The Internet: Ground zero for 9/11 analysis

Sometimes even around-the-clock cable news isn't enough. When war broke out, millions went online to the globe's biggest water cooler for chatter and debate that has grown larger and louder over the past year.

Bulletin boards, chat rooms, and "blogs" are swelling with a mismatch of opinions and political rants. Blogs--Web logs--have become a particularly popular forum.

Online to War

Blogs are self-published personal journals that often pick up where the mainstream media leaves off. Bloggers, their authors, regularly take swats at TV talking heads or tackle topics that the mainstream media doesn't cover.

Just click onto blogs like USS Clueless and Little Green Footballs to follow pointed commentary issued in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. For example, you'll find a still-hot debate over a Reuters photograph of Ground Zero that reportedly was published with a caption containing anti-American bias.

"We saw a huge increase in the number of blogs post-September 11," says Aaron Schatz, author of the Lycos 50, a daily column on people, places, and things sought on Lycos. Blogs have long been popular and typically hadn't focused on war and politics, Schatz says. But since last September 11, a rash of fresh blogs have proliferated, offering vents, theories, and analysis of the terrorist attacks and the ensuing war in Afghanistan. An estimated 40,000 blogs are live online today.

Typical blogs attract 1000 to 3000 daily readers. But well-read blogs like Little Green Footballs can attract as many as 10,000 to 15,000 daily unique readers, says Charles Johnson, author of that blog.

Soapbox Dot Com

Anyone can become a blogger. Thanks to sites like Blogger, which offer free and simple tools to create and host a blog, all you need is an opinion.

Unlike a static Web site, blogs typically provide daily updates and links to other sites or news items. Accompanying the links are running commentary and analysis. Often readers are invited to post comments and join online debates.

New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan and University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds are among the more-credentialed and better-known bloggers.

Sullivan has built a reputation for his quick blogging reflexes, sometimes posting analysis of major news events within hours of their occurrence. Reynolds, on the other hand, is known for musing on 9/11 and terrorism, and linking to other blogs or news sites.

Breadth is another characteristic of blogs: Sometimes the chatter is not exactly well informed, and opinions can range from brilliant insight to misguided blather. Blogs are the "ultimate free market for ideas," Schatz says. "There is no entry cost and your popularity is only limited by what you have to say."

Taming the Talk

In that free market of ideas, blogs also test the limits of free speech when rhetoric becomes hateful. Little Green Footballs is among the blog sites that have been targets of criticism. In its case, critics assail sometimes anti-Arab rhetoric and uncensored, bigoted posts by readers.

Author Johnson says he doesn't remove posts that inspire an informed debate focused on refuting the original prejudiced remark. "This is my corner of the Web," Johnson says. "I do as I please."

The past year has seen some corners of the Web harboring hate speech. CNN, America Online, and Yahoo were among the sites that found it necessary to keep closer tabs on their bustling message boards and home pages after the attacks last year. The commercial sites said they worked overtime to delete hate speech that violated their posted terms-of-use policies.

Time has done little to cool the flames of hatred, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Online hate speech has only become more prevalent since September 11, says Abraham Foxman, ADL national director. "The problem has only gotten worse," he says.

Confused Claims

In fact, he believes the Internet has accelerated the spread of hoaxes that travel as quickly as they are dreamed up. For example, one erroneous but persistent e-mail message claims that no Jews were killed in the World Trade Center's collapse because 4000 Jews called in sick that day. The message claims Israel masterminded the September 11 attacks, and Jews were forewarned.

"We chuckled when we first heard this stupid rumor and thought it was so completely absurd," Foxman says, noting that it's well documented that scores of Jews died in New York that day. But to his horror, the e-mail has been reported as fact in media accounts abroad, he says.

The ADL fights online hate speech by debunking this and other such hoaxes on its site.

While the ADL site doesn't point to blogs, most blogs link to others. And if you don't like what you read, you can always start your own.

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Tom Spring

PC World
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