The Post-9/11 Internet: A Breeding Ground for Anger and Lies
The concept of online social media was barely in its infancy on this day eight years ago. Since then, however, the Internet's tools and entry points -- blogs, user-generated video, anonymous comments, partisan Web sites, Facebook, MySpace and Twitter -- have magnified the anger, given it new weight, and forced it to seek new targets.
It has become a morbid habit for me every Sept. 11 since the attacks: I soak up all the media I can about that day in New York City. I put on DVDs, seek out TV shows on the History Channel, scour the Web for any new videos. My real focus in on the broadcast coverage of that day, watching anchors and reporters -- some of them former colleagues -- react to the second plane hitting, the Pentagon's smoke streaming, the towers falling. Archival footage of national and cable news as well as local New York TV, radio broadcasts captured in documentaries -- all of it takes me back to an impossibly sunny day and my last week in my midtown Manhattan apartment before moving to Atlanta.
Maybe this habit is within me because I was in between jobs that day, laid up bleeding and sore after a medical procedure, and the biggest story of my life was happening a few miles south of where I was. For all I know, if I had been downtown that day, working for some news organization, perhaps I would feel different about Sept. 11 and might not want to remember. As it was, I limped out of my 32nd-floor apartment only once, dodging the crowds who had walked all the way from downtown, to see what I could see. Other than that, like most of the world, this television journalist ended up watching everything on TV.
Obviously, my status as an unrepentant news junkie also helps explain an obsession with a major news event, one with more accompanying video than any in history. When I was in grade school and the Apollo program was rocketing along, I clipped out newspaper and magazine stories and photos and made my own scrapbooks. If my folks didn't get a clue then as to what I'd end up doing for a living, I guess they just weren't paying attention.
And I'm painfully aware that some 3,000 Americans died that day. I knew what was at stake then, and what remains at risk today if vigilance against terrorism is lowered.
Like everybody else in America, my initial shock was quickly replaced by anger at those responsible. That anger is still there, but I also now hold the opinion that for many, the anger has been re-channeled in some very unproductive and dangerous ways, thanks to technology.
Magnifying the Anger
The attacks happened a couple of years after everyone realized the Internet's potential as not only a business platform and a powerful communications tool, but also as a cultural influence. The dot-com bust was already well underway by September 2001, but most of the forward-thinking types in business and media knew things would rebound, and then some. I don't know that they envisioned social media and citizen journalism's reach yet, but I don't doubt that some were already sketching things out on a napkin somewhere in a Silicon Valley breakfast establishment.
It's my contention that the Internet's tools and entry points -- blogs, user-generated video, anonymous comments, partisan Web sites, Facebook, MySpace and Twitter -- have magnified the anger, given it new weight, and forced it to seek new targets. A war against the Taliban in Afghanistan became a war against Iraq, and America began to choose sides. Everyone went from wanting to kill terrorists to wanting to justify their support or opposition to Iraq. It morphed into a question of patriotism; us vs. them, left vs. right. The mainstream media was still where this sideshow played out, but a then-burgeoning blogosphere and its cacophony of voices began to plant its flag in the game.
A couple of elections and a new administration later, and everyone should be able to see the country is more divided than ever, and the Internet's influence is more profound than ever -- whether one likes it or not. The Obama campaign team made masterful use of social media and cellphone technology to win in 2008, only to watch its opponents take command of user-generated video and the same social networks to undercut the health care reform issue. The same anger that made South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson shout "You lie!" to the president during Wednesday's speech to Congress has its roots in the Web-based propaganda of the summer. It's the kind of outburst done with the hope, if not outright knowledge, that somewhere, someone is capturing the moment with a digital camcorder. Granted, Wilson didn't need a Flipcam or smartphone trained on him; his outburst was delivered in Dolby 1080i high-definition.
The Problem With Self-Validation
Not that the anger and deception don't have high production values of their own. No one who has seen the infamous "Loose Change" videos arguing that 9/11 was an inside job could equate them with the typical YouTube fare, even though their makers have largely used Google's user-generated video channel to distribute the films. (I have been told by a friend's son that I was in one of the "Loose Change" editions, taken from my anchoring while at CNN and "Headline News"; unfortunately I can't confirm this. The deepest I've been able to get into a full version of one of the videos is about 70 minutes before I lost interest.)
The videos use graphics, animation, music and plenty of traditional media clips to frame their dubious claims. I don't doubt that some are seduced by the slickness; I still see posters stuck on Seattle lampposts proclaiming "9/11 Was An Inside Job" with a URL somewhere beneath.
This revisionist history is also sneaking its way into legitimate Web commemoration efforts of 9/11. On Wednesday night, I read an Associated Press story about the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum's "Make History" campaign, which consists of a new Web site showing off amateur photos and videos of the attacks and their aftermath, along with a call for more user-generated footage and snapshots. I then visited the Web site and that of the Camera Planet Archive, which is providing a lot of its footage of that day to the Museum's site. And wouldn't you know it, there nestled among the submissions was an exercise in agit-prop claiming that Camera Planet was buying up amateur footage with the intent of erasing all proof that 9/11 was a Bush Administration conspiracy.
If the tragedy of that day wasn't still palpable after eight years, the paranoia might make you laugh. A lot of Americans have retreated to their separate corners since 9/11, ready to answer the bell for another round of partisan battle focusing on health care, government buyouts, Supreme Court selections, what to do about Iran/North Korea/Afghanistan. The Internet, mainly through social media like Facebook and its 250 million users, is now another loud, rowdy arena for those fights. Friends who might show more polite restraint in political discussions during real-world social gatherings are only too willing to fill Facebook status updates with invective and links to videos and Web site postings backing up their left/right arguments.
It's not a new meme: The current media universe gives you the ability to watch or read channels that validate your beliefs. You've read in this space before about the promise and peril of the Internet, its ability to bring journalism closer to the customers and the danger in eroding credibility if more news judgment isn't exercised. Partisan themes that originate on the Web don't always have to end up as story ideas on nightly newscasts. Easier said than done in these tightly budgeted times, I know. Maybe some personal news judgment -- media literacy -- would work too; some responsibility to consider the sources of what is seen on the Web. While we're at it, can we consider what we post and how we post it?
It might help to remember the results of unchecked, unbridled anger as another 9/11 anniversary is upon us, and images of planes and smoke and terror once again fill the airwaves.
TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for CNN.com. After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation.