The good, the bad and the therapy

The way the web was viewed after the terrorist attacks on America revealed the extent of our love/hate relationship with the internet.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Science & Tech

‘On the web – grief and consolation, as well as hate and prejudice.’ (1)

The headline on said it all, capturing how the worldwide web was seen in the days after the terrorist attacks on America – as both a ‘bridge of communication’ between loved ones across the world, and a ‘haven of hate’, where the plane-crashing terrorists probably hatched their bloody plot in the first place.

According to one US journalist, the aftermath of the attacks ‘brought to light everything that is good, bad and indifferent about the worldwide web’. The good being the speed with which news of the attacks was whizzed across the world, and how email allowed frantic friends and families to communicate when telephone systems in New York collapsed. The bad being the ‘hate-filled tirades against Arabs and Muslims’ that clogged discussion boards (2), and the revelation that the hijackers had allegedly used email to communicate in their final days.

So how did the internet really perform in the aftermath of the attacks – and did it change our view of the new technologies?

Hailed as being on the ‘good’ side was web-based news, and how it initially raced through workplaces and offices worldwide. As a result, many who were just getting stuck into the working day on 11 September knew about the plane crashes before either of the World Trade Centre’s twin towers had even collapsed. ‘I think internet news sites really came of age during this terrible crisis’, said Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post. ‘They blanketed the story with all kinds of reporting, analysis and commentary.’ (3)

Tim Blair of the Online Journalism Review went so far as to say that the crisis revealed the superiority of web-based news over traditional newspapers, ‘which had already been delivered across the United States….[so] email, websites and chat became primary news sources’ (4). And according to a professor of new media at Columbia University, ‘At a time when internet journalism was being pooh-poohed by a lot of people on the heels of the internet crash, this has shown the necessity of…web journalism.’ (5)

But for most surfers, getting news from the web on 11 September was more frustrating than fruitful, as many websites all but collapsed under the weight of traffic. According to Keynote Systems, which measures internet performance, an hour after the first attack only 43 percent of its probes were getting through to the New York Times website, only 22 percent to MSNBC, and just 18 percent to USA Today (6). Between 9 and 10am east-coast American time, CNN’s website had 0 percent availability (7).

Even Google, the gateway to 1.6 billion webpages, advised its users to stop surfing and switch on a TV instead. ‘If you are looking for news’, it said, just hours after the attacks, ‘you will find the most current information on TV or radio. Many online news services are not available because of extremely high demand’ (8).

Like many who work in central London, we at spiked had to decamp to the nearest pub to watch TV coverage on 11 September, as websites became temper-frayingly slow – but also because, in fact, TV still does live coverage better than the web does. As one web journalist pointed out, ‘The web was slow to catch up to the news of the devastation…but when they did, many sites served as a nice supplement to TV. But you still needed the TV’ (9).

The intentions of news websites were good, and they soon recuperated by stripping their graphics and banner ads to make access easier, providing sometimes excellent coverage and analysis. But as the news was breaking they were let down by the technology. As web columnist Mike Wendland pointed out, ‘At a time when information-starved Americans needed it as never before, the internet failed miserably in the hours immediately following Tuesday’s terrorist attacks’ (10) – with some pointing out that, despite the admirable aims to ‘get the world online’, as it stands the web can’t cope when ‘everybody who works in an office’ goes online.

Also hailed on the good side was the way the internet allowed distraught families and friends to find out about their loved ones, as information sites emerged within an hour of the attacks. But even this development was tempered with fear, as C Net reported: ‘Grieving Americans are flooding the internet for solace and solidarity – but consumer advocates warn they may also find scams and spam’ (11). Apparently, less than 24 hours after the attacks, unscrupulous types had set up bogus fundraising sites to make a quick buck out of the unfolding tragedy.

Then came the bad – with some commentators laying in to a sick and creepy side to the worldwide web that refused to go away even in the aftermath of such a tragedy. The auction website eBay was shocked when, within hours of the attacks, visitors to its site started to auction off pieces of rubble and glass purporting to be from the collapsed World Trade Centre (12). One journalist wrote of his ‘disgust at the underbelly of the web’ when he received an unsolicited email on 11 September that said: ‘No terrorists here! Join our porn site, turn off the TV, quit watching the crap happening in the States, and join our free site!’ (13)

These unsavoury tales were quickly followed by revelations that the suicidal hijackers themselves had used the internet to hatch their plans. The FBI was ‘following the digital trail of the terrorists’ (14) and investigating their email correspondences, while George Tenet, director of the CIA, reminded everybody of what he had said in February 2001 – that ‘international terrorist networks have used the explosion in information technology to advance their capabilities’ (15). The UK Sun ran a sinister-reading piece on ‘the public library computer room where Mohamed Atta used the internet to plot the murderous attacks on the World Trade Centre’ (16) – painting a picture of the internet as a dangerous place that helps terrorists to kill and maim.

