Techno-Paranoia In The White House, By David S. Bennahum
The New York Times, January 25, 1997
"Evidence exists that Republican staffers surf the Internet, interacting with
extremists in order to exchange ideas and information." So reads a posting on
alt.current-events.clinton.whitewater, an Internet discussion group for
conspiracy-theory aficionados. It asserted that Republican minions shrewdly used
the Internet to turn "fringe stories into legitimate subjects of coverage by the
Conspiracy rantings from an anonymous Internet source? Actually, the text was
reprinted from an internal memo, issued by the office of the White House
counsel, titled "Communications Stream of Conspiracy Commerce." After it came to
light this month, Internet news groups usually devoted to Vincent Foster murder
theories and Whitewater subterfuge began lampooning the Administration's
paranoia. "Heaven forbid that the First Amendment should be used for such a
nefarious purpose as enabling the 'right wing' to communicate its ideas to
people," read one posting.
Once again the Administration opened itself up to easy ridicule, but this
jab points out a broader misunderstanding by the authors of the memo. The
Internet has come into its own as a news source, yet most people -- including,
apparently, those in the White House counsel's office -- have not acquired the
type of literacy required to make sense of it.
The memo correctly described how stories that started on the Internet, like
the theory that "friendly fire" from our military downed T.W.A. Flight 800, have
leaped out of cyberspace and onto the evening news.
Likewise, the memo dissects the Vincent Foster "murder" theory, noting that
two pervasive rumors -- one holding that an Arkansas state trooper knew of Mr.
Foster's death before it was announced, and another purporting that a
handwriting analysis showed Mr. Foster's suicide note was forged -- were first
reported in "fringe, right-wing publications." From there the stories entered
the Internet, spreading rapidly around the world, resurfacing in
"right-of-center mainstream papers." This, the memo says, led to a Congressional
investigation, "allowing mainstream media to cover the story."
The chronology may be correct, but the report's conclusions are not. Such
stories, of course, do not reflect a fine-tuned Republican conspiracy. Rather,
they are symptomatic of an electronic "journalism" where clear authorship and
editorial perspective are giving way to an era of multiple authors and
collective, self-organized publishing. These sorts of on-line sites and
discussion groups don't have mastheads to provide a signature of credibility.
Republishing endless variations of unfounded "evidence" is far cheaper and
easier on Web sites. And as in the real world, the more times a rumor appears,
the more true it seems. News and rumor are passed along by networks of
like-minded people or, as stories grow, networks of networks of people.
Untangling these lines of communication requires Internet literacy -- a far
more active, adversarial form of reading, akin to detective work. Sometimes it
is journalists who fail at this, as when Pierre Salinger uncovered a supposedly
secret document from a "foreign intelligence agency" describing how Flight 800
was shot down. The document had been published as a joke on the Web months
earlier; yet thanks largely to Mr. Salinger the theory seems destined to remain,
in some minds, a plausible explanation for the explosion.
Of course, the Republican Party deserves criticism for trumpeting the Vincent
Foster rumors in the mainstream press and calling for hearings. But the G.O.P.
has made clever use of the Internet in more legitimate ways, astutely building
informal networks of like-minded, interconnected Web sites that bring
conservatives together to discuss ideas and drum up popular support for their
initiatives. Democrats should learn to build such networks of their own, and
leave the conspiracy theories on alt.current-events.clinton.whitewater, where
by David S. Bennahum