicate across the divide. For instance, a recent edition of the Egyptian English-language weekly Al Ahram (www.ahram.org.eg/weekly) featured reports and opinions from Palestinians and Israelis. It’s not uncommon to find Israeli, Jewish, Palestinian, and Arab Web sites linked to one another. For example, Not in My Name (www.nimn.org), a Jewish-American peace group, and Ramallah Online (www.ramallahonline.com), a Palestinian news and discussion board, link to one another, as do Abunimah’s site and Israeli peace group Gush Shalom (www.gush-shalom.org).
One site devoted solely to civil dialogue is Bitter Lemons (www.bitterlemons.org). “It is increasingly difficult for Palestinians and Israelis to sit together. The Internet is the only option and the best option because you can get to many people,” explains Yossi Alpher, one of the site’s founders. “The Web site provides in trying times a kind of sane alternative. We are talking about our problems even if we don’t agree.”
Does all this mean we are on the brink of a cybereffect, an Internet derivative of the well-documented CNN effect? Like CNN, the Net offers round-the-clock coverage, on-the-ground reporting, and graphic images. The difference, which may ultimately have a more profound impact, is that while just a handful of news networks can boast a worldwide audience, millions of Web sites have a potential global reach. But CNN influences policymakers because it’s a credible news source. And the danger of the Internet is that, unlike traditional media, truth can’t necessarily keep up with falsehoods in the brave new online world. Propaganda and disinformation spread easily, with little challenge. The turning point in the Middle East cyberconflict may come when critical masses formed through the Internet begin to successfully pressure governments and religious leaders to the same extent as does CNN. –Shaazka Beyerle
Shaazka Beyerle, a Washington, D.C.–based writer, lived in Jerusalem from 1997 to 2000 and is a former vice president of the European Institute. This article was published in the July/August 2002 issue of Foreign Policy.