Americans are turning to the Internet in record numbers for news and opinion, underscoring in new ways the Web’s powerful, global reach as the United States prepares for war.
By the millions, they are going online to get up-to-the minute news, read reports in the foreign and alternative press, and check out so-called “warblogs,” electronic diaries pushing myriad views on the conflict with Iraq.
With the Internet, “the town square is global, the bullhorn is loud and it’s not very expensive,” says Dave Winer, a valley technologist and blogging pioneer.
If the Web came of age on Sept. 11, 2001, as the electronic equivalent of the nation’s office water cooler, impending war in Iraq has served to boost its audience and influence, experts say.
“What technology has done is to take away some advantage and control from traditional news sources and give more power to citizens,” said Jeffrey Cole, director of the UCLA Center for Communication Policy. “This is a continuation of what we saw after Sept. 11.”
The U.S. audience for online news has grown substantially in the past year alone. Visitors to news sites jumped from 67.5 million in Jan. 2002 to 82 million last month, drawing nearly two of three Internet users, says Internet measurement firm Nielsen//NetRatings. Global news sites are now in easy reach of Americans.
Google news search
In September, Google, the leading search engine, launched a news search function that automatically culls and ranks reports from some 4,500 sources, ranging from Fox News to the BBC to Arabnews.com.
Monthly visitors are up nearly 400,000 in four months, says Nielsen, to 1.4 million.
Page views for the Web site operated by Aljazeera, the Oman-based Arabic language network that in 2001 aired the first broadcast statement by Osama bin Laden, reportedly have grown from about 700,000 a day to 3 million since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. More than 40 percent of visitors are from the United States, and the network plans to launch an English-language Web site this year.
One of the first places Steve Berley checks in the morning is the English-language site of the Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz. “They’ve already had a full day of news when I get up,” said the former dot-commer who now works for the Jewish Community Relations Council in San Francisco.
Steering one’s way through the thicket of online news and opinion, however, can be time-consuming and confusing.
“I’m too busy to read a lot of stuff that I can’t trust on face value,” said Rob Molinar, director of the San Jose Peace Center. “That’s the problem with the Web. It’s like having a conversation with someone you don’t know much about.”
And filtering the news with a particular political bent can breed misinformation and mistrust.
“It’s very easy to go online and only get one point of view,” said Charles Lipson, a University of Chicago international relations professor. “The big cost of news today is the cost of getting a good source as opposed to any source.”
Lipson publishes one of the most comprehensive online lists of links to Middle East news at www.charleslipson.com. He clearly labels the links’ country of origin with a flag.
As conflict and debate escalate, more and more people see the Web as a source for news they can’t get on TV or in newspapers.
A Chicago-based anti-war group just launched electroniciraq.net, promising first-person, on-the-ground accounts from Baghdad. Even mainstream media is giving it a go. BBCOnline is soliciting people to upload newsworthy images about from wherever they may be for posting on its Web site.
One million visitors
AlterNet.org, a San Francisco outlet for non-mainstream news reports, said in January it logged 1 million unique visitors in a single month, a record. An AlterNet.org report on the anti-war marches over Presidents’ Day weekend spread so quickly through global Web links that Google’s automatic system, which counts links, ranked the AlterNet story over traditional media reports for several hours, the site’s chief said.
Before Sept. 11, Shahed Amanullah, an East Bay engineer, was only interested in publishing online reviews of local eateries that follow the Muslim dietary standards of halal.
That all changed when he began to fear that Arabs might all be lumped together as American-haters. Last year he launched Altmuslim.com, a news and discussion forum for the Muslim community.
“Before 9/11, Muslims didn’t want to be acknowledged. Now we don’t want people to think Osama Bin Laden speaks for us,” said Amanullah, a resident of Danville. “I am not invisible any more.”
As war talk on the Web has grown, so has the number of warblogs, typically impromptu, stream-of-consciousness writings posted by amateur analysts, though well-known columnists and pundits are now joining in.
The number of all active blogs is estimated at about 500,000. Nielsen says monthly traffic to blogspot.com, the leading host of blogs that was recently bought by Google, has increased 500 percent, to 1.4 million, in January.
“Blogging is an online equivalent of going to a demonstration,” said Colin Hunter, a co-founder of Antiwar.com, and of chipmaker Transmeta. Antiwar.com operates from a renovated guesthouse at his Atherton home.
War blogs range from well-reasoned opinion pieces to political rants to quirky parody. They can create virtual rallying points for the like-minded. And their influence sometimes goes far beyond their limited traffic numbers.
Charles Johnson, a one-time guitarist and former Jarreau band member, has generated a loyal following, but also controversy, by posting virulent anti-Israeli speeches and writings from Arab leaders that he collects from Middle East-based Web sites virtually unknown to most Americans.
He says the point of his site, littlegreenfootballs.com, is to expose Arab world thinking and thereby build sympathy for war and Israeli causes. Critics say Johnson, who emphasizes he is not Jewish, is fueling anti-Arab hysteria.
But no one was more surprised than Johnson when the English language Web site of Israeli daily Ha’aretz picked up a parody written by a contributor to his site — and then published it online as straight news.
The parody included a fake quote from the Arab League calling Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon’s trip to space aboard the Columbia space shuttle an “illegal Zionist occupation of Earth orbit.” The entire episode occurred before Columbia’s tragedy.
“Now I try to clearly label the parody,” Johnson said. “When the number of people paying attention to you hits a few thousand, you have to be more careful.”
Copyright © 2003, Knight Ridder Inc.