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E-mail goes to war

October 16, 2001

Keyboard BBC
E-mail is tapping into history

How wars are remembered owes much to how they were reported.

In the First World War, it was photography and mass-circulation newspapers; in the Second World War, it was newsreel and radio; and in the Vietnam War, it was television that brought home the news.

And in the current conflict, a UK professor of new media suggests it is e-mail and the internet that have caught the zeitgeist of the war.

At each stage of the events since the hijack plane attacks on New York and Washington, e-mail and the internet have played a part in the story.

Houses of Parliament BBC
E-mail has carried urban myths and rumours
E-mail brought the vivid first-hand accounts of survivors, it has carried the rumours that have spread each week, the urban myths, the conspiracy theories and even the political scandals.

Almost as soon as the scale of the losses in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania became apparent, people started sending e-mails.

They were looking for reassurance that friends and relatives were safe, there were survivors reporting their own emotional accounts of escape; they were swapping news about their own friends and what they had seen on television.

Instead of a handful of soundbites, you could look at a website such as BBC News Online and read the full stories of hundreds of people affected by the attacks, written in their own words, and still raw with emotion.

And when a spin-doctor suggested it was an opportunity to smuggle out unpalatable news, the message was sent by e-mail.

Robin Mansell, who holds the chair in new media and the internet at the London School of Economics, says the current situation has brought to the fore the complex networks that e-mail has created, spreading information outside the "formal" media of print and broadcasting.

Jo Moore BBC
Jo Moore was caught out by an e-mail about news management
Everyone's e-mail address book represents a new kind of community, set outside boundaries of geography or real-time, and when events like the attacks on the United States occur these multinational networks are buzzing with responses.

"There were students sending each other video clips, people comparing news coverage, saying 'have you seen what CNN or BBC are doing? Why aren't they showing the footage we saw on another channel?'" she says. "It's creating the possibility to discuss coverage more intensively than before.

"The whole process is speeded up. It's time compression, creating an amazing mixture of people's own experiences, what they've heard and what they've been sent by other people. And this becomes information that can no longer be traced back to any particular source or organisation.

"The way that people use e-mail reflects their own lives, with some people using it to create a sense of community, with others using it to fan the flames of destruction."

DIY commentators

In this conflict, e-mail has also provided a separate channel, outside conventional media, in which individuals have been able to become their own war commentators as never before.

Individuals have also been able to talk nonsense to an international audience as never before.

E-mail, which allows the globalisation of gossip, has been the channel for an explosion of urban myths and rumours.

In the United Kingdom, there are numerous myths surrounding the warnings that have supposedly been given out about not travelling on the underground in London, or of hidden messages from Nostradamus or whatever.

While the audience for a tall-tale might have in the past been limited to the local pub, the e-mail send button allows the same story to be transmitted to hundreds of people at once.

E-mail literate

"These stories can snowball, they can build credibility as they develop. There's something about the nature of e-mail that can lower the expectation of checking the provenance," the professor says.

She also says that this shows the importance of people becoming "literate" in how the internet and e-mail works, so that they can acquire the critical faculties to distinguish the trash from the truth.

"People might be able to distinguish between television news sources, but they can find it harder to evaluate information on the internet."

When you're reading this article, maybe a yellow envelope has appeared in the corner of your screen. You've got mail. Probably something dull about work or maybe, more promisingly, it is going to be a message from a friend. Maybe a drink's being arranged.

Or else there's news. It could be another rumour or something that someone has seen on television. Either way, we've all become part of the story.

Professor Robin Mansell is to give a public lecture on "New media and the power of networks" on 23 October, at 1830 BST, at the London School of Economics, Hong Kong Theatre, Clement House.


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