During a disaster, where is the first place you should turn to for information?
You might think the Internet would be ideal. After all, it was set up by the military in the 1960s to ensure communications during a nuclear war. Yet, as recent events have shown, during a crisis other media do a better job at delivering breaking news than the Net.
Still, there are things the Net is uniquely suited for.
The Net’s biggest problem stems from its very nature. To oversimplify but only somewhat, unlike TV networks that send one signal to millions of TV sets, Web sites have to send millions of signals to millions of computer screens.
Web sites thus get overloaded if they receive too many visitors. During the hours immediately after the terrorist attacks of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the top news sites were completely bogged down. The Net’s most popular news site, CNN.com, received 162 million page views on the day of the attacks, 12 times more than normal, according to the site.
Millions of people in offices throughout the country, without easy access to TV or radio, tried to find out what was happening through their computers, often without success.
Some of the big news sites tried coping by slimming down the size of their pages and adding servers, but this helped only marginally.
Television did a better job of providing second-by-second coverage of the events. What’s more, while the major Web news services had to scale down their content to atvide any service at all, the television networks beefed up their programming to satisfy information-hungry viewers.
Providing Different Perspectives
Once you go beyond breaking news at big-name sites, what the Net is exceptionally good at is providing depth. “In the same way people turn to newspapers instead of TV for more depth, people turn to the Internet,” says Steve Outing, an online publishing consultant from Boulder, Colorado.
On the Web, for instance, you can conveniently read overseas news sources, which provide a different, and sometimes eye-opening, perspective. If you’re so inclined, you can view shockingly graphic images that the networks don’t carry.
With the Internet, “you’re not as dependent as you once were on hearing things that someone else wanted to tell you,” says Ed Trayes, a Temple University journalism professor.
But the Internet’s most distinctive advantage is its personal nature. On September 11th, personal Web sites, sometimes called Web logs, sprung up with eyewitnesses providing first-hand accounts of the tragedy, unfiltered, from their own unique perspectives. Likewise, Internet discussion groups disseminated personalized news.
“The Internet excels at person-to-person journalism,” says Trayes.
A Mine of Misinformation
The flip side to the Net’s personal nature is the high incidence of information being misinformation. Without the filter of experience and editing, rumors and hoaxes proliferate. In one Internet discussion group I follow, it was reported that the planes that slammed into the World Trade Center had biological weapons on board.
The misinformation can be visual as well as verbal. In the days after September 11th, a doctored photo circulated around the Internet, showing a tourist on top of World Trade Center smiling for a camera while a plane in the background was just about to slam into the building.
Anti-hoax Web sites such as Urban Legends Reference Pages at http://www.snopes.com can help ferret out the truth.
Of course, television wasn’t immune to reporting false rumor as news, including the car bomb outside the U.S. State Department, three other missing airliners presumably headed for Virginia, and the van on the New Jersey Parkway loaded with explosives.
Perhaps what’s most valuable about the personal nature of the Net is its community building. During a disaster, it’s a natural human impulse to reach out to others, and the Net is unparalleled in bridging the distance that often separates us.
“In the midst of horror, we need to know that we’re not alone,” says Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, Chairman of the Internet Press Guild. “Ultimately, we’re family, and like all families, we’re drawn together when terror’s night threatens us.”
The Net can also bring together those who otherwise might not think of themselves as family. “The Internet can facilitate discussion among people who otherwise might be belligerent,” says Outing, the Boulder, Colorado publishing consultant.
This won’t guarantee peace, of course. We’ve already seen that. “There is a time for everything… a time for war and a time for peace,” according to both Ecclesiastes and the Byrds.
But perhaps, perhaps, the Net tomorrow can play a role in helping our enemies today better understand us, and in helping us better understand our enemies.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book “Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://members.home.net/reidgold.