How the web helps everyone form a view of events

Protagonists in the various conflicts in the Middle East carry their arguments into the online arena. But as well as giving the actors on the ground an unmatchable medium for advancing their point of view, the web gives users three different ways to gain

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The web is carving out a most unusual place for itself in the politics of the world. Looking at sites from or about the Middle East in the week since the election in Iraq, it is clear that it is has two roles. First, it is a battleground for a special sort of propaganda; second it gives outsiders an unfiltered insight into the minds of people on the spot.
Websites are not at first sight much use as propaganda weapons. For one thing, propaganda normally has to be pushed at people whereas the web is a pull medium – why should anyone seek out a site just to be brainwashed? For another, the web is a bit too subtle – propaganda messages are traditionally short and sharp, while the web is best when offering complexity. When websites are used to reproduce posters, they fail – which is why I suspect wholly unsubtle sites like Hizbollah’s have disappeared.

Evolution of propaganda

The trick is to provide a different type of propaganda. Use the web to provide those who are already convinced with ‘ammunition’, and it becomes powerful indeed. The great majority of the sites I looked at were anti-American, but one of the best is not. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs site has been an exceptional source of stories, statistics and analysis for many years. Until recently it was, however, pretty unsubtle – “Palestinian terrorism and the Israeli response” was a prominent link on the home page. Now it is far less aggressive. Apart from a small Terror link, the newspaper-style home page could come from any major media organisation.
Is this just because the climate is slightly better, or could be it because the Israelis recognise that less noise can mean more effect? A fierce enemy of the Americans, Electronic Iraq is also presenting a more moderate face. The site, like its sister, Electronic Intifada, run from London, does not hide its views, talking about “the failed occupation of Iraq”, for instance. But while its broad tone is sceptical about the elections, it includes a link to a pro-election piece from the UN’s IRIN agency. Dig down, though, and you will soon discover that its real strength lies in providing high quality polemical material to its supporters.
Another striking thing. The Syria Times, which says it is “the Syrian voice to the world”, has a notably favourable piece on the Iraqi elections. This shows how the web can start drawing us in: why are the Syrians saying that? Let’s look somewhere else on the web to find out. And so on. We can, if we have the patience, build up quite a detailed picture.
We can also try reading runes ourselves, because now we have raw evidence on our computer screens. Why has the Palestine National Authority site not had its news section updated since September 2004 – especially as it was very busy before then?

Three paths to understanding

To find our way into the minds of people on the ground, the web offers three routes. At the highest level, we can get a useful Middle East perspective from the television station that was this week voted the world’s fifth-most influential brand. Al Jazeera has not yet launched its English-language television service, but its English website is well established. It has a good-looking news-driven home page, with a choice of stories and headlines that portray neutrality. On the Wednesday after the election the lead was about an attack on Iraqi policemen; most (though not all) of the writing is admirably free of editorial judgement. The site also covers the ‘normal’ world, but from a regional perspective – so, for example, its business and technology stories pick up Middle Eastern angles where they can.
Next, there are the propagandistic sites that nevertheless give us direct access to minds we might struggle to understand. Jihad Unspun is particularly useful because it puts a lot of effort into translating Arab-language articles and texts. Indeed, the main item is a plea for Arabic-English translators. The site, which was set up by a Canadian woman entrepreneur who converted to Islam, is as slick as any Western effort and has extraordinary detail on what it calls “the players”. The interviews with Osama Bin Laden back to 1993 are eye openers, as is a piece that claims that “Al Qaida special forces” have T-54 tanks as well as biochemical and radioactive warheads. We have no way of knowing what is true and what is not, of course, but it is fascinating to have access to material that is otherwise only available in Arabic.
Finally, at the most micro level, there are blogs – web-based ‘diaries’ where individuals can publish whatever they like, and also get into conversation with their readers. Most blogs quite dull, because ranting is rarely interesting, but if you are prepared to trawl away, there are gems to be mined. I liked Kurdo’s World, which runs rumours about election results in the Kurdish area, and also this: “Aged 120 years, Rabia Mohammed Bakr, probably Kurdistan and Iraq’s oldest human being, was not allowed to vote in Sunday’s elections. She turned up three times, but because her name wasn’t registered, she wasn’t allowed to. She cried three times, but unfortunately she wasn’t allowed. What a shame, someone probably waited 120 years for democracy and freedom but, as Kurds say, she wasn’t allowed to give her voice.”

First published 09 February, 2005
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