Gulf War II: The truth is out there - on the Net
THE DIGITAL EDGE
GULF War II, now in its final throes, has been fought out in the information trenches as much as it was on the battlefield.
Getting the 'correct' information to the public is important to the protagonists. If they can convince the world to see things their way, their cause will be that much more bolstered.
While TV delivered crisp soundbites and live graphic images on the progress of the conflict, the Internet served a more detailed, almost real-time picture of the war. Traditional media like newspapers, hampered by the time factor, dug into deeper analysis.
The coalition (largely Americans and British) has CNN and BBC, two of the biggest and most pervasive media networks on the planet. The other side (the Arab world and, to a lesser extent, Iraq) has Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based TV station, which consistently cocked a snook at the Western world and presented its own take on the war.
Al-Jazeera, with its rising ratings and burgeoning TV audience, sought to extend its reach beyond the Arab world by setting up an English language website (www.aljazeerah.info). Some 12 hours after it went online on March 25, it was attacked by hackers sympathetic to the coalition.
These denial of service attacks, where the website's bandwidth, router capacity and network resources were sucked up and overwhelmed, brought it down. Web surfers seeking the Al-Jazeera website simply could not get to it.
Al-Jazeera tried to revive its website by signing up with Akamai, a US company specialising in providing support for mass Web audiences, only to be told later that Akamai was pulling out of the deal, presumably because it would seem unpatriotic for an American firm to be seen aiding a not-so-friendly party.
In a study released last week, the Pew Research Centre (www. pewinternet.org/ reports), a US Net research organisation, found that 77 per cent of Americans have used the Internet to look for information about the war.
Nineteen per cent said that the information gathered from the Web helped them decide what they thought about the war^; 6 per cent said the online information changed their views about the war.
E-mail and instant messaging also played a big part in war-related use of the Web. Surfers can fire off their views or pass on information at will. Web logs or blogs, a current rage, proved to be less popular.
Web surfers must know that there is such a wide variety of information out there that it is often difficult to tell which is the truth. More so in a war situation, when some news networks are also caught up in a 'us versus them' situation.
The BBC, a traditional source of unbiased reporting, is in a delicate position - trying to maintain its editorial integrity and to not compromise the national interest of Britain.
An example is the British claim, reported by the BBC, that it had taken Basra in the early days of the conflict. To this day, troops are still slugging it out with Iraqi resistance within the city. Similarly, CNN had reported claims by the US military that turned out to be incorrect.
But this is not unexpected. After all, 'embedded' TV and print journalists who travelled with the coalition forces and even those stationed in besieged Baghdad are under the watchful eyes of their benefactors and have their hands tied somewhat.
Such constraints apply less to information on the Web. Although the by-now familiar phrase 'fog of war' also extends to the Web, the diversity of information available makes it less likely that people can be fooled easily. They may well be confused by conflicting information, but it is much harder to hide the truth from them.
Having control over cyberspace is a crucial aspect of modern warfare now that the Internet has become such an important source of information. In the 2001 US-China spy plane row, a mini-cyberwar erupted when hackers from both sides sought to cause disruption. The US came out tops because its boffins were apparently better hackers.
In future conflicts and wars, governments and their proxies seem likely to dip their fingers into the information pot and attempt to concoct something favourable to their cause, or even bring down websites that are deemed to be supportive of their foes.
Developed countries like the US have the upper hand as they are host to many of the World Wide Web's vital nodes and the source of much of the technology involved.
The only consolation to information seekers is that the Web might have grown so wide and expansive that it is well nigh impossible for anyone to completely assert control. Amid the growing static, it is at least comforting to know that the truth is still somewhere out there, on the Net.
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