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World: Analysis From Washington -- A War On The Web

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 6 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Kosovo conflict is the first war to be fought out on the Internet as well as the battlefield, a development that already has had significant consequences for how people view this struggle, for journalism as a profession, and for the way in which policy makers on all sides are conducting themselves.

In contrast to newspapers, radio, and television, the Internet, both via websites and e-mail, provides its consumers with unmediated access to people and events. On the one hand, this new channel appears to represent a step forward. Some websites and e-mail lists provide information more quickly and more accurately than anyone else.

Moreover, Internet reports often have an immediacy and hence an authenticity that few other sources can match. After all, why should people be willing to listen to reporting by others if they can listen to the participants directly?

But on the other hand, Internet coverage of a conflict as complicated as Kosovo has three major downsides:

First, precisely because information is disseminated without the context, checking, and explanation that journalism normally provides -- indeed, virtually anyone can send out materials on the Internet -- this medium often gives an even more distorted picture of events than other media.

That has certainly happened over the last week as each side in the conflict tried to put out its message as news. Perhaps the most notorious use of the Internet in this regard was the appearance of Serbian paramilitary leader (widely known as) Arkan in an Internet chat room, an event one print journalist described as a chance to listen to "killers without context."

Second, the Internet audience is even more fragmented than the television, radio, or print audience. Because almost anyone can send things via this medium, most websites attract relatively few people and most e-mail is sent to carefully selected groups. As a result, many who use the Internet get only one side of the story, and their opinions and prejudices are typically reinforced rather than challenged by this medium.

And third, precisely because there are so many Internet sources and because they have the appearance of being journalistic enterprises even when some of them are clearly something else, the flood of materials on the Internet about Kosovo is simultaneously detracting attention from more traditional journalistic outlets and undermining public confidence in those sources as well.

The negative impact of Internet reporting on the general public is clear: It has increased public cynicism about all reporting, undermined the ability of any side to make and defend its case, and thus contributed to a deepening of divisions of opinion rather than to the discovery of common ground either within countries or among them.

But the impact of the Internet on journalism and policy formation may be even greater, even if the full extent of it remains to be seen. In a rush not to be left behind by reportage on the Internet, some journalists in other media are adopting the same strategies used by many Internet operations. They are providing immediacy at the cost of context and thus further undermining their own credibility in the search for customers.

But even more than that, the ebb and flow of opinions on the Internet, shifts that often take place far more rapidly than in the print or electronic media, have had the effect of reducing still further the attention span of mass audiences and reducing the role of carefully considered commentary and discussion. And that in turn has contributed to dramatic shifts that leave many audiences with a sense of vertigo.

Not surprisingly, all this has an impact on the policy makers involved in this conflict. In democratic countries, they cannot fail to respond to such shifts in public opinion without losing their authority. And, in non-democratic ones, they cannot fail to recognize the Internet as a new weapon that can be deployed against their opponents.

More than a century ago one observer suggested that in wartime, "truth is the first casualty." The Internet can be a defender of truth, but as events in Kosovo show, it can also be a weapon against it, one all the more powerful because, being new, its strength is largely underestimated and misunderstood.