The Net After the Oklahoma Bomb

Some Answers to the Frequently Asked Questions

April 28, 1995

By Scott Rosenberg

The Friday after the Oklahoma bombing, folks in cyberspace were astounded to learn that Timothy McVeigh, the man who'd just been arrested, held an account on America Online -- and had described himself on that service as a "mad bomber."

NBC's "Dateline" broke the story, and it spread at electron speed over the Internet, that vast network-of-computer-networks that links millions of users around the world.

I heard the news on the WELL, a Bay Area-based computer conferencing system. I knew that online information could be unreliable. But this wasn't idle rumor; after all, it had been reported by TV network pros.

The only trouble was, it wasn't true -- it was a hoax. America Online regulars know that it's not hard to forge a "user profile" on that service, and that's just what somebody had done. One giveaway was that the biography was dated after the explosion. Another was the extreme unlikelihood that any prospective bomber would announce his occupation to the online public.

AOL quickly issued a statement, and the hoax alert raced across the net as quickly as the original report had. But Dateline had already run the item on national TV without checking it -- and the bogus news kept reverberating through the vast echo-chamber of cyberspace, as people stumbled on the factoid, reposted it and got set straight, one by one.

As in the aftermath of other recent tragedies and fast-breaking news events, the Oklahoma story created a kind of feedback loop between the news media and the online community -- one that could be both informative and treacherous.

If you looked into any of the Internet chat lines or America Online chat rooms discussing the bombing, you'd have encountered a barrage of updates on the very latest info from TV and radio stations and newspapers around the country. Meanwhile, reporters went trawling the Internet for information on the right-wing militias who have used it as a meeting ground and organizing tool. Sometimes they scored -- but they had to be careful.

On the Friday after the bombing, for instance, readers of the "misc.activism.militia" newsgroup might have come across a paranoid rant ("Janet Reno is behind this...Expect a crackdown. Bury your guns and use the codes"), ostensibly from a militia member. The posting got picked up on CARR-L, a popular journalists' mailing list. Two days later, another reporter posted that the message had been faked by a journalism-school student "trying to be sarcastic."

All this post-Oklahoma traffic between the online world and the news media represents a coming-of-age for relations between the two realms. The Internet is no longer merely an "information superhighway" buzzword, a specialist business or technology story.

Cyberspace is now a real place. You could think of it as a kind of transnational meeting ground where people talk, rumors spread and news happens -- and where reporters need to know the laws, customs and pitfalls, or risk massive goofs.

Conversely, of course, what people do on the net -- be they macrame enthusiasts or militia men -- is likely to receive more publicity than ever before. Already, for instance, researchers at the Simon Wiesenthal Center have begun tracking and reporting traffic on Internet newsgroups as part of their efforts to monitor the activities of neo-Nazi groups.

One of the customs of the Internet is the compilation of lists of "FAQs," or "Frequently Asked Questions," as repositories of group knowledge and convenient stops for the newcomer who's trying to get up to speed on a topic.

Herewith, this commentator's FAQ on the Internet and the Oklahoma bombing:

The Internet is so robust (or "fault-tolerant") because government researchers originally conceived it to serve as a communications network that could survive the chaotic aftermath of a nuclear attack. When that became a less urgent need, the defense people turned the network over to research scientists. Now it's in the hands of the general population.

Which means, ironically, that extremists are free to use this government-bred technology to organize a movement against the government. And there isn't much anyone can do to stop them from doing so.

Of course, anyone else can use the same technology to organize against them, too.

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