Internet and the war media scene

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE American war against Iraq is expected to make a profound impact on global politics. The key feature of the emerging international political system is the massive participation of the people at the popular level across international boundaries. Never before have the common masses felt so deeply involved in contemporary affairs or attempted on this scale to influence the course of history.

Wars are nothing new for humankind. Some of the most devastating conflicts, such as the two world wars of the twentieth century, affected the lives of millions in an unprecedented way. Yet they never triggered a popular reaction as intense as the American war in Iraq has done. In fact, the response this time has been so powerful, widespread and organized, that a peace movement was born even before the conflict had actually started.

True, the millions of people who attempted to stop the US and Britain from attacking Iraq failed to do so. But the rallies continue to be held all over the world with the aim of forcing a ceasefire and restraining America from extending the war to other countries.

What has prompted a different response this time giving the anti-war movement such a broadbased character? What has galvanized people so massively this time and ensured such a diverse participation of people from all sides of the political and ideological spectrum in peace rallies? The answer lies in the role the media have played, may be unwittingly, in producing this new sociological and political phenomenon.

The fact of the matter is that the media, driven by the emergence of the Internet, are changing people’s thinking on key issues and thus forcing governments to take note of the change. During the 1991 Gulf war and in the post-9/11 American ‘war on terror’, the television channels could get away with their flood of disinformation and obfuscation. This was the first time the viewers were exposed to images on their screen showing war and violence in their naked brutality — albeit neatly cropped to produce the desired impact on the viewers’ psyche.

With the phenomenal advancement in technology, the TV coverage has been likened to one given to the Olympic Games, so extensive and graphic has it been. With 529 journalists “embedded” with the so-called coalition forces, close-up shots are now possible as correspondents from places as far apart as Washington and Qatar are positioned on the TV screen simultaneously to give their version of events.

This is a significant change. The electronic and print media in the United States, which are owned by a corporate oligarchy that also controls political power and leading business interests, have not enjoyed the free hand they did 18 months ago in the post-9/11 period. Their capacity to “manufacture consent” — to borrow the title of Noam Chomsky’s book — has been curbed. They have been compelled to tone down somewhat their war rhetoric and skewed presentations, as they have come under pressure from a public demanding unbiased coverage of the war. The voices of dissent have begun to break through the wall of silence previously erected by the mainstream media which were accustomed to giving a sanitized version of events, peppered with conformist tone and slanting.

It is the Internet which has penetrated the stranglehold of television, radio and the press over public perceptions and thinking. According to a rough estimate, it is used today by over 605 million people all over the world (the figure would be higher if we count the number of people who share Internet connections) to obtain information and exchange messages. Informed sources in Islamabad place the number of Internet users in Pakistan at approximately five million — which is more than newspaper readers.

In the US all newspapers, which were classified as the alternate media and could not previously enlarge their circulation because of financial constraints, have now set up websites and are spreading their message far and wide beyond American borders. Since their goal is the dissemination of the ‘alternative’ viewpoint, they encourage other websites and newspapers to freely reproduce whatever material appeals to them. Michael Albert, editor of ZNet, in reply to a query if permission was required to reproduce articles from their website, wrote, “We don’t pay much attention to such legalities, to be honest…”

Since all newspapers worth their while in the Third World have also set up websites, it is now possible for readers in the West to access them and obtain the other side of the picture. Traffic to these sites has spiralled. With millions accessing them, their message is forwarded to further millions by committed individuals who have set up news groups.

A psychiatrist in the US, Carol Wolman, sends me at least ten messages everyday giving me links to media sites which she monitors and which I would never have accessed in normal course. She tells me that she has 800 addresses on her list, many of which are of groups. She writes, “Many people pick up my articles and republish them — they are kind of ripples in a pond.” There are thousands of such groups who forward articles and messages to the addresses on their lists. The hope now is that with the advent of the Internet, the dream of a new information order will be realized. Twenty years ago, the Unesco director-general, Amadou-Mehtar M’Bow, had struggled for this so valiantly only to lose his job in the process, thanks to the American ambition to control the minds and hearts of the people around the world by controlling the flow of information. M’Bow is now emerging the victor. The fact that hackers — said to be professionals — have been working hard to prevent the English language website of Al Jazeera from becoming operational betrays the apprehensions of the powers that be on this score.

The other factor which accounts for the immense impact of the Internet is that it offers itself as a very convenient, cheap, prompt and effective tool of communication which is not easy to censor and does not lend itself easily to news management. This has greatly facilitated the organization of the peace movement. It sounds incredible, but the fact is that the anti-war movement, which has taken the world by storm, began on the Internet. The moveon.org which spearheaded the peace rallies all over the world on February 15 and the global candle-light vigil on March 16 was launched on the computer by four peace activists in the US. Messages were circulated through the Internet which were picked up by local activists working at their own level.

In the US the moveon.org has over 900,000 members and, according to The New York Times, it has mobilized in three months the number of people against the war in Iraq which it had taken three years to build during the Vietnam war.

The Internet is restricting the capacity of the news channels to wage a psychological war on behalf of the Bush Administration. The mainstream media can no longer ignore the Internet. They have tried to counter it by setting up their own websites in an effort to inject a measure of credibility in their reporting. Strangely enough, many of these websites are more balanced in their coverage of news than the TV channels are on the screen. ‘Damaging’ news which appears on the website is carefully expunged from news bulletins.

According to the BBC World Service, their online language sites attracted 60 million people seeking news of the military action in Iraq in six days after the American attack was launched — ten times higher than the normal figures.

A significant feature of the Internet, which the websites of TV channels and the newspapers have used to the maximum, is the opportunity it gives to people to actively interact with the hosts and other readers. Discussions and chat groups have been started — the BBC Online’s “Talking Point” is an example — which pose controversial questions, invite comments and take votes. But strangely, a notice in “Talking Point” asking for votes on the question “Was war a mistake?” was dropped without any explanation at the closing time of the vote.

The 21st century has been described as the communication century. Its key feature is that the media, especially multi-media, have resulted in an information explosion. This will have a profound impact on the course of events because the media are also involving the people in public debates and giving them a sense of participation and empowerment which was quite unheard of before.