Activists Online (7/99)

The onward march of new communications technologies has a profound impact on the way that warfare is perceived and conducted — and opposed. The US Civil War, the first to be fought with the means for killing produced by the Industrial Revolution, was also the first extensively photographed war. Matthew Brady’s haunting images of corpses piled in front of the guns at Antietam and Gettysburg brought the harsh realities of modern warfare to those at home who previously depended on charcoal sketches and word pictures. The photographs helped to undermine some of the false romantic notions about battlefield combat accepted by many at the time.

The first televised war was Vietnam. Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, and David Brinkley brought its horrors into million of homes during the dinner hour, with casualty counts, images of napalmings, body bags, executions in the streets, and talking heads who claimed to see light "at the end of the tunnel." Although the Pentagon and the White House used TV to sell the war, just as their predecessors used radio and newspapers, the medium nevertheless helped awaken and enlarge the anti-war movement.

The US/NATO attack on Yugoslavia was the first Internet war. Developed by the Pentagon in the 1960s, the Internet was intended to enable the military and government types to communicate even during and after a nuclear war. Today, perhaps ironically, the same technology is being put to wide use by grassroots organizers in anti-war and other campaigns.

For many activists, the potentials offered by the Internet became clear in 1994 when the Zapatistas emerged out of the jungles of southern Mexico. Even though this indigenous movement was surrounded and forced to retreat by the Mexican military, the savvy, enigmatic Subcomandante Marcos broke the official information blockade and prevented a probable military campaign of annihilation by connecting with the outside world through timely e-mail communiqués. A host of Web pages launched by supporters soon followed. Now, it seems, every guerilla and national liberation movement and Third World solidarity organization in the First World has its own Website and e-mail networks.

Political activists in the US and around the world have been using the Internet to organize on behalf of death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal and other political prisoners. They’ve built solidarity with labor struggles, and mobilized opposition to corporate and government environmental threats like the exporting of nuclear waste to a poor minority community in West Texas and the slaughter of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. This usage has been a real "growth industry," paralleling the growing popularity of the Internet — largely driven, again ironically, by commercial interests.

The Great Equalizer

During the recent NATO bombing, Western governments tried to control the flow of information, hoping to put their exclusive spin on events. Even more than during the Gulf War, the corporate media of these "free" countries accepted this with very little questioning. Yet, the Internet was the one big fly in the ointment.

The media watchdog organization Fairness and Accuracy in Media (FAIR) has documented how rarely anti-war voices, even notable ones such as Noam Chomsky, were allowed to appear on CNN, PBS, etc. Nevertheless, those with access to the Internet could easily find public intellectuals on the Left exposing the distortions and lies of the warmakers at Websites such as Z Magazine’s. With a modest monthly circulation, Z is hardly a threat to Newsweek or Time.  But the Web is proving to be a great equalizer. Despite a limited budget, that one publication can potentially reach just as many people through its on-line site as the well-heeled bastions of yellow journalism.

The Internet makes it possible to get news directly from the source, thus making possible more informed evaluations of whether the mainstream media are being truthful. For example, when the World Court issued its ruling in the case brought by Yugoslavia against the NATO countries to stop the bombing, Western media put an immediate pro-war spin on the news, saying that Yugoslavia had lost the case.

Actually, the court had only turned down Yugoslavia’s request for provisional measures halting the bombing, pending hearings on its legality in international law. The hearings would go ahead, and the court said it was "profoundly concerned with the use of force in Yugoslavia," which, "under the present circumstances … raises very serious issues of international law."

Instead of depending on what the BBC or AP had to say about the court’s ruling, one could go directly to the World Court’s Website, where the ruling was posted within minutes of its issuance.

Much of the grassroots activism against the US/NATO’s war of aggression against Yugoslavia was organized with the help of the mechanisms provided by the Internet. Communicating the latest news, sharing organizing tips, and debating strategy through e-mail and "lists" saved time and money once devoted to attending innumerable (and often interminable) coalition meetings.

Potentially, it also could obviate the need for quite so many hierarchical decision-making structures. People who couldn’t travel to meetings in the past due to job conflicts or poverty are now more able to participate. Instead of duplicating work, activists in one area can use the Web to download leaflets and posters produced elsewhere, making local modifications as needed and quickly getting them on the street.

Refuting the Spinmeisters

In earlier "modern" wars, soldiers who found themselves in opposing trenches sometimes reached out and fraternized with the enemy. Seeing that the other guys weren’t demons who had to be killed simply because they spoke another language or were subjects of another government could have a very radicalizing effect. Consequently, it was heavily frowned upon by the command structures. This is one of the reasons why war has grown more technological and impersonal. Today, bomber pilots rain down death from 15,000 feet, while technicians launch cruise missiles on targets from hundreds of miles away.

Yet, the Internet is helping civilians, if not soldiers, to "fraternize" with "the enemy" despite the barriers erected by opposing governments. Like others, I have several e-mail correspondents in Yugoslavia, people who reached out to explain what was really happening in their country and their terrible experiences during the bombing. To hear directly and quickly from someone about spending the night huddled in a bomb shelter brings the war home across thousands of miles and the cultural gap that separate us. Attending an anti-war demonstration now has a new, more personal motivation.

Yugoslav individuals and NGOs also created effective Websites, with photos and video of NATO’s notorious "collateral damage" and "mistakes." Several sites reported minute-by-minute news from the fronts, using volunteer e-mail and telephone correspondents to track planes from take off in Italy to the moment they unloaded their bombs. There were also immediate reports on SAMs fighting back and civilian casualties.

Needless to say, the authorities didn’t appreciate this sort of eyewitness reporting, which undermined the ability of NATO’s spinmeisters to manipulate and control the public’s access to information that was potentially embarrassing to the "war effort."  Thus, NATO also targeted the communications infrastructure throughout Yugoslavia and even threatened to pull the satellite plug that connects Yugoslavia to the rest of the vast Internet. Fortunately, the lines of people-to-people communication remained open and available.

Changing Perceptions

My own favorite war Website was the collaborative creation of two elderly women living in Belgrade and one of their daughters in Los Angeles. They called it "Sisters Under Seige." The sisters e-mailed or telephoned the younger woman and she uploaded their accounts of the previous day’s experiences — from what it was like to go food shopping under wartime conditions to the horrors of discovering that a friend may have been killed in the bombing. The women also used their site to link to anti-war commentaries and promote peace activities around the world.

The Internet is by no means a substitute for more traditional, tried and true methods of reaching out with leaflets, vigils, and sit-ins, or various forms of "propaganda of the deed." Access to the costly hardware and hookups that make it possible to use the Internet for organizing is definitely skewed by race and class, and somewhat by gender, although those limitations are being mitigated in many places through the greater availability of public access computers.

Nor is the Internet an agora in the same way as a public square or shopping mall, where people from very different backgrounds and with varying levels of understanding share the same physical space. Although the Internet includes many kinds of people, it’s much more subdivided by interest and identity groups that may or may not communicate with each other. It seems best at linking those who already have some interest, not for reaching the unconverted.

Nevertheless, during NATO’s war it provef to be an important and valuable new organizing tool, with potentials still in the process of being realized. The way we perceive war — and oppose it — won’t be the same again.

— Jay Moore teaches history at the University of Vermont. He is the creator and moderator of "Jay’s Leftist and Progressive Internet Resources Directory, . Websites mentioned in this article include Fairness and Accuracy in Media (FAIR), ; Z Magazine, ; World Court, ; Sisters Under Seige, .