Internet distributes information, myths after terrorist attacks

Seth Woehrle

When they heard something horrible had happened on the East Coast on Tuesday, Sept. 11, the country collectively turned on and tuned in TVs and radios.

But a recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project indicates increasing numbers of Americans are using the Internet to supplement other news sources.

Released four days after the attack, the study reported that 30 percent of respondents said the Internet helped them stay informed in the days following the attacks, and 29 percent said it helped them connect with people they needed to reach.

Eighty-one percent of those polled said they got most of their information from television. Only 3 percent acknowledged getting most of their information from the Internet, but increased traffic to news Web sites directly after the attacks indicates increasing supplemental importance.

“I don’t think anyone is a mono-medium person anymore,” said Nora Paul, director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication’s Institute for New Media Studies.

More people getting their news through an unfiltered, uncensored avenue can mean more misinformation, Paul warned.

Several e-mails have been circulated regarding the attacks, and not all of them are true.

One chain letter that’s shown up in several mailboxes is an essay from Canadian radio journalist Gordon Sinclair that espouses the virtues of the United States.

But Sinclair wrote the piece in 1973, and it wasn’t about the terrorist attacks. It was in response to international criticism of the United States for pulling out of the Vietnam War.

“Someone had sent around this e-mail about how (the global community) should be supporting the U.S. and sent it out as if it had just been written two days ago,” Paul said. “Somebody else said, ‘Excuse me, this guy has been dead since 1984.'”

The forwarded e-mail was an example of the “rumor-mongering and rumor-controlling” nature of the Internet, Paul said.

The Pew project’s figures seemed on par with the reality in the University computer labs, where most students said they would rather watch TV or read a newspaper than use the Internet – mostly due to lack of a home computer or Internet connection.

Lindsey Johnson, a freshman, said she watched network TV and listened to the radio when she wanted to hear about the attacks.

Her biggest roadblock to Internet news was the lack of a computer at home, she said. Even if she did have one, she said she still wouldn’t know how to find the right sites.

Meredith Lewis, a senior in elementary education, said she did have a home computer but didn’t want to pay for an Internet service provider – especially when TV was free and easy to use.

“It’s just easier to turn on the TV,” she said. “With the Internet, you have to search around for it and even if you find the site, you have to click around.”

Education graduate student Kiley Shockman said she’d rather just pick up a paper because it was quicker and always around, but she admitted receiving editorial articles in e-mail from her friends.

But other students not only used the Internet for news, they used it more than any other news source.

In Middlebrook Hall’s lobby, Matt Kohner, a senior studying computer science and German, sat in front of a wide-screen TV tuned to CNN but his laptop was close at hand.

“When the attack first struck, all the major news sites were down,” he said. “So I went to discussion sites with specialized topics: Slashdot.org and Fark.com.”

Kohner said he liked the discussion sites, sometimes called message boards, because members posted obscure and hard-to-find news that they found interesting, rather than being told what was important.

It was also interesting, he said, that after the attack in New York, people used e-mail, text pagers and instant messaging to communicate because the phone lines were clogged.

Next door, Matt Glatzel, a senior studying British history, sat typing a paper Wednesday afternoon. He said he got his news entirely off the Internet because it allowed him to bypass all the news that didn’t interest him.

Number one on his uninteresting list was politicians and other people who have no connection to the attacks commenting on what happened.

“If you’re not from the D.C. area or New York, or even the East Coast, and you’re giving your opinion on the whole tragedy and how it affects you, I really don’t give a shit,” Glatzel said.

Glatzel said he liked the Web page of the British Broadcasting Corporation because it was more objective and less self-indulgent than the U.S. media.