Casting A Wider Net For World News
By Leslie Walker
I sensed something big happening Monday when a friend e-mailed me a link to the English-language Web site of al-Jazeera, the Arabic satellite news service, which had just been launched.
An hour later I got an e-mail announcing that "al-Jazeera" had become the Internet's No. 1 search query for the past 48 hours, according to Web portal Lycos, edging out "Oscars," "war in Iraq" and even that perennial favorite, "sex."
Now, that's big.
The reason was that people were hunting for video footage that al-Jazeera had aired Sunday of dead American soldiers and U.S. prisoners being interrogated by their Iraqi captors -- including gruesome images that American television networks mostly declined to show. People weren't just looking for raw pictures. Internet searches on "Geneva Convention" shot up, too, suggesting that people wanted to research the rules governing prisoners of war to form their own opinions on contradictory claims being made by U.S. and Iraqi officials.
Some will see these queries as electronic voyeurism, but I'm convinced they're part of the Internet's drive to offer an ever-widening window onto international events. We saw evidence of this after the September 2001 terrorist attacks. Now the Internet's supplementary role in news appears to be deepening, partly because more people are online and partly because Internet searching is becoming easier. Also helping is the advent of Google News (news.google.com), a search service that culls articles from 4,500 news outlets online.
In addition to hunting for al-Jazeera, Americans flocked to other foreign news sites over the weekend, including some that might have been harder to find in the past and others that people previously didn't even know existed.
The Web site of Britain's BBC drew nearly half a million visitors from the United States alone on Sunday, 60 percent more than usual, according to ComScore Networks. No Web weakling, the BBC's site drew a worldwide audience of 3.1 million visitors Sunday, while the top news site -- CNN -- pulled a worldwide audience of 4.3 million. That included 2.6 million from the United States, ComScore said.
Moreover, Lycos reported increases in the number of people searching online for information about Abu Dhabi TV, a Persian Gulf station with four TV cameras on the roof of its Baghdad bureau. Up, too, were Web searches for the French newspaper Le Monde and Israel's Jerusalem Post.
The key question is what people are finding online and whether it will ultimately influence their perceptions of war. Will the Internet bear out Marshall McLuhan's 1960s predictions of electronic media shattering the homogeneity of print-dominated culture and ushering in a return to diversity in a "global village"?
I think so. McLuhan wrote a lot about the participatory nature of electronic media and how profoundly technology affects the content it delivers: "The medium is the message." Increasingly, I am conscious of how the global computer network is starting to shape my understanding of the war as I read foreign news accounts on my computer and search Google News for information on facets that puzzle me most -- all while watching the live commentary from the Gulf via CNN on a TV set.
The international furor over al-Jazeera showing the POW footage helped highlight the Internet's role in giving people access to different perspectives. Most foreign news sources noted that U.S. media had shown images of Iraqi prisoners before demurring on showing the American POWs.
Typical was this report in Australia's the Age, which said U.S. media "had little hesitation in running graphical pictures of surrendering, captured, dead or dying Iraqi soldiers," and concluded: "It was a powerful insight into the enormous sway that the Bush Administration and the Pentagon exert over the media's coverage of the Iraq war."
Reading that and the "talkback" areas of foreign Web sites has allowed me to explore the contrasting portrayals of the obvious psychological warfare being waged in both Iraq and the United States. I already feel my own understanding growing more nuanced, as McLuhan predicted it would.
I don't read Arabic and haven't been able to watch al-Jazeera TV, so the debut of its English-language Web site was my first chance to evaluate the Qatar-based network's spin on the war. Fortunately, I printed out most of the site's articles before the site became inaccessible Monday, apparently because of an electronic attack on the site's Web host. (A spokesman for al-Jazeera reached by telephone yesterday said the Web host was working to restore the site at english.aljazeera.net and hoped to bring it back online last night.) You couldn't miss the most sensational article, headlined "Iraq provides first proof of US captured and dead," which was illustrated with those gory photos of dead U.S. soldiers along with live U.S. prisoners looking terrified.
My first thought was how opinionated its articles were, but as I continued reading, I grew intrigued by how they seemed to mirror the spin in U.S. media. "Saddam dead until proven alive," proclaimed the headline on one article. It dissected the "psychological warfare" that the United States was said to be practicing by floating doubts about whether Saddam Hussein was alive. The United States "is applying psychological pressure in an attempt to draw Saddam Hussein into the open," it proclaimed.
Also startling was a story headlined "War leaders may face war crimes charges." It quoted legal experts in Britain and the United States talking about the potential prosecution of President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair for war crimes that allegedly took place when they waged war without the full backing of the United Nations Security Council.
It's not easy reading foreign Web sites unless you know the language. I tried various Web translators, including an automatic one offered by Google. It rendered a serviceable translation of an article in Germany's Der Spiegel about the mysterious "refuse" trucks that reportedly emerged in Baghdad recently and that "cross the city all day long but collect no garbage." They were said to be suspected of carrying chemical weapons.
Other articles were tantalizing, such as a headline in Le Figaro translated from French -- "Images of War, War of the Images" -- but the translated text turned out to be mostly gibberish.
It's worth noting that the global Internet audience is still in its earliest stages. Only about 5 percent of the world's population -- 401 million people -- can access the Internet, according to Nielsen/NetRatings. It's hard to fathom what will happen to world opinion when that reaches 50 percent or more.
Leslie Walker's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.