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 the greatest gossip amplifier ever invented. Its wide-open global conversation can sometimes function like a humongous game of telephone, in which truth has a depressingly short half-life. The wise visitor to cyberspace learns to take most postings with a grain of salt; the frequent traveler develops a good antenna for BS and "bozos" and a network of trusted sources. Which isn't so different from life offline.
The absence of editors is a problem only if you think of the Internet as a publishing medium. But much of the net is closer to a souped-up telephone network than to print or broadcast media. And in those parts of the network that most resemble publishing -- like the World Wide Web -- there's plenty of editing, of widely varying quality. Which, again, isn't so different from editing offline -- as the "Dateline" goof reminds us.
For the same reason that such information is often available at your local public library. The Internet is, among other things, a compendium of reference materials. People will find what they want. It's awfully hard to imagine how you'd prevent people from exchanging bomb recipes or any other kind of information, any more than you could stop them from sending the same stuff through the mail or repeating it over the phone.
Sure. The efficient dynamics of the Internet allow people to find and hook up with others who share the same views and interests. That's one of the best things about the net, but it applies to Nazis as much as to golfers, environmentalists and Letterman fans.
Still, in an open society, hate-mongers and would-be bombers are going to have many ways of finding each other. (Shortwave radio, for instance, has become a popular tool.) Like lots of other groups, extremists tend to reserve their most sensitive communications for private bulletin board systems. At least when they show up on the public Internet they can be monitored.
That depends on your philosophy. If you're comfortable with censorship of other media, you'll want to apply the same logic to cyberspace. On the other hand, if you believe, with John Stuart Mill and his libertarian followers, that good information drives out bad in free discourse, then the fewer restrictions the better.
The truth is, however, that there's not much anyone could do to censor the Internet. The system transcends national borders, its native culture is biased toward openness, and its decentralized technological design makes barriers and restrictions difficult to enforce. As one popular saying has it, the net treats censorship as a bug and routes around it. You couldn't even "pull the plug" on the Internet if you wanted to; there are too many millions of plugs.
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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