No sooner had the dark sides of the net been revealed than the clampdowns began. eBay announced it was taking ‘extraordinary measures’ by removing from its site not only the sick souvenirs from the rubble of Lower Manhattan, but also books, calendars and other ‘neutral items’ in any way related to New York City. ‘So far we have probably removed several hundred items’, said eBay spokesman Kevin Pursglove. ‘This is unusual, we have never done it before.’ (17)

And in the days after the attack, the main Internet Service Providers (ISPs) were served with search warrants by the FBI, so that it could examine ‘suspicious email accounts’ – with FBI leaders talking of the need for closer regulation of email communications. ‘Privacy advocates are bracing themselves for what they see as an assault on civil liberties’, reported USA Today, ‘expressing concern that, for the sake of security, the FBI and other authorities will push for increased electronic surveillance of communication networks’ (18).

But then, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by these responses to the web in the aftermath of 11 September. Some might have claimed this as the day ‘that changed the world’, but the debate about the internet sounded depressingly familiar. Most discussions of the internet today seem to be split between technophiles (those who endow the net with all kinds of powers for good) and technophobes (those who fear its effects upon our lives) (19) – and the angst-ridden discussions after the attacks were no different. The internet was simultaneously hailed for allowing survivors of the attacks to communicate with the outside world and slammed for allowing terrorists to communicate too freely.

The internet is increasingly seen as a force in its own right, like an Artificial Intelligence-style phenomenon that to some extent determines what happens in the world – rather than as a tool used by humans for their own ends, whether good or bad. This was glimpsed in reports about the hijackers having used the web to communicate with each other, with some commentators almost suggesting that the internet was in some way culpable – as if the terrorists wouldn’t have communicated by some other means if the web hadn’t been around. One US journalist pointed to the fact that the terrorists had allegedly used a computer in a public library as evidence that not only is the internet a potentially dangerous thing, but just about anybody can use it.

The way the internet was seen after the attacks was like a snapshot of the polarised way that it is seen more broadly – throwing into relief our curious love/hate relationship with the new technologies.

But there was also something new in how the web covered the events and the aftermath of 11 September. Alongside reporting the news, the internet gave shocked surfers guidance on how to respond to the tragedy and express their grief. At a time when people were unsure about how to react, the media went some way in writing the script – a therapeutic script based on feelings of collective grief and loss – and the web was at the forefront.

‘The internet…linked millions of people yesterday who desperately wanted to talk to each other’, reported the Washington Post on 12 September – flagging up how the web was home, not just to hard news, but also to people’s mixed feelings of grief and anger: ‘Heart-rending first-person descriptions of horror mingled with level-headed analysis and warnings against precipitous action, while cries for vengeance flowed around lists of people who were reassuring friends and loved ones that they were all right.’ (20)

Across the web, ‘mourning sites’ were created, where people could light candles for the victims, post prayers, talk to others who were feeling ‘bereft at the events’, or just tell cyberspace about their feelings of grief. Not long after the attacks I visited the World Trade Centre website to see if it would yield any further information about what was happening – to find it had been transformed into a makeshift mourning site where you could peruse the list of victims or light a candle for New York (21). As people leapt the upon web for news, information and outlets to express their views, the web was quick to respond by offering forums for expressions of emotional solidarity and the kind of rituals of public mourning that followed the death of Princess Diana in 1997.

Here, the web reflected the mood of the media more broadly – where, in the wake of the attacks, we were told of the world’s ‘unity through grief and mourning’. But because the web is interactive and a forum for chat and discussion, it quickly became a focus for much of this indulgent international grieving, illustrating one of the problems with our so-called ‘information society’ – sometimes, there’s a bit too much information.

There was much that was good about the internet in the aftermath of 11 September – not least how it gave us comprehensive news coverage and analysis, and allowed new ways of communicating. But fear and trepidation about the web also crept to the fore, leading to clampdowns and concerns about the internet’s ‘potential for evil’. A more balanced appraisal of the internet might ensure that, in future, it is put to better use.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

(1) On the web, grief and consolation, as well as hate and prejudice, Inside, 13 September 2001

(2) On the web, grief and consolation, as well as hate and prejudice, Inside, 13 September 2001

(3) Media critics see web role emerge, Online Journalism Review, 18 September 2001

(4) Internet performs global role, supplementing TV, Online Journalism Review, 11 September 2001

(5) Media critics see web role emerge, Online Journalism Review, 18 September 2001

(6) Internet traffic slows, news sites jammed following attacks, Silicon Valley, 11 September 2001

(7) Web acts as hub for info on attacks, CNet, 11 September 2001

(8) When websites caught up, they ran far, Online Journalism Review, 11 September 2001

(9) When websites caught up, they ran far, Online Journalism Review, 11 September 2001

(10) Mike Wendland: Net fails key test during clamour for information, Detroit Free Press, 12 September 2001

(11) Spam, misinformation in wake of tragedy, CNet, 13 September 2001

(12) eBay bans sale of all Pentagon, World Trade Centre memorabilia, MSNBC, 13 September 2001

(13) Spam, misinformation in wake of tragedy, CNet, 13 September 2001

(14) FBI following digital trail of terrorists, USA Today, 20 September 2001

(15) ISPs aid FBI in terrorist search, CNet, 13 September 2001

(16) Sun, 21 September 2001

(17) eBay bans sale of all Pentagon, World Trade Centre memorabilia, MSNBC, 13 September 2001

(18) ISPs aid FBI in terrorist search, CNet, 13 September 2001

(19) See Don’t blow IT, by Helene Guldberg

(20) A shaken global village on the internet, Washington Post, 12 September 2001

(21) See the World Trade Centre website

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Topics Science & Tech


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